William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863)

William Makepeace Thackeray is often compared to Charles Dickens. The writers are very different in outlook and artistic method, in education and background. But they have one very important common thing: both reveal the truth about the social wrongs of society, its hypocrisy and dishonesty.

William Makepeace Thackeray was born in 1811 in Calcutta where his father worked. At six Thackeray was sent to England to study at Charterhouse School in London. His higher education he received at Cambridge and became a well-educated man. Later Thackeray studied drawing in Paris and became an able draughtsman and caricaturist; he illustrated some of his books.

William Makepeace Thackeray started as a journalist, writing articles and reviews for a famous humorous paper “Punch”.

In 1847 he published his novel “Vanity Fair” and became very popular.

Vanity Fair! Vanity Faire! Here was a man, who could not spell, — and did not care to read — who had the habits and the cunning of a boor; whose aim in life was pettifogging; who never had a taste, or emotion, or enjoyment, but what was sordid and foul — and yet he had rank, and honours, and power, somehow; and was a dignitary of the land, and a pillar of the state. He was high sheriff, and rode in a golden coach. Great ministers and statesmen courted him; and in Vanity Fair he had a higher place than the most brilliant genius of spotless virtue” (“Vanity Fair”, Chapter IX).

The title “Vanity Fair” was an allusion, describing London of those times as a big Vanity Fair associated with the book of the Bible. All is Vanity! The novel describes the fates of two middle-class girls, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp. Amelia is a daughter of a wealthy merchant. But her well-to-do father is rained in the cause of the Napoleonic Wars, and Amelia has to begin her own career. But she is too sensitive and can’t withstand the hardships and troubles of life. Only by the end of the book she is restored to a certain level in the society. The other heroine, Rebecca, or Becky, on the contrary, is a clever adventuress. The ups and downs of her life and career prove the fact that Becky Sharp can win many victories encouraged by the society, before she has to accept her defeat. Her downfall is inevitable. Nevertheless, the author sympathizes with Rebecca and feels little respect to Amelia for her sentimentality. More than that, Thackeray takes the word “snob” from student’s slang. His definition of it is that “a snob is one who meanly looks up to things mean”. A snob is one who has neither criteria, nor right to judge of others. Only the degree of their rank and wealth is taken into consideration.

Thackeray used the weapon of sharp irony to depict the hypocritical greed of the upper classes. He was influenced by the eighteenth century masters, such as Fielding, Stern and others. His reputation as a famous writer was established.

Afterwards Thackeray wrote several novels about money-grabbers: “The Newcomes” and “The Book of Snobs” in which he classified the snobs of England according to their profession and rank. He made it clear that at court, church and universities snobs were the same, because all of them were very proud of their own social position and were kept away from people of a lower class.

In 1851 Thackeray undertook a trip to America, and after his journey in 1852 “The History of Henry Esmond” and “The Virginians” were written. There the author described the events which had occurred during the American War of Independence.

Among his later works the most important were “The Four Georges” and “The Adventure of Philip”, which are little remembered.

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