Author Profile

William Makepeace Thackeray

Selected Works

  • The Newcomes (1855)
  • Pendennis (1848–1850)
  • Vanity Fair (1848)
  • The Virginians (1857–1859)

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811, to parents both of Anglo-Indian descent. Upon his father's death Thackeray went to England to live at age five. He attended several boarding schools, which experiences (including exceedingly dry lessons and canings) later provided material for Thackeray's writing. They also led him to find escape by reading the popular fiction of the day, including Sir Walter Scott and Pierce Egan. He entered Cambridge University in 1819. Not an outstanding student, he survived only two years of an inaccessible mentor and a preference for wine parties and gambling before he left.

Deciding his best route to an education was through extensive reading and educational travel, Thackeray set out for continental Europe. He led the dissipated lifestyle of a young gentleman even after losing much of his inheritance. But he began to supplement his income by contributing to newspapers, often about his travels. Then in Paris he met and married Isabella Shawe in 1836. Determined to support his family, Thackeray began writing in earnest. He published literary and art criticism, general articles, essays, travel books, and fiction, usually under a comic pseudonym.

Thackeray's travel writing frequently took him away from home, and when at home he often went to the quiet of men's clubs to work. Thus he missed the early signs of his wife's growing illness and depression. But after the birth of their third child, Isabella became almost completely withdrawn. Thackeray began searching for a cure, taking his wife to various doctors and health spas, all to no avail. She eventually went insane.

In the meantime, Thackeray still needed to write to support his wife and two surviving daughters. It is believed that his wife's illness began Thackeray's lifelong study of the situation of women in Victorian England, and his creating the memorable and believable female characters that appear in his masterpieces, Vanity Fair (1847), The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), and others. With his growing success, critics began to compare him to authors such as Charles Dickens. Thackeray enjoyed literary relationships with several authors and editors, including Dickens. The two men often had minor literary disagreements and still remained friends, until a breach that lasted years caused by Thackeray's publicly letting slip information about Dickens' mistress. This was healed only a few months prior to Thackeray's death, when Dickens and Thackeray met by chance in the street and shook hands.

Thackeray also produced numerous magazine publications, for a five-year period publishing an average of 59 articles per year in addition to working on his novels. Part of Thackeray's creative process included interaction with people: talk was a "necessary ingredient" of his research. He continued to travel and to visit and work with friends. He contributed numerous critiques on the writings of his contemporaries, including Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton. An artist as well as an author, Thackeray's lifetime output was so great that to this day no comprehensive bibliography of his publications has been compiled. Toward the end of his life he noted that his writing had earned him back his wealth, and he was proud that he could leave his daughters an inheritance. He died of a stroke in 1863, and an estimated 2000 people attended his funeral.


Watercolor, ca. 1848.

Original unpublished watercolor Thackeray painted for his book, Our Street.

The painting depicts Mrs. Cammysole's maid, Miss Molly, flirting with the baker's boy. The exact reason why this painting was not used in the final publication is not known. A caption written on the back in Thackeray's hand is mostly indecipherable. Victorian book collector David Magee commented on the watercolor, "It is quite a different composition from (and I think infinitely preferable to) the published version."

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Titmarsh, M. A. Our Street. London: Chapman and Hall, 1848.

Final version of Thackeray's painting as it appeared, significantly changed, in Our Street, which was published under one of Thackeray's many comic pseudonyms.

A few of Thackeray's pseudynyms were Michael Angelo Titmarsh, Ikey Solomons, George Savage Fitz-Boodle, Theophile Wagstaffe, Jeames, and Charles James Yellowplush. Thackeray probably used pseudonyms because a great deal of his early writing was considered hackwork.

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Holograph letter to Mark Lemon, undated.

Undated letter from Thackeray to Mark Lemon, editor of the English periodical Punch, about some of Thackeray's essays to be considered for publication.

Many of Thackeray's articles, essays, and serialized stories appeared in Punch, a weekly comic journal founded by Mark Lemon and others in 1841. In 1842 Lemon became its sole editor and he quickly recruited Thackeray to help him make the magazine a success. Punch ran until 1992, and included fiction, poetry, articles about social issues and politics. It enjoyed a largely professional middle-class readership and became one of the most popular of British magazines.

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Transcription of Thackeray's holograph letter to Lemon.

Dear Lemon. Why don't you use Dr. Pacifice? It is the first of a series of essays
wh. I intended to have been better and in a higher tone if I may be permitted to
speak of honour and morals than anything I have done. And he admits of any
vagaries & being [turned?] to any use.
The marriage is a very good subject [?] and would have been a much better one 3
years ago. but I want to go into an upper class I tell you.
   W. M. T.
I am going down to the club to see [unreadable] a
subject but I've been looking in vain these 3 days.

Holograph letter to Mark Lemon, undated.

A letter from Thackeray to the editor of Punch, Mark Lemon, apologizing for not coming to Whitefriars the night before.

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Holograph letter to his publishers, Chapman and Hall, 29 May 1847.

This letter, in Thackeray's hard-to-read handwriting, explains a financial predicament due to an investment gone bad. Thackeray had invested in an Irish Railroad and lost his money. He asks his publishers if they can advance him money on the 2nd edition of one of his publications.

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Holograph page from a manuscript of an unidentified work, undated.

Victorian collector David Magee was unable to identify which of Thackeray's works this page of manuscript belonged to. He believed it to be from an essay. The handwriting is Thackeray's.

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Literary Worlds