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||William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) - Pseudonyms Charles James Yellowplush, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, George Savage FitzBoodle|
English journalist, novelist, famous for his novel Vanity Fair (1847-48), a tale of two middle-class London families. Most of Thackeray's major novels were published as monthly serials. Thackeray studied in a satirical and moralistic light upper- and middle-class English life – he was once seen as the equal of his contemporary Dickens, or even as his superior.
"This I set as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without a positive hump, may marry whom she likes." (from Vanity Fair)
William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, the only son of Richmond Thackeray, a Collector in the East Indian Company's service. After his father died he was sent to home to England. He was educated at Charterhouse and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Thackeray abandoned his studies without taking a degree, having lost some of his inheritance of twenty thousand pounds through gambling. In the beginning of the 1830s he visited Germany, where he met Goethe.
During 1831-33 Thackeray studied law at the Middle Temple,
but had little enthusiasm to continue his studies. In 1833 he brought
with a large heritage the National Standard, but lost his
fortune a year later in the Indian bank failures and other bad
investments. According to an anecdote, Thackeray offered to undertake
the task of illustrating Dickens's Pickwick Papers in 1836, but
the author himself found Thackeray's drawings unsuitable.
After art studies in Paris, Thackeray returned in 1837 to
started his career as a hard working journalist.
Often he used absurd pen names such as George Savage Fitz-Boodle,
Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Théophile Wagstaff, and C.J. Yellowplush, Esq.
Dickens, he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty. When
François Benjamin Courvoisier was hanged for the murder of Lord
William Russell, Thackeray was there, among the crowd with Dickens,
witnessing it. His impressions he recorded in the essay 'Going to See a
Man Hanged' (1840). Thackeray noted that "the mob was extraordinarily
gentle and good-humoured" and confessed that "I feel myself ashamed and
degraded at the brutal curiosity which took me to that brutal sight;
and that I pray to Almighty God to cause this disgraceful sin to pass
from among us, and to cleanse our land of blood."
In 1836 Thackeray married a poor Irish girl, Isabella Shawe; they had three daughters. Their first child, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), became a writer – her impressionistic texts impressed Virginia Woolf, who drew a portrait of her in Night and Day (1919) as 'Mrs Hilbery.' Ritchie (1837-1919) published several novels, and contributed to an 1898-99 edition of her father's works. A prominent intellectual figure of her time and well-acquainted with a number of the great names of British literature, she also wrote memoirs of her contemporaries, including Tennyson (1809-1892) and the critic and art historian John Ruskin (1819-1900).
Thackeray began to contribute regularly to Fraser's
Magazine, Morning Chronicle, New Monthly Magazine
and The Times. His writings attracted first attention in Punch,
where he satirized English snobbery. These sketches reappeared in 1848
as The Book of Snobs, in which he stated that "he who meanly
admires mean things is a Snob."
In 1840 Isabella Thackeray suffered a mental breakdown, from which she never recovered, through she survived Thackeray by thirty years. The author was forced to send his children to France to his mother. The children returned to England in 1846 to live with him.
Already in his first novel, Catherine (1839), originally written for Fraser's Magazine, Thackeray broke with the literary conventions of his day: "The characters of the tale ARE immoral, and no doubt of it; but the writer humbly hopes the end is not so. The public was, in our notion, dosed and poisoned by the prevailing style of literary practice, and it was necessary to administer some medicine that would produce a wholesome nausea, and afterwards bring about a more healthy habit."
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), portrayed an adventurer, opportunist, and gambler, who serves in the Seven Years War, first under the English flag and then in the Prussian army, gains wealth, and eventually is punished for his imperfections. "Suppose in a game of life – and it is but a twopenny game after all – you are equally eager of winning," Thackeray wrote much later in 'Autour de mon Chapeau' (1863). "Shall you be ashamed of your ambition, or glory in it?"
In Vanity Fair , set at the time of the Napoleonic wars, Thackeray created one of the most fascinating immoral female characters, Becky Sharp, who manages to avoid the fate of Barry Lyndon: "I think I could be a good woman if I had five thousand a year." (from Vanity Fair) The book brought Thackeray prosperity and made him an established author and popular lecturer in Europe and in the United States. Like other educated men of that time, he believed in Lavater's physiognomic theories and commented, after observing African-Americans, that those men were "not my men and brethren, these strange people with retreating foreheads, and with great obtruding lips and jaws . . . Sambo is not my man and brother." ('Racism in the Mid-Victorian Novel: Thackeray's Philip' by John Peck, in Varieties of Victorianism: The Uses of a Past, edited by Gary Day, 1998, p. 128)
Vanity Fair was sub-titled 'A Novel without a Hero'. "Everybody in Vanity Fair must have remarked how well those live who are comfortably and thoroughly in debt; how they deny themselves nothing; how jolly and easy they are in their minds." The vast satirical panorama of a materialistic society centers on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, good-natured but 'silly.' They are two boarding-school friends, whose destinies are contrasted. Clever and ambitious Becky is born into poverty as the daughter of a penniless artist. Her plans to marry Amelia's brother Joseph fail. She marries Rowdon Crawley, but he is disinherited. Becky manages to live at the height of fashion through the patronage of Lord Steyne. When her husband discovers the truth, he departs to become the governor of Coventry Island. Becky is ostracized and she moves to the Continent. In the meantime Amelia's stockbroker father is ruined. Amelia is loved by William Dobbin but she marries George Osborne – he dies in the battle of Waterloo. Amelia's son is left into the care of his grandfather, who dies and leaves him a fortune. Amelia travels in the Continent with his brother and they meet Becky. Dobbin has returned from India and disapproves Amelia's kindness to Becky. Older and disillusioned, Dobbin and Amelia can marry. Becky regains her hold over Joseph, who dies in suspicious circumstances. Becky's husband Rowdon dies, and Becky ends the novel in the guise of a pious widow. (See also: Anthony Trollope, Michael Innes) Like many of Thackeray's novels, Vanity Fair is not devoid of racism: the character Rhoda Swartz, "the rich woolly-haired mulatto from St. Kitt's," who enters the story in the opening chapter of Vanity Fair, was portrayed with racist overtones.
