World Literature

William Makepeace Thackeray

 

BORN: 1811, Calcutta, India

DIED: 1863, London, England

NATIONALITY: British

GENRE: Fiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Yellowplush Correspondence (1838)

The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848)

The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne (1852)

Roundabout Papers (1863)

 

 

William Thackeray. Thackeray, William, photograph. AP images.

 

Overview

British author William Makepeace Thackeray is best known for his satiric sketches and novels of upper- and middle-class English life and is credited with bringing a simpler style and greater realism to the English novel. Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848), a panorama of early nineteenth-century English upper-middle-class society, is generally regarded as Thackeray’s masterpiece. Although Vanity Fair has received more critical attention than any of his other works, many regard The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., a Colonel in the Service of Her Majesty Q. Anne (1852), a historical novel set in early eighteenth-century England, to be his most well-planned and carefully executed work.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Unhappy Childhood Spent in Boarding Schools. Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811, where his father worked as a secretary for the British East India Company. At the time, India was under the colonial rule of the company, and, indirectly, Great Britain. The British East India Company was a trading company with political power that reaped high profits from such goods as salt, indigo, and coffee while modernizing India. After his father’s death when Thackeray was six, however, Thackeray was sent to England, where he was cared for by relatives. His mother, who remarried and remained in India, did not return to England for four years. During these years Thackeray attended several boarding schools, where he was extremely unhappy. He later attended the prestigious Charterhouse School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left before finishing his degree.

After reading law for a short time, Thackeray moved to Paris, where he studied art. Although he eventually abandoned the idea of making his living as a painter, Thackeray continued to sketch and paint throughout his life and illustrated many of his own works. While studying in Paris, he married a young Irishwoman named Isabella Shawe. Shortly after their marriage, they returned to London, where Thackeray began writing professionally, contributing to Fraser’s Magazine, New Monthly Magazine, and later to Punch, to support himself and his new family after the fortune he inherited from his father was lost in an Indian bank failure in 1833. In 1839, the Thackerays’ second daughter, Jane, died in infancy, and the next year, shortly after the birth of their third daughter, Harriet, Isabella Thackeray went mad, never regaining her sanity. Because she outlived him, Thackeray was unable to remarry and was thus deprived of the family life he so desired.

Published under Pen Names. During the years before the success of Vanity Fair as he struggled to make a living, Thackeray wrote numerous reviews, essays, comic sketches, and burlesques under more than a dozen comic pseudonyms. Among the best known of his early nonfiction is The Yellowplush Correspondence (1838), a series of satiric sketches written in the guise of a cockney footman’s memoirs published under the pen name Charles J. Yellowplush. The most successful of the early burlesques is the novella Catherine (1839-1840) published under the name Ikey Solomons, a parody of the crime story genre popular in Thackeray’s day. This work is the strongest expression of Thackeray’s contempt, discernible throughout his other works, for the prevalent literary convention of glorifying criminals.

The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), his first lengthy novel published under the name Fitz-Boodle, was strongly influenced by Henry Fielding’s The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) and demonstrates his keen interest in eighteenth-century literary forms. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which first revealed Thackeray’s skill at depicting the language and manners of an earlier age, was also his first serious attack on social pretension. His increasing scorn for the shallow acquisitiveness of Victorian society is obvious in The Book of Snobs (1848), a collection of satiric character sketches, which first appeared as The Snobs of England, by One of Themselves in Punch. This series denounces the snobbery and greed bred by the changes in social attitudes and relationships brought about by the Industrial Revolution and the resulting redistribution of wealth and power. During the Victorian era, British society was undergoing other major transformations such as increased urbanization, population shifts, and a greater concern for reform and social justice in the face of unprecedented commercial and industrial prosperity.

Vanity Fair. For Vanity Fair, his first signed work, Thackeray adopted the publication form of monthly periodical installments already made popular by Charles Dickens. This comprehensive satire of corruption in upper- and middle-class English society is set during the Waterloo crisis of 1815 (when Britain and a European coalition finally ended Napoleon’s attempt to control Europe). The themes central to Thackeray’s earlier writings are clarified and fully developed in Vanity Fair, in which he delivers his most scathing attack on the heartless pretension prevalent in nineteenth-century English life and concludes that self-interest is at the heart of human motivation.

