William Makepeace Thackeray Biography

William Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India. His father, Richmond Thackeray, was a secretary to the board of revenue in the British East India Company. His mother, Anne Becher, sent him to England for his education when his father died in 1815. He eventually attended the Charterhouse School, which he despised and later parodied as “Slaughterhouse” in his fiction. It was here that his first writing appeared, in the publications The Snob and The Gownsman. His matriculation to Trinity College was delayed by illness, and he dropped out in 1830.

Over the next six years, Thackeray led a scattered and irresponsible life. He traveled all over Europe and met Goethe in Weimar. When he returned to England he began to study law, but soon abandoned the field. Thackeray lost much of his fortune to gambling and to failed investments as a result of the collapse of two Indian banks. Thackeray also tried pursuing an art career but again abandoned the subject when he did not find immediate success. Finally, he made two attempts at founding newspapers, but both resulted in failure.

William married Isabella Shawe, daughter of Colonel Matthew Shawe, a British Officer who served with distinction in India. Three daughters were born of the marriage, Anne, Harriet, and Jane, who died as a child. Tragedy struck his personal life during this period when his wife sank into a deep depression after the birth and quick death of this third child. She would never fully recover and would be confined in a home near Paris.

To support his family, Thackeray turned to journalism. The ten-year period from 1837 to 1847 were some of his most productive and saw him published in several magazines on topics ranging from literary and art criticism to political and social commentaries. He began to gain some notoriety when he published two travel books and The Book of Snobs, which appeared in the newly created Punch magazine as “The Snob Papers” (1846-47).

After years of attempt, fame was finally established when the novel Vanity Fair first appeared in serial installments beginning in January, 1847. Piggybacking on the success of Vanity Fair, several successful novels followed, including Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The History of Henry Esmond. Thackeray became much sought after as a lecturer in the US and in England, and he was hailed as an equal of Dickens. Feeling perhaps over-confident, William took a run for Parliament but fell short by a mere 33 votes. He continued to publish in magazines and became editor of Cornhill Magazine in 1860.

During the 1850s, William Thackeray’s health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by over-eating and excessive drinking. On December 23, 1863, he suffered a severe stroke and died in his home. Several thousand mourners attended his funeral and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetary. Marochetti sculpted a memorial bust which is still on display in Westminster Abbey.

Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, where his father, Richmond Thackeray, was a high-ranking official in the British East India Company. His mother, Anne née Beacher, married Richmond Thackeray on October 13, 1810 after being sent to India in 1809. She was sent abroad after being told that the man she loved, Henry Carmichael-Smyth, had died. This was not true, but her family wanted a better marriage for her than with Carmichael-Smyth, a military man. The truth was unexpectedly revealed in 1812 when Richmond Thackeray unwittingly invited to dinner the supposedly dead Carmichael-Smyth. Richmond Thackeray died on September 13, 1815. Henry Carmichael-Smyth married Anne in 1818 and they returned to England shortly after.

William had been sent to England earlier, at the age of five, with a short stopover at St. Helena where the prisoner Napoleon was pointed out to him. He was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick and then at Charterhouse School, where he was a close friend of caricaturist, John Leech. He disliked Charterhouse, parodying it in his later fiction as “Slaughterhouse.” He then studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, but was never too keen on academic studies and left the University in 1830.

He travelled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. He returned to England and began to study law at the Middle Temple, but soon gave that up. On reaching 21, he came into his inheritance, but he squandered much of it on gambling and by funding two unsuccessful newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutional, which he had hoped to write for. He also lost a good part of his fortune in the collapse of two Indian banks. Forced to consider a profession to support himself, he turned first to art, which he studied in Paris, but he did not pursue it, except in later years as the illustrator of some of his own novels and other writings.

Thackeray’s years of semi-idleness ended after he met and, in 1836, married Isabella Shawe, who bore him three daughters, two of whom survived. He now began “writing for his life,” as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family.

He primarily worked for Fraser’s Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication, for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Later, through his connection to the illustrator John Leech, he began writing for the newly created Punch magazine, where he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. This work popularized the modern meaning of the word “snob.”

Meanwhile tragedy struck in his personal life as his wife succumbed to depression after the birth of their third child. She attempted suicide and eventually lapsed into a permanent state of a detachment from reality. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up confined in a home, where she remained until 1893, outliving her husband by 30 years. After his wife’s illness, Thackeray became a virtual bachelor, pursuing other women such as Mrs. Jane Brookfield, but never establishing another permanent relationship.

In the early 1840s, Thackeray had some success with two travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book. Later in the decade, he achieved some notoriety with his Snob Papers, but the work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized installments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run, Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies he satirized and hailed as the equal of Dickens.

He remained “at the top of the tree,” as he put it, for the remaining decade and a half of his life, producing several large novels, notably Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The History of Henry Esmond, despite various illnesses, including a near fatal one that struck him in 1849 in the middle of writing Pendennis. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period, and there fell in love with the young American girl, Sally Baxter.

Thackeray also gave lectures in London, on the English humorists of the eighteenth century, and on the first four Hanoverian monarchs, the latter series being published in book form as The Four Georges. He also stood unsuccessfully as an independent for Parliament.

In 1860, Thackeray became editor of the newly established Cornhill Magazine, but was never comfortable as an editor, preferring to contribute to the magazine as a columnist, producing his Roundabout Papers for it.

