English Literature Of The 19th Century:
Reviewers, Magazinists And Minor Poets Of The First Period
Women Writers Of The First Period
Summary Of The Pre-victorian Literature
Second Or Early Victorian Period—1837-1870
Earle Lytton Bulwer
Captain Frederick Marryat
Read More Articles About: English Literature Of The 19th Century
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Though Thackeray was born a year before Dickens, he was more than a decade later in reaching popularity, and even then it was by no means equal to his great competitor's. He belonged to a wealthy Yorkshire family, but first saw the light in 1811 in Calcutta, where his father was in the civil service. When seven years old he was sent to England for his education, and after some years at the famous Charter-House, he went to Cambridge. But he did not graduate; having a comfortable fortune, he studied painting and traveled on the Continent. When the fortune was lost by imprudent investments or folly, the half-taught artist sought employment as an illustrator. Among those to whom he applied was Dickens, then starting the "Pickwick Papers," but Hablot K. Browne, known as "Phiz," was chosen. Thackeray therefore began to write squibs for "Fraser's Magazine," just started, and later for "Punch," which first appeared in 1841. To the latter he contributed the "Snob Papers" and "Memoirs of Mr. Jeames Yellowplush," in which the Cockney footman's views of life are set off by bad spelling. Other pen-names of this period are "Michael Angelo Titmarsh" and "George Fitz Boodle," but the industrious humorist was still little esteemed. Yet he published some pretty Christmas books and "A Journey from Cornhill to Cairo."
At last, in 1846, Thackeray began, like Dickens, to issue a novel in serial numbers. It was called "Vanity Fair, a Novel Without a Hero." It was written in a sociable, conversational tone, but was a scathing exposure of the shams and follies of the upper classes. The interest centers in the adventures of the shrewd and clever Becky Sharpe, who has set her heart on making a grand match. Unfortunately, the man whom she marries misses the coveted estate; then she becomes entangled with an aged debauchee, and is crushed by her husband's unexpected return from a sponging house. After the surprising success of "Vanity Fair" Thackeray never returned to the trifling writing which had chiefly occupied his time.
In 1849 he began "Pendennis," the hero of which represents himself, though the adventures through which he passes are not similar. Arthur has his faults and foibles, but his regret and repentance evoke the sympathies of the reader. His sweetheart Laura is a model of patient endurance with waywardness. In 1851 Thackeray visited America, lecturing on "The English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century." That age was always his familiar hunting-ground, and he discussed Addison, Steele and Swift with sincere sympathy. Still further use was made of this knowledge in his next book, "The History of Henry Esmond," which professed to be autobiographic and was exact in its imitation of the style of "The Spectator." Among the historical characters presented were Queen Anne, the Pretender, the Duke of Marlborough, and Addison, but the interest centers in the gentlemanly Esmond and his hopeless suit for his beautiful but proud cousin Beatrix. Fully assured of his position, Thackeray next issued "The Newcomes," a charming novel of social satire and philosophy. The real hero is the retired Colonel Thomas Newcome, a perfect gentleman in his dealings with all the world, who yet is fated to lose his fortune and die a pensioner in the Charter-House in which he had been a pupil.
Thackeray visited the United States again in 1856, and lectured on "The Four Georges," unveiling their foolish and vicious characters, with due exception and regard for George III, the only honest, virtuous man among them, yet doomed to sad attacks of insanity. The income from these lectures provided à fund for Thackeray's daughters, to whom he was specially affectionate. His wife had become insane in 1841, but she outlived him without recovering her reason. Partly as a result of his visit to America, Thackeray wrote his "Virginians," a continuation of "Henry Esmond." Among the characters introduced is Washington as a young man. The American regard for the Father of his Country caused an outcry against this picture, but more recent criticism is disposed to accept it as probable. Objection has also been made to some of the English portraits, but the interest of the story does not depend on these incidental figures.
In 1860 Thackeray again followed Dickens' example and became editor of the "Cornhill Magazine," a monthly which soon attained the unprecedented circulation of 100,000. In it he published "Loved the Widower" and "The Adventures of Philip," which recalled "The Newcomes." Philip has a wicked father and a stupid wife, but is greatly helped by the kindness of the Little Sister. A new novel, "Denis Duval," had just been commenced in the magazine, when the author was interrupted by death on the day before Christmas, 1863.
Thackeray was tall and strongly built, with abundant waving hair, which early became white. He had, unfortunately, a broken nose, owing to some accident, and was sensitive about its being noticed. His ordinary style was in clear, idiomatic English, but, under various pseudonyms, he used an appropriate variety of speech. In verse he sometimes adopted a half-serious, half-comic tone, which suited his philosophic resignation to the changes of time. Being thoroughly acquainted with English society, he was able to satirize effectively its wickedness and follies. He was a genuine humorist, and skilled in dealing with human foibles. A notable feature of his novels is his discoursing aside with his readers, letting the story pause while he moralizes shrewdly on the vagaries of human nature. His scenes and characters are real, true to life, idealized only so far as to adapt them to literary purpose. The critical appreciation of his work has steadily risen since his death, and he is even pronounced by some the first novelist of the century.