Literary Success. Finally successful and well known, Thackeray began suffering from a sudden decline in his health in the late 1840s, including what was believed to be a bout of typhoid in 1849. He also suffered from the emotional effects of a long, but unphysical, love affair with Jane Brookfield, the wife of his clergyman friend, Henry Brookfield. Thackeray came to realize that she had merely played with his affections and never intended to be unfaithful. Despite such troubles, Thackeray went on to write The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1849-1850), the first of three related novels based on his own experiences. The History of Pendennis chronicles the early life of Arthur Pendennis, who takes the role of the narrator in the sequels, which are titled The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (1854-1855) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World (1862). All three novels are set in contemporary London and are narrated in the manner, according to Thackeray, of ‘‘a sort of confidential talk.’’ Although their narrative technique is often considered diffuse and overly didactic, these novels are praised for their convincing characterization and vivid depiction of Victorian society.

Henry Esmond is Thackeray’s only novel completely written before publication and issued in book form without first being serialized. Critics often cite these circumstances when praising the novel’s careful organization and elegant style. Set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), Henry Esmond is written in imitation of early eighteenth-century English prose. The coarse, inconsiderate Lord Castlewood in the novel is a stab at Thackeray’s former friend Brookfield. Although it offended some readers due to the incestuous overtones of Henry Esmond’s marriage to Lady Castlewood, it is now regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century English historical novels. Its sequel, The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century (1858-1859), is generally considered to be inferior.

Focused on Journalism. In 1859, Thackeray became the first editor of and chief contributor to Cornhill Magazine. During his last years, he contributed numerous essays and several novels to the journal, including Lovel the Widower (1861) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World; Shewing Who Robbed Him, Who Helped Him, and Who Passed Him By (1862). The essays collected in The Roundabout Papers (1863), however, are probably the most highly valued of these contributions. In these nostalgic, rambling pieces Thackeray wistfully recounts his childhood experiences, travels, and impressions of Victorian literature, politics, and society. He was in the midst of publishing Denis Duval (1864) in Cornhill Magazine when he died suddenly of an apoplectic stroke on Christmas Eve 1863.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Thackeray's famous contemporaries include:

Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): A successful and prolific English Victorian author, Trollope was noted for his keen observations of social, cultural, and political issues of the day. His novels include The Warden (1855) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867).

Emily Bronte (1818-1848): One of a trio of literary sisters, Emily wrote only one novel—albeit one that was considered an instant classic: Wuthering Heights (1847)—before dying of tuberculosis at age thirty.

Jacob Grimm (1785-1863): As one half of the famous Brothers Grimm, Jacob was instrumental in conducting one of the first comprehensive surveys of folklore. Grimm was primarily a respected and influential figure in the study and history of the German language and wrote several authoritative works on the subject. His publications included Deutsche Mythologie (1835).

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850): French novelist and playwright, whose La Comedie humaine (1799-1850), a one-hundred-volume collection of novels and stories, has exerted a strong influence over many famous authors, from Dickens to Proust to Kerouac.

Karl Marx (1818-1883): Called the ''father of communism," Marx was both a political philosopher and activist. Although German by birth, Marx spent most of his adult life in London, where he refined his theories of class struggle and the emergence of a classless society. His books on the subject include The Communist Manifesto (1848).

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855): This Danish philosopher is best known for his probing questions on institutionalized religion, ethics, and faith. His publications include Either/Or (1843).

 

Works in Literary Context

In his writings, Thackeray was greatly influenced by such writers as Miguel de Cervantes, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Fanny Burney, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and Alexandre Dumas. Honore de Balzac, especially his Cousine Bette (1846) specifically inspired Vanity Fair. Beyond other authors, Thackerary was also influenced by the era in which he lived—the Victorian era—with all its contradictions and social conditions as well as the externals of everyday life, including personal connections, jobs, and marriages. Thackeray’s need to question nineteenth- century ideals, as well as religion and moral choices, also informed his works.

