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THE LIFE OF THACKERAY *
WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY was born at Calcutta, on the eighteenth of July, 1811. His father, Richmond Thackeray, went to India in the service of the East India Company, in 1798. He was married at Calcutta to Anne Becher, in 1810; and the great novelist was their only child. In 1816 Mr. Thackeray died, and the following year the boy was sent to England, the ship stopping at St. Helena on the way, where a glimpse of Napoleon was obtained. Thackeray first went to school in Hampshire, then at Chiswick,
* The facts given in this sketch are chiefly taken from the Dictionary of National Biography, though the Life by Merivale & Marzials, in the “Great Writers ” Series, and the biography in two volumes by Lewis Melville (1899), have of course been consulted. Mrs. Ritchie's Introductions to the Biographical Edition of Thackeray's Works are invaluable for their biographical data and bits of personal information. In her Introduction to the Esmond volume will be found some information about the lectures on the Humourists; and at the close of the last volume, Ballads and Miscellanies, there is a Bibliography of Thackeray's Works.
and from 1822 to 1828 he was at the Charterhouse. Here his schoolmate Venables broke his nose in a fight, and left an equally indelible impression on his mind, for the two became friends for life. Thackeray showed no particular ability in scholarship while at school, but even then exercised his talents at playful composition in verse.
After leaving the Charterhouse in 1828, he lived with his mother and stepfather near Ottery-St.-Mary, in Devonshire, the birthplace of Coleridge. The memories of these days appear in Pendennis. In February, 1829, he went to Cambridge, entering Trinity College. The social life of the place was what chiefly appealed to him. Mathematics he did not like, and he was but illy prepared in the classics. He did some desultory writing for the college paper, the most notable attempt being his parody of Tennyson's prize poem, Timbuctoo. In 1830 he left Cambridge, feeling that the training he received there was not of much practical value. From his father he inherited about twenty thousand pounds, and not wishing to become a lawyer, which profession his relatives advised him to enter, and probably in a rather undecided frame of mind as to his future, he set forth on his trayels.
In this year he went to Weimar, the home of Goethe, where he stayed for some time. These must have been some of the most pleasant months of his life. He met the great poet, studied German, tried his hand at translations, and drew caricatures for amusement. Finally making up his mind after all to study law, he returned to England in 1831, and entered the Middle
Temple. This proved to be his last attempt to force his genius away from its natural inclinations; for although he now really gave the study of law a fair trial, the result was that it became more and more irksome to him.
over to Paris several times during this residence in the Temple.
In 1833 we find Thackeray mingling more and more in literary circles, and living the life of a literary Bohemian. He put some of his capital into a paper, and became editor as well as proprietor. The venture was not a happy one from the financial point of view, and early in 1834 the paper ceased to exist. Certain failures in investments, combined with occasional losses at gambling, produced a serious effect on Thackeray's fortune at about this time, and he found himself no longer able to live without working for the privilege. Accordingly, he made up his mind to become an artist, and to prepare for this career by studying in Paris. He worked faithfully, and enjoyed it.
In 1836 Thackeray became the Paris correspondent of a radical paper called the Constitutional Thinking that he had at last obtained regular employment, although his salary was not large, he was married on the twentieth of August, in Paris, to Miss Isabella Gethin Creagh Shawe, to whom he had been engaged for some months. The Constitutional failed and the next year (1837) Thackeray returned to London, to earn a living by his pen. He did all kinds of work, reviewing Carlyle's French Revolution among other books. For Fraser's Magazine he wrote articles that attracted considerable attention, and are now well
known, the Yellow-Plush Correspondence,* for example. He also freely indulged his genius for satire in a way that he afterwards regretted.
In 1840 came the great tragedy of his life. After the birth of her third daughter, his wife became ill, and steadily grew worse, suffering from a singular disease of the mind, that baffled all the great assays of art. By 1842 she was in a hopeless condition, and had at last to be placed in charge, her mental powers having entirely vanished. This unspeakable calamity Thackeray endured with the greatest courage and nobility, though of course it forever destroyed the possibility of homelife and domestic happiness. The children went to live with the grandparents in Paris: and with the unfortunate vitality of those whose lives are worse than worthless, his wife survived for fifty years. Her death in 1892 was a real shock to the world, as it brought up so vividly memories of her great husband.
In 1842 Thackeray began his contributions to Punch, which had been started the year before. In process of time he became one of its most important and valuable contributors, and a volume in itself might be written on his connection with this famous paper. Here he had a chance to employ both pen and pencil, and, better than either, his genius for pure fun. He
* In Melville's Life, I, 113, note, we read: “ The Correspondence was published in book form late in 1838 by Messrs. Carey & Hart, of Philadelphia. This is the first volume ever issued of any of Thackeray's writings.” Yet, curiously enough, in the Bibliography at the end of Melville's Life, this volume is nowhere men. tioned. It is however, given in the Biog. Ed. Bibliography.