Friday, July 18, 2014

William Makepeace Thackeray's deft Skewering of Human Foibles

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)
On July 18, 1811, English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born. He was famous for his satirical works, particularly Vanity Fair, a panoramic portrait of English society. During the Victorian era, Thackeray was ranked second only to Charles Dickens, but he is now much less read and is known almost exclusively for Vanity Fair, which has become a standard fixture in university courses and has been repeatedly adapted for movies and television.

Thackeray, an only child, born in Calcutta, India, where his father Richmond Thackeray was secretary to the board of revenue in the British East India Company. William's father died in 1815, which caused his mother, Anne Becher, to send him to England, where he was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick and then at Charterhouse School. In 1829, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but never too keen on academic studies, he left the University already in 1830, though some of his earliest writing appeared in university publications The Snob and The Gownsman.

He travelled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. After his return to England and a futile trial to study law, by age 21 he came into his inheritance but he squandered much of it on gambling and by funding two unsuccessful newspapers, for which he had hoped to write. Forced to consider a profession to support himself, he turned first to art, which he studied in Paris, but did not pursue it except in later years as the illustrator of some of his own novels and other writings.

Everything changed after he married in 1836. Now he began "writing for his life", as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family. He primarily worked for Fraser's Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication, for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon, where he explored the situation of an outsider trying to achieve status in high society. Later, he began writing for the newly created Punch magazine, where he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs, a work that is responsible for the modern meaning of the word "snob".

Unfortunately, tragedy stuck his personal life, when his wife became mentally ill. She eventually deteriorated into a permanent state of detachment from reality, unaware of the world around her, and she ended up confined in a home near Paris. Thackeray became a de facto widower, never establishing another permanent relationship. It was in 1847, his novel Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero was published, which made him a celebrity, equal of Dickens. In that novel he was able to satirise whole swaths of humanity while retaining a light touch. It also features his most memorable character, the engagingly roguish Becky Sharp. Unlike Thackeray's other novels, it remains popular with the general reading public.

His health worsened during the 1850s. He could not break his addiction to spicy peppers, further ruining his digestion. On 23 December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, Thackeray suffered a stroke and was found dead in his bed.

At yovisto you can learn more about life and society in the Victorian era in the lecture of Prof. Rickard J. Evans from Gresham College.

References and Further Reading

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