The Author

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was an English writer born in Calcutta, India and famous for his sometimes satirical depictions of 19th century society. His most famous novels are Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon.

Short biography

Thackeray was born in Calcutta. His father was secretary to the Board of revenue in the British East India Company. When his father died in 1815, his mother sent him back to England whilst she stayed in India. He was educated in Southampton, Chiswick, and later Cambridge (Trinity College). He then travelled, visited Paris and Weimar (and apparently met Goethe). When he got his father’s inheritance, he gambled, lost money and created two unsuccessful newspapers. He also lost a lot of money with the collapse of two Indian banks. He then decided to study Art in Paris. He never became an artist, but later used his skills as an illustrator for his own novels and works.

He eventually made a living of writing, contributing to numerous magazines and newspapers (Frasers’ magazine, The Times, The morning chronicle, Punch…), and started publishing his first books: Barry Lyndon, The Book of snobs

His wife suffered from acute depression following the birth of their third child. She attempted suicide by jumping off a boat whilst the two were travelling to Ireland but was eventually rescued. He tried everything, but she never fully recovered, yet would still outlive him by thirty years.

In the 1840s, his two travel books, The Paris sketch book, and The Irish sketch book proved to be successful. But it was Vanity Fair which brought him celebrity, making him one of the most famous writers of his time. He went on publishing more novels: Pendennis, The history of Henry Esmond and many more… He became editor of the newly established Cornhill magazine, and stood for Parliament as an independent but lost. He later died aged 52 of severe illness.

Thackeray will remain well known for being a satirist at heart, with such works as Catherine, a satire of crime fiction with picaresque overtones, Barry Lyndon, depicting a young Irish man’s unsuccessful attempts to get accepted and achieve recognition within English high society, a 19th century take on the 18th century English picaresque genre, turned into a social tragedy by Stanley Kubrick in the eponymous 1976 movie, and then of course Vanity Fair, considered to be his masterpiece.

In numerous aspects, Thackeray is an 18th century defector: his narrative technique, his light hearted way of treating serious subjects, his addresses to the reader (typical of Sterne or Diderot), his digressions, his rhythm, dislike of lengthy descriptions, all point to the renewal of the picaresque style typical of British (and Irish) literary Enlightenment.

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