Biography of William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India on 18 July 1811. His father was a collector for the government but died when William was about four years old. When he was five, he was sent home to England to be educated. On his way there the ship stopped by the island of St. Helena where the boy got a glimpse of the famous exile, Napoleon Bonaparte. His mother remained behind in India to marry again.

Portrait of William Makepeace Thackeray based on Drawing

Young Thackeray was educated at a boarding school. He had a six year spell at Charterhouse. His memoirs of his education read somewhat like Tom Brown's Schooldays, a novel by Thomas Hughes. These experiences would influence some of his works including some scenes in Vanity Fair and The Newcomes. In 1829, he went on to university at Cambridge, Trinity College. However, he left the school after only two years because a life of dissipation interfered with his studies.

Thackeray then spent a year in Germany. On his return to England he seems to have lived an extravagant lifestyle of gambling and heavy use of alcohol. He may at this time have contacted a disreputable disease as a direct result of liaisons with prostitutes. Looking for a profession, he first tried the law and perhaps even loan-sharking. Deciding that the life of a journalist was his calling, he then bought a weekly paper, The National Standard. He became editor. However, this venture quickly collapsed.

The life of a dissolute gentleman ended for Thackeray when an Indian bank holding many of his assets failed. Suddenly, money (or the lack of it) became a problem. He set down to more serious work as a writer, finding jobs with some of the great magazines of the day, especially Punch. While in Paris he met and married Isabella Shawe in 1836. His popularity as a journalist and writer began to grow. His fiction had a biting, witty undertone that is ever popular in Britain. Some of his early works include: The Yellowplush Papers (1837-38), Catherine (1839-40), A Shabby Genteel Story (1840), Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841), and the masterpiece, Barry Lyndon (1844).

In the early 1840s, he wrote a series of travel books on various places in Europe, including: The Paris Sketch Book, The Irish Sketch Book, and the comic Notes on a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo.

It is interesting to conjecture how much Thackeray would have produced had he not been subject to early financial distress. Lack of funds and the new responsibilities of married life compelled him to put pen to paper, and the demands of editors forced him to produce quality work. Yet the work also forced him to pay less attention to his family than he might have. His wife became depressed after the birth of their third child. She became suicidal, and Thackeray was forced to put her into an asylum.

It was the publication of Vanity Fair in 1847 that brought him real fame and success. It was at this time he began to be compared to Dickens. In 1849 Thackeray produced Pendennis, which like Dickens' David Copperfield is partly autobiographical. In 1852 a three book novel The History of Henry Esmond was published. Thackeray spent much time in historical research and thought this one of his best works.

In the late 1800s lecture tours by famous authors were very popular in both Britain and America. In 1852 Thackeray toured the United States. From 1853-1855, The Newcomes was published serially. It was a social satire hearkening back to Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon. In 1856 he ran for Parliament, but was defeated. Next he embarked upon a serialized novel called The Virginians which is set in colonial America before the Revolutionary War.

In 1860 Thackeray became editor of a magazine, The Cornhill. His tenure lasted for two years, during which time he published The Adventures of Philip. About this time he engaged in literary sparring with Dickens and others which led to a deal of acrimony. On 24 December 1863 he died of a broken blood vessel in his brain.

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