Vanity Fair | Study Guide

William Makepeace Thackeray

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William Makepeace Thackeray | Biography


Early Life

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, on July 18, 1811. When his father, an administrator in the East India Company, died in 1815, young Thackeray was sent home to England to attend boarding school—a common practice among well-off families. He eventually entered the famous "public school" (closer to what Americans call "private school") Charterhouse, which he parodied as "Slaughterhouse" in a satirical novel. In 1828 Thackeray began attending Trinity College, Cambridge. Unsure of his professional goals, he left Cambridge in 1830 to study law at the Middle Temple in London. Thackeray eventually gave up law to paint and write. Meanwhile, he supported himself with an inheritance from his father, but was seduced by gambling and lost the money. He shortly left for Paris to study art. While there, Thackeray married a poor young woman from Ireland, with whom he had three daughters; one died in infancy. Hard financial times drove the family back to London, where Thackeray began to establish himself as a journalist and commentator. He wrote for popular publications under amusing pen names such as Mr. Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Fitz-Boodle, and The Fat Contributor.

Thackeray was a keen observer of London's social scene and an eager participant in its cultural life. In his early writings he became a social chronicler of his time and place. He met the great German writer and Renaissance man Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar, Germany, and knew various artists from Paris's École des Beaux-Arts. He rubbed shoulders with politicians, and even once ran for Parliament, unsuccessfully. He traveled to the United States to lecture, and maintained a long-running argument on literary style with rival novelist and journalist, Charles Dickens, whose style he found exaggerated and unrealistic.


Thackeray wrote prolifically and on a variety of subjects. Reviews and critiques of theater productions and art shows, commentaries on London characters and trends, witty travelogues, and other brief pieces flowed from his pen. These efforts were snapped up by popular magazines of the period. Thackeray's first forays into fiction—in the style of faux memoirs such as The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)—and crime stories were often published under a pen name or even unsigned. Not only was Thackeray developing his craft, but he was also working hard to support his two surviving daughters, and cover expenses for his wife, who was devolving into insanity. Her mental illness required expensive medical care and left him, in essence, a widower. Vanity Fair was the first work Thackeray published under his own name. It was such a commercial success that, after its serial run and subsequent publication as a novel, Thackeray could set aside his piecework to focus on other long fictional works. The History of Pendennis (1850) introduced a fictional character based in part on Thackeray himself. This character returns to narrate a later novel, The Newcomes (1855), considered by some critics his greatest work. A historical lecture tour through England, Scotland, and the United States produced research Thackeray used to write two related novels, Henry Esmond (1852) and The Virginians (1859). A well-received collection of Christmas stories, The Rose and the Ring, debuted in 1855. Late in life, Thackeray returned to publishing in magazines, in particular The Cornhill Magazine, which he helped to found and edit.

Vanity Fair

Out of Thackeray's entire body of work, Vanity Fair has remained, for most critics and readers, his masterpiece, and is the work most readers associate with Thackeray today. A sprawling critique of class distinctions and social climbing, it is narrated by a person who cannot be pinned down as either wholly cynical or somewhat sentimental about human nature. The novel's critical and financial success made it possible for Thackeray to devote himself to writing fiction almost full time. Thackeray died on December 24, 1863, at age 52. His final manuscript, an unfinished adventure story called Denis Duval, was published in its partial state in 1864. Vanity Fair remains a popular novel over 200 years after its publication. The book has been adapted to television as a miniseries and made into a Hollywood movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.

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