William Makepeace Thackeray
About the Contributor:
Joanna Trollope is the author of THE BEST OF FRIENDS, OTHER PEOPLE’S CHILDREN, and most recently, MARRYING THE MISTRESS, among other books. She lives in England.
William Makepeace Thackeray, whose satiric novels are often regarded as the great upper-class counterpart to Dickens’s panoramic depiction of lower-class Victorian society, was born on July 18, 1811, in Calcutta, India. His father, a prosperous official of the British East India Company, died four years later, and at the age of six Thackeray was sent to England to be educated. After graduating from the Charterhouse School in London, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1829 but left the following year without taking a degree. After reading law for a short time at the Middle Temple he moved to Paris in 1832 to study art. Although he eventually abandoned the idea of painting as a career, Thackeray continued to draw throughout his life, illustrating many of his own works. When financial reversals wiped out his inheritance, he resettled in London and turned to journalism for a livelihood. By then he had married Isabella Shawe, a young Irishwoman with whom he had three daughters.
Thackeray’s earliest literary success, The Yellowplush Correspondence, a group of satiric sketches written in the guise of a cockney footman’s memoirs, was serialized in Fraser’s Magazine beginning in 1837. Catherine (serialized 1839-40; published 1869), his first novel, parodied the crime stories popular in Victorian England. Under the name Michael Angelo Titmarsh, the most famous of his many pseudonyms, Thackeray turned out The Paris Sketch Book (1840) and The Irish Sketch-Book (1843), two popular volumes of travel writing. The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), which chronicles the adventures of an Irish knave in eighteenth-century England, marked his first serious attack on social pretension. In The Book of Snobs (1848), a collection of satiric portraits originally published in Punch magazine (1846-47), he lampooned the avarice and snobbery occasioned by the Industrial Revolution.
Vanity Fair, Thackeray’s resplendent social satire exposing the greed and corruption raging in England during the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars, brought him immediate acclaim when it appeared in Punch beginning in 1847. "The more I read Thackeray’s works," wrote Charlotte Bronte, "the more certain I am that he stands alone—alone in his sagacity, alone in his truth, alone in his feeling (his feeling, though he makes no noise about it, is about the most genuine that ever lived on a printed page), alone in his power, alone in his simplicity, alone in his self-control. Thackeray is a Titan. . . . I regard him as the first of modern masters."