Thackeray's increasing love for Jane Brookfield, the wife of
an old Cambridge friend, led to a rupture in their friendship. The
History of Henry Esmond, Esq., appeared in three volumes in 1852,
and reflected the melancholic period in the life of the author. By the end of his career, Thackeray's
disillusionment with contemporary culture seems to have deepened. In The
Adventures of Philip (1862) the protagonist, Philip, is out of
place in a world that does not accommodate his vision of masculinity. Deborah A. Thomas has explained in Thackeray and Slavery
(1993) Philip's racism as a manifestation of hardening attitudes toward
racial groups in British thinking in the middle of the nineteenth
century. Perhaps the only major Victorian writer, who was even more
offensive that Thackeray, was Thomas Carlyle.
What becomes of Thackeray's view on slavery and issues of such weight, he avoided taking a clear stand – unlike his friend Charles Dickens, the conscience of his age. As Thackeray said of himself, he was a "quietist." The History of Pendennis
(1848-1850), an autobiographical novel, was concluded with the lines, "let us give a hand of charity to Arthur
Pendennis, with all his faults and shortcomings, who does not claim to
be a hero, but only a man and a brother." The closing words echo
the famous abolitionist slogan, "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"
However, Thackeray had parodied this phrase first time in a sketch, 'On
Some Political Snobs,' published in Punch
on 4 July 1846: "We can't be men and brothers as long as that poor
devil is made an antic before us in his present fashion... we have
abolished negro slavery. John must be emancipated from plush." (The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel by Julia Sun-Joo Lee, 2012, p. 54)
Thackeray said that he couldn't start a novel until he knew
aspect of his characters. He called Victorian times "if not the most
moral, certainly the most squeamish." Once, as an editor, he rejected
an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem because
it employed the word harlot. Thackeray became in 1860 the first editor
of the Cornhill Magazine, for which he wrote his Roundabout
Papers, Lovel the Widower, The Adventures of Philip
and the unfinished Denis Duval.
Less successful Thackeray was
with his attempt to stand for Parliament. His contacts with friendly
rival Dickens ended in a quarrel at the Garrick Club, but their
daughters continued to be friends.
Thackeray died suddenly on Christams Eve 1863. Just before his death he
had reconciled with Dickens. "We had our differences of opinion,"
Dickens said in his 1864 Cornhill Magazine
obituary notice of Thackeray. "I thought that he too much feigned a
want of earnestness, and that he made a pretence of undervaluing his
art, which was noT good for the art that he held in trust." (The Light Blue, a Cambridge University Magazine, Volume III, 1868, p. 285)
Thackeray was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. His bust at the Westminster Abbey was made by the Italian sculptor Marachetti. The poet's daughter was not satisfied with the work and let another sculptor to modify her father's stone sideburns until they were the right length.
For further reading: Chapters from some Memoirs by Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1894); Thackeray: The Uses of Adversity by Gordon Ray (1955); Thackeray: The Age of Wisdom by Gordon Ray (1958); The Exposure of Luxury by Barbara Nathan Hardy (1972); Prodigal Genius by John Carey (1977); Thackeray's Canvass of Humanity by Robert A. Colby (1979): The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel by Robin Gilmour (1981); Reading Thackeray by Michael Lund (1988); Thackeray's Cultural Frame of Reference by Rowland McMaster (1991); Thackeray and Slavery by Deborah A. Thomas (1993); Thackeray and Women by Micael M. Clarke (1997); W.M. Thackeray's European Sketch Books: a Study of Literary and Graphic Portraiture by S.S. Prawer (2000); The Inheritance of Genius: A Thackeray Family Biography, 1798-1875 by John Aplin (2010); Making Time in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon: Art, History, and Empire by Maria Pramaggiore (2015); Allegorical Thackeray: Secularised Allegory in Thackeray's Major Novels by Ellen Redling (2015); Thackeray in Time : History, Memory, and Modernity, edited by Richard Salmon and Alice Crossley (2016)