William Makepeace Thackeray

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Thackeray, William Makepeace

Thackeray, William Makepeace (thăkˈərē), 1811–63, English novelist, b. Calcutta (now Kolkata), India. He is important not only as a great novelist but also as a brilliant satirist. In 1830, Thackeray left Cambridge without a degree and later entered the Middle Temple to study law. In 1833 he became editor of a periodical, the National Standard, but the following year he settled in Paris to study art. There he met Isabella Shawe, whom he married in 1836. He returned to England in 1837, supporting himself and his wife by literary hack work and by illustrating. Three years later his wife became hopelessly insane; she was cared for by a family in Essex and survived her husband by 30 years. Thackeray sent his two young daughters to live with his parents in Paris, lived himself the life of a clubman in London, and worked assiduously to support his family. Throughout the 1830s and 40s, his novels appeared serially together with miscellaneous writings in several magazines. His “Yellowplush Correspondence,” in which a footman assumes the role of social and literary critic of the times, appeared (1837–38) in Fraser's. As a contributor to Punch he often parodied the false romantic sentiment pervading the fiction of his day. In 1848, Thackeray achieved widespread popularity with his humorous Book of Snobs and the same year rose to major rank among English novelists with Vanity Fair, a satirical panorama of upper-middle-class London life and manners at the beginning of the 19th cent. The novel contains many fascinating characters, particularly Becky Sharp, who, although clever and unscrupulous, is also extremely appealing. His reputation increased in 1850 with the completion of the partly autobiographical novel Pendennis. In 1851 he delivered a series of lectures, English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century, which he repeated in a tour of the United States in 1852–53. In 1852 his novel of 18th-century life, Henry Esmond, appeared. The Newcomes, in which some of the characters of Pendennis reappear, came out serially in 1853–55. In 1855–56 he delivered another series of lectures in the United States entitled The Four Georges (pub. 1860). His next novel, The Virginians (1857–59), is a continuation of the Esmond story. In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the newly founded Cornhill Magazine, in which his last novels appeared—Lovel the Widower (1860), The Adventures of Philip (1861–62), and the unfinished historical romance, Denis Duval (1864). Thackeray's eldest daughter, Anne, Lady Ritchie, was also an author; his younger daughter Harriet married Sir Leslie Stephen.


See his complete works (26 vol., 1910–11); his letters (ed. by G. N. Ray, 4 vol., 1945–46); studies by R. A. Colby (1979) and E. F. Harden (1979); G. N. Ray, Thackeray (2 vol., 1955 and 1958, repr. 1972) and The Buried Life (1952, repr. 1974); D. J. Taylor, Thackeray: The Life of a Literary Man (2001).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Thackeray, William Makepeace


Born July 18, 1811, in Calcutta; died Dec. 24,1863, in London. English author.

Thackeray is the major representative of what K. Marx called the “brilliant pleiad” of 19th-century English novelists (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 10, p. 648). The son of a wealthy colonial official, Thackeray studied at Cambridge University from 1829 to 1830. He traveled extensively and worked as a journalist for Punch and other publications. He was also a talented cartoonist.

Thackeray’s work, while varied in genre (including novels, comic novellas, humoresques, fairy tales, parodies, sketches, and ballads), has a consistent ideology and artistic method. His best works include The Yellowplush Correspondence (1837), the novella Catherine (1840), the cycle of parodies The Snobs of England (1846-47; republished in 1848 as The Book of Snobs; Russian title, Novels of Celebrities), and the novels Vanity Fair (1848), Pendennis (1850), The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), The Newcomes (1855), and The Virginians (1857). Thackeray’s essays in literary criticism (The English Humorists of the 18th Century, 1853) and his letters are remarkable examples of English prose.

Thackeray’s work is critical of the Victorian bourgeois era, combining an understanding of sociohistorical patterns with a vision of life as an unending masquerade. He saw history as a cycle, full of the tragicomic and grotesque (see the letter to his mother of Mar. 10, 1848). His philosophical views were close to those of Montaigne and Hume.

Thackeray created a new type of satirical novel. While drawing on European literary traditions (as represented by Aristophanes, Petronius, Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Fielding, Sterne, and W. Scott), he used special techniques that played with literary conventions yet established a realistic framework. He also used the entire range of devices from folk literature, including motifs from mythology, fairy tales, fables, and the English Christmas pantomimes. In this way, he expanded the possibilities of social satire and deepened the realism of representation. Thackeray’s broadly satirized characters (Yellowplush, Barry Lyndon, Becky Sharp, Lord Steyne, and Barnes Newcome) reveal the depth of man’s alienation in a class-structured society. They are at once socially conditioned and eternal types. In depicting his characters, Thackeray used symbolism, ironic implication, alogism, and parodie stylization, among other devices. He devoted particular attention to developing the semblance of a first-person author, using various pseudonyms (Ike Solomons, Michael Angelo Tit-marsh, and Pendennis). Thackeray’s work enjoyed wide popularity in Russia in the early 1850’s and was supported by the revolutionary-democratic school of criticism.


The Works, vols. 1–26. New York-London, 1910–11.
The Letters and Private Papers, vols. 1–4. Collected and edited by G. N. Ray. Cambridge, Mass., 1946.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–12. St. Petersburg, 1894-95.
Sobr. soch. v 12 tt., vols. 1–3. Moscow, 1974–75—.


lstoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 2, issue 2. Moscow, 1955.
Alekseev, M. P. Iz istorii angliiskoi literatury. Moscow, 1960.
Ivasheva, V. V. Tekerei-satirik. Moscow, 1958.
Ray, G. N. Thackeray, vols. 1–2. London, 1955–58.
Loofbourow, J. Thackeray and the Form of Fiction. Princeton, N. J., 1964.
Flamm, D. Thackeray’s Critics. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1967.
McMaster, J. Thackeray: The Major Novels. Toronto, 1971.
Pantůčková, L. W. M. Thackeray as a Critic of Literature. Brno, 1972.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.