In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Makepeace Thackeray

  • Introduction
  • Thackeray and His Contemporaries
  • Early Biographies and Biographical Criticism
  • Later Biographies and Biographical Criticism
  • Critical Bibliographies
  • Literary Bibliographies
  • Major Works and Editions
  • Letters, Lectures, and Miscellaneous Writing
  • General Criticism
  • Language and Narrative Form
  • Realism and Satire
  • Writing, Illustrating, and Editing
  • Vanity Fair
  • Other Novel-Specific Studies
  • Women’s Issues
  • Class Consciousness
  • Masculinity and Sexuality
  • Race and Nationality

Victorian Literature William Makepeace Thackeray
Melissa Raines
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0078


William Makepeace Thackeray (b. 18 July 1811–d. 23 December 1863) was born in Calcutta, India, the only son of British parents, but he was sent to England for his education at the age of five. In spite of the early death of his father and the separation from his mother, Thackeray’s young life was full of promise; he was the sole heir to his father’s fortune and studied for a period at Cambridge. However, Thackeray never completed his degree, and gambling and successive Indian bank failures resulted in the loss of his fortune while he was still quite young. His marriage to Isabella Shawe in 1836 was a love match, but Isabella’s development of severe mental illness left Thackeray a widower emotionally, struggling to support himself and his daughters. He described his early literary efforts as “writing for his life,” and he gained some popularity through his serialized novels (such as Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon), illustrations, travel writing, and satirical contributions to literary magazines. His first real success came with the 1847 publication of Vanity Fair, the novel for which he is most popularly known. A prolific, if somewhat disorganized, writer, he also published The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcomes, and The History of Pendennis, among other fiction, lectures, and journalism, before his rather sudden death in 1863. In spite of the popularity of his novels and the iconic view of Vanity Fair in particular, he is one of the least studied of the great Victorian novelists. Early critical views of Thackeray the novelist tended to focus on the autobiographical aspects of his writing. More recent criticism has highlighted his complex and subversive presentation of women as well as his troubling conceptions of race. One constant in the area of Thackerayan criticism is a focus on the challenging narrators in his novels and the complicated sense of morality that emerges as a result—a product of Thackeray’s own effort to balance his biting satire with his commitment to social realism.

Thackeray and His Contemporaries

Thackeray’s writing is definitively Victorian in a historical sense, but stylistically it is more ambiguous. His early mastery of satire harkens back to the previous century, but many critics note the development of a more traditionally Victorian strain in his later works. The collected studies here comprise both Victorian views of Thackeray and modern critical assessments of those views. Tillotson and Hawes 1968 is a compilation of invaluable critical responses to Thackeray’s major fiction, and Collins 1983 gives slightly more personal, although often still literary, Victorian perceptions of the author. Ritchie 1898–1899 provides introductions to the collected works of Thackeray and is of value because the biographical details in it come directly from Thackeray’s eldest daughter. Early biographies by fellow novelists and critics, such as Hannay 1970 and Trollope 1879, are also important due to the detailed personal and literary detail they provide; both biographers knew and admired Thackeray. Cline 1943 briefly describes the less harmonious relationship between Thackeray and Benjamin Disraeli, due primarily to Thackeray’s penchant for parody. Mauskopf 1966 gives a modern critical perspective on the connection between Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and Kaye 1995 does the same for Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë.

  • Cline, C. L. “Disraeli and Thackeray.” Review of English Studies 19.76 (1943): 404–408.

    DOI: 10.1093/res/os-XIX.76.404

    A brief description of the failed potential friendship between Thackeray and Disraeli, largely due to Thackeray’s own temptation to satirize fellow novelists. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Collins, Philip, ed. Thackeray: Interviews and Recollections. 2 vols. New York: St. Martin’s, 1983.

    Although it does not add significantly to the work done by the biographer Gordon N. Ray (cited in Early Biographies and Biographical Criticism), Collins’s collection of prominent Victorian perceptions of Thackeray and his work is both interesting and useful.

  • Hannay, James. Studies on Thackeray. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1970.

    The earliest of the Thackeray biographies, Hannay’s work is still seen as a valuable source in the early 21st century. First published in 1869.

  • Kaye, Richard A. “A Good Woman on Five Thousand Pounds: Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, and Literary Rivalry.” Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 35.4 (1995): 723–739.

    DOI: 10.2307/450762

    A chronicle of the complex literary relationship between Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë, writers who publicly praised each other’s work very highly. Kaye argues that tension between the two emerged through Brontë’s dissatisfaction with Thackeray’s moral ambiguity and Thackeray’s fear of Brontë as a potential rival.

  • Mauskopf, Charles. “Thackeray’s Attitude towards Dickens’s Writings.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21.1 (1966): 21–33.

    DOI: 10.1525/ncl.1966.21.1.99p0080v

    An assessment of Thackeray’s mixed critical response to Dickens that is linked directly to Dickens’s frequent diversions from realism. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ritchie, Anne Thackeray. The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, with Biographical Introductions by His Daughter, Anne Ritchie. 13 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1898–1899.

    This introduction to Thackeray’s works by his eldest daughter provides interesting insights into the author’s life, although the texts of the novels themselves are unreliable.

  • Tillotson, Geoffrey, and Donald Hawes, eds. Thackeray: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Paul, 1968.

    A collection of Victorian articles and reviews of Thackeray’s work, giving contemporary opinions of and responses to the novels.

  • Trollope, Anthony. Thackeray. London: Macmillan, 1879.

    A biographical and critical study written by a fellow Victorian novelist who knew Thackeray and believed him to be the greatest writer of the age.

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