The Magazine

Writer’s Progress

Behind the scenes of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novelistic life.

Nov 7, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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n 1853, when William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) made his first lecture tour of America, Boston particularly pleased him because, as he said, its “vast amount of toryism and donnishness” reminded him of Edinburgh. Today, there may be precious little toryism or donnishness left in Boston, but there remains a sturdy affection for Thackeray—and one proof of this was the superb exhibition that Harvard’s Houghton Library mounted to commemorate the bicentenary of the great novelist’s birth.

Photo of William Thackeray

Thackeray ca. 1855


Heather Cole, curator of the exhibition, captured the witty charm and ebullience of her subject by assembling a catalogue full of the abiding appeal of his life and work. She included the famous bust of Thack-
eray as a boy; the portrait of him with his parents, sitting atop a pile of folios and gazing out at the viewer with preternatural zest; and his wonderfully funny Punch drawings. She also included many of his letters to his female confidantes, his exquisite sketches of his daughters, Annie and Minny, pages from his manuscripts, the bright yellow installments of Vanity Fair (1848), and a copy of The Adventures of Philip (1862), his penultimate novel, printed during the Civil War by a Confederate publisher, complete with advertisements for military merchandise.

That a Confederate publisher should have printed the novel has a special aptness, for Philip is a paean to precisely the ideal of gentlemanliness that so many Confederate soldiers prized. (That was, after all, what distinguished them from Yankees.)

Thackeray has been blessed with exceptional biographers and critics. Although Gordon Ray wrote the definitive two-volume biography over 50 years ago, and produced a magnificent edition of the novelist’s letters and private papers, D. J. Taylor and Peter Shillingsburg have written lively biographies since, and there is a wealth of good critical work on Thackeray from Geoffrey Tillotson, John Sutherland, and Lord David Cecil to Joan Stevens, Ann Monsarrat, and Edgar Harden. To this illustrious body of work may now be added John Aplin’s five-volume edition of the Thackeray family letters and his two-volume family biography, both of which constitute a major contribution to Thackeray scholarship, packed as they are with fresh material and incisive commentary.

No appreciation of Thackeray’s genius is possible without some understanding of the flawed, goodhearted, supremely clubbable man. He was born in Calcutta in 1811, the son of Richmond Thackeray, an official in the East India Company, and Anne Becher, the daughter of another Company official. He had an amusing augury of his future profession when his father unwittingly invited a handsome young Bengal Engineer to dinner, who had been in love with his wife before she went out to India. When Anne and the dashing Carmichael-Smyth finally met in private on that fatal night, they discovered their mutual misapprehensions: She had been told that he had died of fever, and he that she no longer cared for him. After Richmond obligingly died in 1815, the reunited lovers married and settled in Paris. Thus, it was at home, not from novels, that Thackeray learned the rudiments of romance.

Educated at Charterhouse and Cambridge, which he left in 1830 without a degree, Thackeray entered the Middle Temple in 1831, but soon gave up law for journalism. In 1833, he bought the National Standard, where he was proprietor, contributor, and illustrator. After the paper folded, he went to study art in Paris where, at a masked ball, he met the adventuress on whom he would base his most brilliant heroine, Becky Sharp. On a later trip to the city, in a boardinghouse in the Faubourg-St-Honoré, he met a 17-year-old Irish girl from Cork named Isabella Shawe, with whom he fell in love at the proverbial first sight. In 1836, they were married at the British embassy. Once settled in London, the couple went on to have three daughters, though the second died at eight months. Included in the Houghton show is a droll drawing by Thackeray showing how he towered over his tiny wife.

After the birth of the third daughter, Isabella began to show signs of schizophrenia. In 1840, while traveling from England to Ireland, she jumped overboard and was only rescued after being 20 minutes in the sea. When no cure could be found, Thackeray arranged for her to live with a nurse in Camberwell, where she would outlive him by 30 years. He later told a friend, “Though my marriage was a wreck, I would do it over again, for behold love is the crown and completion of all earthly good.”