WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY, 1811-1863
[Illustration: WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY. From the painting by Samuel Laurence, National Portrait Gallery.]
Life_.—Though nearly a year older than Dickens, Thackeray made his way to popularity much more slowly. These two men, who became friends and generous rivals, were very different in character and disposition. Instead of possessing the self-confidence, energy, and industry that brought Dickens fame in his youth, Thackeray had to contend with a somewhat shy and vacillating temperament, with extreme modesty, and with a constitutional aversion to work.
Born in Calcutta in 1811, he was sent to England to be educated. He passed through Charter House and went one year to Cambridge. He was remembered by his school friends for his skill in caricature sketching. He hoped to make painting a profession and went to Paris to study; but he never attained correctness in drawing, and when he offered to illustrate the works of Dickens, the offer was declined. Thackeray certainly added to the charm of his own writings by his droll and delightful illustrations.
When Thackeray came of age in 1832, he inherited a small fortune, which he soon lost in an Indian bank and in newspaper investments. He was then forced to overcome his idle, procrastinating habits. He became a literary hack, and contributed humorous articles to such magazines as Fraser and Punch. While his pen was causing mirth and laughter in England, his heart was torn by suffering. His wife, whom he had married in 1837, became insane. He nursed her patiently with the vain hope that she could recover; but he finally abandoned hope and put her in the care of a conscientious attendant. His home was consequently lonely, and the club was his only recourse. Here, his broad shoulders and kindly face were always greeted with pleasure; for his affable manners and his sparkling humor, which concealed an aching heart, made him a charming companion.
[Illustration: CARICATURE OF THACKERAY BY HIMSELF.]
It is pleasant to know that the later years of his life were happier. They were cheered by the presence of his daughters, and were free from financial worries. He had the satisfaction of knowing that, through the sales of his book; and the returns from his lectures, he had recovered his lost fortune.
Novels.—Vanity Fair (1847-1848) is Thackeray’s masterpiece. For the lifelikeness of its characters, it is one of the most remarkable creations in fiction. Thackeray called this work “A Novel without a Hero.” He might have added “and without a heroine”; for neither clever Becky Sharp nor beautiful Amelia Sedley satisfies the requirements for a heroine. No perfect characters appear in the book, but it is enlivened with an abundance of genuine human nature. Few people go through life without meeting a George Osborne, a Mrs. Bute Crawley, or a Mrs. Sedley. Even a penurious, ridiculous, old Sir Pitt Crawley is sometimes seen. The greatest stroke of genius in the book, however, is the masterly portrayal of the artful, scheming Becky Sharp, who alternately commands respect for her shrewdness and repels by her moral depravity.