William "Snob" Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1868)

William Makepeace Thackeray was born 18 July 1811, first and only child of Richmond Thackeray and Anne Becher Thackeray1. He was born in India, where his father worked for the East India Company, and sent to school in England, as was the fashion for colonial-born children, in 1817. His father had died in 1815, and shortly after William left, she remarried to her first love, Captain Henry Carmichael-Smyth2. They joined William in England in 1820.

Like most English children, William was miserable at school. He wasn't good at sports, though he was fairly popular in spite of that, and suffered through two poor headmasters. He also had his nose broken during a boxing match with another student named George Venables3. While in school he developed two habits that were to stay with him all his life: sketching and reading novels4. He later attended Cambridge, where he lost a poetry contest to one Alfred Tennyson, though several of William's satirical poems were published around this time. William also met Edward FitzGerald5 who remained his best friend to the end of his life.

William never quite took a degree in anything. He started studying law, though he never actually got anywhere with it. He supported himself by selling sketches and working at a bill discounting firm6. He'd fallen in with a bad crowd on the Continent, and he had some rather large gambling debts to pay off. After a brief flirtation with running his own newspaper7, William was even more briefly an art student before falling in love with one Isabella Shawe. Since he needed enough money to marry on, William's mother and stepfather, mostly broke due to an economic collapse in India (where they'd left most of their money), scraped together all of the funds they could find and started a newspaper called the Constitution. William was appointed the paper's Paris correspondent at £450 per year. He'd also had a little book of satirical essays on the ballet published8. After a few rocky patches, William and Isabella were married on 20 August 1836.

Their first child, Anne Isabella, was born in June of 1837. Her birth was rapidly followed by the collapse of the Constitution. The sketch market had pretty much dried up9, so William began writing as many articles as humanly possible and sending them to any newspaper that would print them. This was a precarious sort of existence which would continue for most of the rest of his life. He was fortunate enough to get two popular series going in two different publications10. His personal life, however, wasn't going so well. His second daughter died at less than a year old, and though a third daughter, Harriet Marian, was born in 1840 and thrived, Isabella did not. She fell victim to some sort of mental illness11 and after a few months was so suicidal and difficult to control that she was placed in a private institution. She remained in one institution or another for the rest of her life and outlived her husband by thirty years.

Now William's life got really busy. Over the next few years, he wrote The History of Henry Esmond, The Newcombes, and Vanity Fair, made two lecture tours of America, carried on a protracted (but probably innocent) flirtation with one Jane Brookfield, wife of an old school friend, and stood as an independent candidate in an Oxford by-election12. Through all this, he was continually ill with recurrent kidney infections caused by a bout with syphillis in his youth, but he still managed to have an impressive house built and settle generous dowries on his daughters. In 1859, he and a friend named George Smith started an inexpensive monthly called the Cornhill Magazine, which set a first issue sales record at over 110,000 copies13. William, besides editing, contributed a great series of essays called the Roundabout Papers

In 1863, William, who felt his health was now seriously bad, travelled around visiting old haunts and friends to say goodbye. Sure enough, on Christmas Eve, 1863, he died of a cerebral effusion (a burst blood vessel). His funeral drew around 2,000 mourners, including Dickens14. William's recently widowed mother continued to stay with his daughters and was a terrible burden on them until she died in 1864 and was buried next to William. Minnie, the younger daughter, married Leslie Stephen, had one daughter, and died suddenly at 35. Leslie, besides editing Cornhill, later remarried and had another daughter who became Virginia Woolf.

Monsarrat, Ann. An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1980.

  1. Anne lived a fairy tale. She fell madly in love with the highly unsuitable Henry Carmichael-Smyth, and her angry grandmother finally took drastic steps to separate them. She informed Anne that Henry had died of a fever. Imagine the shock when Henry showed up three years later at the same dinner party as Mr. and Mrs. Thackeray.
  2. They never had any children because Anne was now unable to have any due to the difficulties associated with her first pregnancy. William was, as a child, noted for having a particularly large head.
  3. In spite of the rocky start, they remained lifelong friends.
  4. He was particularly fond of Henry Fielding's work, and you can tell.
  5. Edward is most famous for his translation of "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." His wasn't the only translation in town, as you might think, but it's been pretty much unanimously voted the best.
  6. This disreputable job involved the buying and selling of I.O.U.'s. This practice meant you were never quite sure who you might end up owing money to. And, unfortunately for William, this piece of his past was sometimes thrown in his face later in his life.
  7. Their kind of newspaper wasn't quite what we have today. They didn't print news so much as essays on current events and editorials on what people thought current events ought to be. They were also usually very slanted in one direction or another.
  8. Neither of these facts made the slightest impression on Isabella's mother.
  9. He'd been turned down earlier by Charles Dickens for the job of illustrating The Pickwick Papers.
  10. He used the pseudonyms Charles James Yellowplush and Major Goliah O'Grady Gahagan for these series, but probably his best-known alias was Michael Angelo Titmarsh, art critic extrodinaire.
  11. My best guess, based on the symptoms described, is bipolar disorder, though it might also have been borderline personality disorder (you know, Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"). At one point she came within inches of drowning three-year-old Annie.
  12. That's an election called to fill a post left vacant in the middle of a term by death or retirement or whatever. William lost, but only by 65 votes; an impressive achievement when you realize that he refused to use anything remotely resembling sneaky tactics.
  13. George Eliot received a whopping £7,000 for Romola, a novel published in installments, though Elizabeth Browning's Lord Walter's Wife was turned down on the grounds that it was immoral. William felt just awful about having to say no.
  14. The two of them had never gotten along but still admired each other's work. In fact, Dickens' writing style had begun looking a little more like William's as William became more popular. William also had something of an effect on the English language. Through his use of the word, "snob" came to have its modern meaning instead of its former meaning of a vulgar person.

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