Ill for much of his later years and feeling he had lost much of his creative impetus, Thackeray died of a stroke in 1863. His funeral was attended by as many as 7,000 people. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, and a memorial bust sculpted by Marochetti can be found in Westminster Abbey.


After getting married in 1936, William Makepeace Thackeray saw the need to work to cater for his family and therefore started a career in writing. William Makepeace Thackeray first worked as a journalist for Fraser’s Magazine, writing on art criticism and fictions. It was during this period that he worked on the fictions, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. He reviewed book for The Times from 1837 to 1840and also contributed to The Foreign Quarterly Review and The Morning Chronicle.

William Makepeace Thackeray published the travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book in 1840. The books had some success among the British but Irish Catholics met the later with hostility. This was what gained him a writing position at Punch as Irish expert with the pseudonym HibernisHibernian. It was through his lasting friendship with John Leech that gained him the position and William Makepeace Thackeray would work there from 1843 to 1854. It was through it that he published his work, The Snob Papers, that later became The Book of Snobs. The Snob Papers gained him recognition and was serialized from 1846 to 1847.

In 1848, it was published in a book form. William Makepeace Thackeray novel, Vanity Fair that was serialized from January 1847, was what made him famous and established his credential as a talented writer. Despite the Vanity Fair being satiric of the English Society, he became highly sought for by the lords and ladies whom he satirized. His popularity surged and was compared to Charles Dickens and is quoted to have said he remained “at the top of the tree.”

William Makepeace Thackeray rides on the success of the novel to publishing other works like Pendennis, The Newcomes and The History of Henry Esmond. William Makepeace Thackeray health at this time was deteriorating gradually, but that was not an impediment to his writing work. In 1849, William Makepeace Thackeray twice embarked on a lecture tour to the United States of America. William Makepeace Thackeray did same in London on the first four Hanoverian monarch and the English humorists of the eighteenth century. The first lecture series was later published into the book, The Four Georges.

William Makepeace Thackeray contested as an independent candidate for Oxford but was slightly beaten by Cardwell who had 1,070 votes while Thackeray also received 1,005 votes. William Makepeace Thackeray uncomfortably served as the editor of Cornhill Magazine in 1860 as his main wish was to write for the magazine’s column, Roundabout Papers.

The History of Henry Esmond (1852) – ISBN 0-14-143916-5
The Virginians (1857–1859) – ISBN 1-4142-3952-1
Arthur Pendennis

Pendennis (1848–1850) – ISBN 1-4043-8659-9
The Newcomes (1855) – ISBN 0-460-87495-0
A Shabby Genteel Story (Unfinished) (1840) – ISBN 1-4101-0509-1
The Adventures of Philip (1862) – ISBN 1-4101-0510-5
The Christmas Books of Mr M. A. Titmarsh

Thackeray wrote and illustrated five Christmas books as “by Mr M. A. Titmarsh”. They were collected under the pseudonymous title and his real name no later than 1868 by Smith, Elder & Co.[26]

The Rose and the Ring was dated 1855 in its first edition, published for Christmas 1854.

Mrs. Perkins’s Ball (1846), as by M. A. Titmarsh
Our Street
Doctor Birch and His Young Friends
The Kickleburys on the Rhine (Christmas 1850) – “a new picture book, drawn and written by Mr M. A. Titmarsh”[27]
The Rose and the Ring (Christmas 1854) – ISBN 1-4043-2741-X

Catherine (1839–40) – ISBN 1-4065-0055-0 (originally credited to “Ikey Solomons, Esq. Junior”[28])
The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), filmed as Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick – ISBN 0-19-283628-5
Vanity Fair (1847–53) – ISBN 0-14-062085-0
Men’s Wives (1852) – ISBN 978-1-77545-023-8
Lovel the Widower
Denis Duval (unfinished) (1864) – ISBN 1-4191-1561-8

‘Elizabeth Brownbridge
‘Sultan Stork
Little Spitz
The Yellowplush Papers (1837) – ISBN 0-8095-9676-8
The Professor
Miss Löwe
The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan
The Fatal Boots
Cox’s Diary
The Bedford-Row Conspiracy
The History of Samuel Titmarsh and the Great Hoggarty Diamond
The Fitz-Boodle Papers
The Diary of C. Jeames de la Pluche, Esq. with his letters
A Legend of the Rhine
A Little Dinner at Timmins’s
Rebecca and Rowena (1850), a parody sequel of Ivanhoe – ISBN 1-84391-018-7
Bluebeard’s Ghost

Sketches and satires
The Irish Sketchbook (2 Volumes) (1843) – ISBN 0-86299-754-2
The Book of Snobs (1848), which popularised that term- ISBN 0-8095-9672-5
Flore et Zephyr
Roundabout Papers
Some Roundabout Papers
Charles Dickens in France

Character Sketches
Sketches and Travels in London
Mr. Brown’s Letters
The Proser
The Wolves and the Lamb

Travel writing
Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo (1846), under the name Mr M. A. Titmarsh.
The Paris Sketchbook (1840), featuring Roger Bontemps
The Little Travels and Roadside Sketches (1840)

Other non-fiction
The English Humorists of the 18th Century]] (1853)
Four Georges]] (1860-1861) – ISBN 978-1410203007
Roundabout Papers (1863)
The Orphan of Pimlico (1876)
Sketches and Travels in London
Stray Papers: Being Stories, Reviews, Verses, and Sketches (1821-1847)
Literary Essays
The English Humorists of the 18th century: a series of lectures (1867)
Character Sketches
Critical Reviews
Second Funeral of Napoleon

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