|Thackeray, William Makepeace ( 1811-1863)|
| English novelist and humorist,
one of the foremost exponents of the 19th-century realistic novel, exemplified
by his two most famous works, Vanity Fair and Henry Esmond.
Thackeray was born July 18, 1811, in Calcutta, India, into a wealthy English merchant family. In 1829 Thackeray entered the University of Cambridge. Leaving the university without taking his degree, he attempted to develop his literary and artistic abilities, first as the editor of a short-lived journal and subsequently as an art student in Paris. In 1840, despite a series of financial reverses and the mental illness of his wife, Thackeray produced The Paris Sketchbook, a series of reprints of his contributions to various literary journals. Comic Tales and Sketches (1841) contained the Yellowplush Papers, Major Gahagan, and the Bedford Row Conspiracy. After joining the staff of the humorous journal Punch in 1842, he published the Irish Sketchbook in 1843 and Cornhill to Cairo in 1847.
Thackeray began the serial publication of his great satirical novel Vanity Fair early in 1847, quickly establishing a reputation as one of the major literary figures of his time. In such subsequent novels as Pendennis (1848), Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1853), and The Virginians (1857), he broadened his observation of social situations to various eras and locales. These widely acclaimed works brought Thackeray new recognition. He became a principal competitor of his great contemporary, Charles Dickens, with whom he frequently disagreed on the nature of the novel as a vehicle for social commentary.
After lecturing in the U.S., Thackeray edited the Cornhill Magazine (1860-62). He contributed two of his lesser novels, Lovel the Widower and The Adventures of Philip, to the journal, and his work with the magazine suggested ideas for his humorous essays, The Roundabout Papers. In 1862 he gave up his editorship because he was unwilling to refuse manuscripts, but he continued to work for the magazine, beginning his last novel, Denis Duval, shortly before his death on December 24, 1863, in London.
Thackeray is particularly noted for his exquisitely humorous and ironic portrayals of the middle and upper classes of his time. His narrative skill and vivid characterizations are strikingly evident in his masterpiece Vanity Fair, an elaborate study of social relationships in early 19th-century England. The character of Becky Sharp, a scheming adventuress, is drawn with consummate skill, serving as a model for the heroines of many later novels. Thackeray's keen awareness of social eccentricity is seen also in his short works, especially in The Rose and the Ring (1855), in which his own clever drawings accent the text.