william makepeace thackeray


Life (1811-1863)

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, where his father worked for the East India Company, but after his father’s death he was sent to England (1816) where he was educated at the best public schools then at Trinity College, Cambridge. He soon started writing satirical pieces, sketches and essays for several London magazines: first he worked for Fraser’s Magazine, a sharp-witted conservative publication, later, for the newly created Punch magazine, where he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. After six years of marriage, his wife Isabella Shawe went insane. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up confined in a home near Paris. Thackeray went on writing novels and working as a journalist, struggling to earn enough money to support his two daughters and himself. The work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized instalments beginning in January 1847. He was very famous for the remaining decade and a half of his life, producing several large novels like The Luck of Barry Lyndon, in which Thackeray explores the situation of a villain trying to achieve status in high society. It was filmed as Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period. Thackeray suffered a stroke and died in 1863.

Works

Fiction

Thackeray’s writing career began with a series of satirical sketches now usually known as The Yellowplush Papers, which appeared in Fraser’s Magazine beginning in 1837.

Catherine (1839), the story of a criminal woman who had murdered her husband.

● In

The Book of Snobs, (1846-1847). This work popularized the modern meaning of the word “snob”, which ridiculed the English obsession with class.

Vanity Fair (1847-48), contrasts two young women, the sweet and spoilt Amelia Sedley and the poor, but clever and unscrupulous Becky Sharp who rises nearly to the heights by manipulating the other characters.

Rebecca and Rowena (1850), a parody sequel of Ivanhoe.

The History of Pendennis ( 1848-50), depicts the coming of age of Arthur Pendennis, a kind of Thackeray’s alter ego.

The History of Henry Esmond, (1852) Thackeray’s attempt to write a novel in the style of the eighteenth century. The story is set in the reign of Queen Anne

The Newcomes (1853-54), a forceful portrait of the corruption of the times.

The Adventures of Philip, (serialized in the Cornhill Magazine 1861-1862) where Philip Firmin is a good-hearted young man whose fortunes variously rise and fall in the course of the novel. It is noteworthy for its semi-autobiographical look back at Thackeray’s early life.

The Virginians, (1857-1859) which takes place both in England and America and includes George Washington as a character who nearly kills one of the protagonists in a duel.

Lectures

Thackeray also gave lectures, which were collected in :

The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, (1851)

The Four Georges on the first four Hanoverian monarchs !1855-1857).

Thackeray’s writings belong to the comic and satirical tradition of Fielding. He has a disillusioned view of human nature where the good too often lack courage and vitality, while the strong are evil and mercenary. He is an omniscient narrator who controls his characters like puppets and comments upon their destinies with detached amusement and sometimes strong irony.

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