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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Thackeray immersed himself in journalism not only to escape the guilt he felt over his wife’s derangement but to pay his abounding debts. (Before marrying, he had lost his fortune to an Indian bank failure.) He was also an extravagant gambler. To keep the bailiffs at bay, he contributed regularly to Punch, Fraser’s Magazine, the Morning Chronicle, the New Monthly Magazine, and the Times. And from this honorable scribbling he produced some of the funniest jeux d’esprit ever penned, including The Memoirs of Mr. C. J. Yellowplush (1837), A Shabby Genteel Story (1840), The Great Hoggarty Diamond (1841), and The Book of Snobs (1842). If Charles Dickens was more inventive, Thackeray had a better sense of humor. When Henry James met him in Paris in 1857, he recalled the great man turning to his eight-year-old sister, Alice, who was dressed in the fashionable flounces of the day, and exclaiming: “Crinoline?—I was suspecting it! So young and so depraved!” 

Vanity Fair (1848), the culmination of all that Thackeray had done as a comic journalist, is an unsparing portrait of the unregenerate world from a man who knew its follies and sorrows inside out. Nowhere else does one get a better sense of the fierce social insecurity that gripped early 19th-century England, or its ruthlessness. “In this vast town one has not the time to go and seek one’s friends,” the narrator observes; “if they drop out of the rank they disappear, and we march on without them. Who is ever missed in Vanity Fair?” The Victorians liked to imagine that Thackeray exposed their vices too unsparingly. Yet he exhibited toward those culpable of folly an almost paternal indulgence: No other Victorian novelist would have shown the incorrigible Becky Sharp anything like the sympathy that Thackeray showed her. 

At the same time, to a journalist who had taken exception to what he thought the satirical severity of Vanity Fair, Thackeray explained that the book’s object was

to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people “desperately wicked” and all eager for vanities. .  .  . Good God don’t I see (in that may-be cracked and warped looking glass in which I am always looking) my own weaknesses lusts follies shortcomings? .  .  . We must lift up our voices about these and howl to a congregation of fools. .  .  . You have all of you taken my misanthropy to task—I wish I could myself: but take the world by a certain standard .  .  . and who dares talk of having any virtue at all.

Thackeray followed the success of Vanity Fair with several other novels, which the English critic John Carey claimed constitute a “history of capitulation” in which the novelist succumbed to the very snobbery that he had written his earlier work to mock: “The novels after Vanity Fair,” Carey argues, “are full of people not only of a higher class but nicer—noble fellows, angelic ladies. It is a condition of their insipidity.”

This is not altogether just. Although The Newcomes (1855) and The Virginians (1859) may be dull reads, Pendennis (1850) and The History of Henry Esmond (1852) are undeservedly neglected. Trollope judged the latter “the greatest novel in the language,” citing “the excellence of its language,” the “clear individuality of its characters,” the faithfulness of its Queen Anne setting, and “its great pathos.” If Vanity Fair is about what happens to people when they lose love, Henry Esmond is about what happens to them when they regain it—for as the Thackerayan narrator reminds his readers, “love vincit omnia; is immeasurably above all ambition, more precious than wealth, more noble than name. He knows not life who knows not that.”

This may not be as entertaining as reading about how Becky and Rawdon contrive to live on nothing a year, but it proves how deeply autobiographical Thackeray’s fiction is, even his historical fiction.

Another late book worth reading is The Roundabout Papers (published posthumously in 1864), which includes the immortal “Mississippi Bubble,” in which Thackeray recalls going down the great river on a steamboat and meeting the Bearded Lady of Kentucky: “You would have fancied that, as after all we were only some half-dozen on board, she might have dispensed with her red handkerchief, and talked, and eaten her dinner in comfort: but in covering her chin there was a kind of modesty.”