‘‘Novel without a Hero’’. Like many of his fellow Victorian novelists, Thackeray is noted for his ability to create memorable characters—for example, Major Gahagan, Charles Yellowplush, Becky Sharp, Major Pendennis, Henry and Beatrix Esmond, Colonel Newcome, and the roundabout commentator who addresses the reader in virtually all of Thackeray’ works. In spite of giving such prominence to character delineation, Thackeray also came to develop an important new kind of novel, the ‘‘novel without a hero.’’ Such a novel may have a chief figure, one who is neither a romantic hero nor a rogue hero but a flawed, recognizable human being like Arthur Pendennis or Philip Firmin. In the case of several of Thackeray’s masterpieces, such as Vanity Fair (1847-1848) and The Newcomes (1853-1855), however, the center of interest is the complex network of relationships among the characters—an analog of society itself.

Class and Narrative Technique. Thackeray’s master-work, Vanity Fair, includes the most comprehensive treatment of the concerns central to all of Thackeray’s works—the divisive effects of greed, class, and social ambition—and epitomizes the sardonic wit and apt character sketching for which he is esteemed. This satiric novel revolves around the lives of two characters, the passive Amelia Sedley and the ambitious, conniving Becky Sharp. Thackeray’s treatment of these characters has sparked endless debate, for although Becky is ostensibly the negative character, it is she who actively engages the reader’s interest and sympathy, while Amelia, though good-hearted, appears in the final analysis to be dull and ineffectual. Becky Sharp is often praised, in fact, as one of the most memorable antiheroines of the nineteenth century. The other major and minor characters are also noted for their lifelike complexity.

In addition, Thackeray first uses in Vanity Fair the narrative technique employed throughout his subsequent novels: the omniscient, didactic narrator who comments freely upon the motives and actions of the characters. Similarly, three related novels he published between 1849 and 1862 share an unusual narrative technique. The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy (1849-1850) is the first of three related novels based on Thackeray’s own experiences. The History of Pendennis chronicles the early life of Arthur Pendennis, who takes the role of the narrator in the sequels, which are titled The Newcomes: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family (1854-1855) and The Adventures of Philip on His Way through the World (1862). All three novels are set in contemporary London and are narrated in the manner, according to Thackeray, of ‘‘a sort of confidential talk.’’ Although their narrative technique is often considered diffuse and overly didactic, these novels are praised for their convincing characterization and vivid depiction of Victorian society.

Influence. While Dickens ultimately left a more prominent legacy than Thackeray, the latter’s influence can still be felt in other works of Victorian literature that realistically examine society. Thackeray’s journalistic work also affected many readers and writers in the nineteenth century and beyond. It is also believed that Thackeray’s literary techniques also influenced such sweeping novels as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-1869).

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Thackeray's works often parody the pretensions of the upper classes. Other novels that also comment on the rich include:

Carry on, Jeeves (1925), a book of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse. These comic stories feature the bumbling British aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his levelheaded valet, Jeeves, who repeatedly extricates his employer from various amorous, legal, and familial difficulties.

Vile Bodies (1930), a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Known for his black satires, Waugh takes on young British socialites in this mordant novel.

The Philadelphia Story (1940), a film directed by George Cukor. This romantic comedy about a Philadelphia socialite planning for her wedding encourages viewers to reconsider their preconceptions about social class.

 

Works in Critical Context

During his life Thackeray’s work was regarded as the great upper-class counterpart to Dickens’s panorama of lower- class Victorian society. Indeed, because of his precise rendering of character types and his acuity in describing the social mores of his time, some critics have contended that he is Dickens’s superior as a historical chronicler. However, Thackeray’s reputation declined at the turn of the century. Early twentieth-century critics often found his vision of society limited and his characterization impeded by his deference to Victorian conventions. More recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Thackeray and numerous studies have appeared that afford his works a more sympathetic treatment. Thus, although Thackeray is no longer widely ranked as an equal of Dickens, his works continue to inspire a diverse body of critical interpretation, and he is generally recognized as one of the major writers of the mid-Victorian era.

