Born 1811 Calcutta
Died 1863. London
Vanity Fair 1848
I first became aware of William Makepeace Thackeray through reading The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman in the long ago, his Vanity Fair was among the enshrined works. When I finally completed Vanity Fair earlier this year it was as my last to be read work of English language fiction on Fadiman's list. I admit I was put off by the thought of a thousand plus page Voctorian novel. I should have known to trust Clifton Fadiman. It was a great delight to read Thackeray's depiction of the vanities of England in the early 19th century. Becky Sharp, the lead character of the novel, is
A wonderful creation, in her anything goes drive to rise from poverty to high society. I next read his Barry Lyndon, remembering what a great movie was made from the novel.
I have read a number of biographies of well known writers over the last few years. No one can really explain how one person's life experiences lets them write masterworks but from these biographies something of the well springs of creativity can be discovered. . Some writers have fascinating tumultuous lives and produce works of genius, other live completely bland existences and do the same. Of course Hart Crane's chaotic life is easier to make exciting than that of an insurance company executive like Wallace Stevens. William Thackeray's life, viewed externally, was not all that exciting once he began to be a famous writer and that makes it challenging to write an interesting biography about him. D. J. Taylor has done a very good job of giving us details and a real feel for his day to day existence.
Taylor did a very good job of talking about the lives of English civil servants and merchants when they return from India. A ten or twenty year tour with the Crown or the Company could, with a little luck and guile, could return you to England rich. Thackeray was born into an Anglo Indian family and we learn a lot about this milieu. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of Thackeray's life was his marriage. In this late twenties he fell madly in love with a 17 year old girl. Sadly after bearing him two daughters who were to become the emotional center of Thackeray's life, she went insane. Before this he spent time in Paris and Weimer, gambling and spending time and his father's money in dissipation.
Thackeray struggled to make a living as a writer until he began to publish serials of his novels. Vanity Fair made him truly famous. Taylor goes into a lot of detail on Thackeray's friendship and feud with Charles Dickens. We also go along on his very lucrative lecture tours to America,
As he aged Thackeray began to gain a lot of weight. He also developed a never consummated emotional relationship with a married woman, his wife being confined for years to asylums or in the homes of paid care givers. He was very concerned with providing for the care of his wife and his daughters. One of his daughters became the first wife of Leslie Stephens who
during a subsequent marriage become the father of Virgnia Woolf. Literary London was a small world.
This biography brings Thackeray to life. We see his ups and downs. We learn about the business side of being a Victorian novelist. Thackeray was heavily involved with the vital periodic world and Taylor gives us a lot of details about this.
We see Thackeray struggle to write, never coming again close to his peak work.
Thackeray was a decent man, very devoted to his children and doing his best for his wife.
I am glad I read Taylor's biography.
I was given this book by the publisher. I was also given his biography of George Orwell and hope to read it soon.
D. J. Taylor is the author of eleven novels, including Kept (2006), which was a Publishers Weekly Best Book, Derby Day (2011), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and The Windsor Faction (2013), a joint winner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. His nonfiction includes a biography of Thackeray and Orwell: The Life (2003), which won the Whitbread Biography Award. His journalism appears in a variety of newspapers and periodicals, including the Independent, the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Wall Street Journal.