Criticism of Thackeray’s works primarily revolves around several issues, including his narrative technique and his use of satiric irony. Many early critics were particularly disturbed by Thackeray’s apparent cynicism; some, including novelist Anthony Trollope, chided him for dwelling too exclusively on the negative traits of humanity. Others claimed that his satiric depiction of self-interested rogues served a useful moral purpose and was sufficiently balanced with sensitivity and compassion. In contrast, his twentieth-century detractors have been far more critical of the sentimentality that often creeps into his works.

Thackeray’s omniscient narrative technique continues, however, to be the most controversial element in his fiction. While many claim that the authorial commentary is intrusive and interferes with dramatic unity, others believe that this method enhances Thackeray’s work by creating a deliberate moral ambiguity that actively involves readers by forcing them to render their own judgments. Another area of interest for both critics and biographers is the possible autobiographical sources for Thackeray’s works. Numerous studies have been published that examine the parallels between his private relationships and experiences and the characters and plots of his works. Critics often maintain that Thackeray’s intense emotional involvement with characters based closely upon real-life models severely limited his artistic achievement.

Vanity Fair. Critics believe that Thackeray’s Vanity Fair represents a milestone in the development of fictional realism in England. The novel is widely regarded to be Thackeray’s masterpiece and is considered to be as original and ambitious as any novel from the Victorian era. However, early critical reactions to the novel were mixed. A number of prominent authors expressed high praise for Vanity Fair, including Charlotte Bronte, who called the novel a ‘‘Herculean feat’’ and its author a ‘‘Titan’’ among Victorian writers. Some contemporary reviews objected to the work on moral grounds. Robert Bell took exception to the “vicious and odious’’ qualities of the main characters.

In spite of the furor sparked by the book’s supposed amorality and ruthlessness, most critics agreed that the novel represented a landmark of realistic fiction. John Forster wrote in the Examiner, ‘‘Vanity Eair must be admitted to be one of the most original works of real genius that has late been given to the world. ... The very novelty of tone in the book impeded its first success; but it will be daily more justly appreciated; and will take a lasting place in our literature.’’

Beginning in the twentieth century, critical interpretation began to steer away from moral consideration of the novel and focus on Thackeray’s stylistic innovations. Other critics began to recognize the possible strategies behind the work’s structural imbalances, arguing that the lack of a clearly developed plot allowed the novel’s themes to serve as a framework of the story. In more recent years, critics have returned to the moral considerations that preoccupied Thackeray’s contemporaries.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Using Thackeray’s novels as a base, research and explain the manners and customs of his time in a paper. How does Thackeray point out the peculiarities and foibles of members of Victorian society?

2. In a group, discuss the following questions: What impact do the Napoleonic Wars have on the characters in Vanity Eair? How closely are their lives touched by such monumental yet relatively far-off events?

3. Select a scenario in Thackeray’s works in which a character manipulates or intimidates another. In an essay, express whether the method is physical force, political power, or social or educational superiority, and show how the submissive character is harmed.

4. Create a presentation that answers these questions: How are Thackeray’s own life experiences reflected in the characters in Vanity Eair? Why do you think he chose to make the story ‘‘a novel without a hero’’?

5. How is the society in which you live similar to the one depicted in Vanity Eair, and how is it different? Present your answer in any form you choose, such as an essay, short story, or poem.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Benjamin, Lewis Saul. William Makepeace Thackeray: A Biography Including Hitherto Uncollected Letters and Speeches and a Bibliography of 1300 Items. Washington, D.C.: Scholarly Press, 1968.

Colby, R. A. Thackeray’s Canvas of Humanity. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979.

Goldfarb, Sheldon. William Makepeace Thackeray: An Annotated Bibliography, 1900-1975. New York: Garland, 1977.

Hardy, Barbara. The Exposure of Luxury: Radical Themes in Thackeray. London: Owen, 1972.

Peters, Catherine. Thackeray’s Universe: Shifting Worlds of Imagination and Reality. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.

Rawlins, Jack P. Thackeray’s Novels: A Eiction That Is True. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Trollope, Anthony. Thackeray. London: Macmillan, 1879. Wheatley, James M. Patterns in Thackeray’s Eiction. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1969.