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Biography of William Makepeace Thackeray

Photo of William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray was a Victorian novelist.

When and Where was he Born?

18th July 1811, Calcutta, India.

Family Background:

William Makepeace Thackeray was the only child of Richmond and Anne Thackeray. His father was an official in the British East India Company and died when he was only four years old.


Schools in Southampton and Chiswick. Charterhouse, London. Trinity College, Cambridge.

Timeline of William Makepeace Thackeray:

1815: Death of his father.

1816: Thackeray is sent home to England to be educated leaving his mother behind in India so she could marry her childhood sweetheart. He stops at St. Helena on the way and a servant points out the prisoner Napoleon.

1829: He enters Cambridge University after attending various schools although he was not an especially good scholar. Drinking, gambling and many trips to the continent mean that he neglects his studies and he leaves without a degree in 1830. The most important thing he got out of Cambridge was a friendship with Edward Fitzgerald.

1831: Thackeray travels to the Continent and spends the winter at Weimar where he is introduced to Goethe. He studies the language and begins to gain an interest in Romantic literature.

1832: On his return to England he lives the life of a gentleman, gambling and drinking in taverns once more.

1833: Thackeray tries briefly to study law at Middle Temple of the Inns of Court in London. Not suited to this he invests some of his father’s inheritance in a weekly newspaper, The National Standard, which he took over as editor and owner. Though the paper went bankrupt almost straight away it did introduce him to London journalism. As if this wasn’t bad enough his stepfather’s estate is lost due to the collapse of an Indian bank.

1834: He tries to become an artist in London.

1835: He moves to Paris to try to become a painter after failing in London and meets his future wife Isabella Shawe whilst there.

1836: He is forced to earn his living and begins to work for periodicals and newspapers such as “Fraser’s Magazine”, “The Morning Chronicle”, “The Times” and, most successfully, “Punch”. He tries to live in Paris for a while after his marriage on 20th August to Isabella Shawe but eventually returns to London the following year due to lack of funds.

1837: Thackeray works quite often as a critic under a range of pseudonyms and also produces work such as “The Yellowplush Papers”.

1839: He publishes “Catherine” in Fraser’s Magazine.

1840: He makes some money from writing travel books. The “Paris Sketch Book” sells enough to cover his costs.

1843: He sells “The Irish Sketch Book” to Chapman and Hall, the publishers of Dickens and Carlyle.

1846: Thackeray gains notoriety when he first publishes “The Snobs of England” in “Punch”. Isabella his wife now begins to get depressed and tries to commit suicide by jumping into the sea. Thackeray then takes Isabella to various spas and sanatoriums, and undergoes a “water cure” with her, since she wouldn’t go alone. She then goes to a variety of asylums in France and he has to bring up their children with the help of his mother.

1847: He has a major success with “Vanity Fair”. The novel is slow to take off and the first chapters were rejected by several publishers, however it eventually sold 7,000 copies a month and it was popular and reviewed widely.

1849: The novel “Pendennis” is the next to be serialised but it was interrupted due to a severe illness he had, which may have been cholera. This novel ran at the same time as “David Copperfield”, and this brought about comparisons with Dickens, a man whom he both loathed and admired.

1851: He delivers a series of lectures, “English Humorists of the Eighteenth Century”, which he repeated in a tour of the United States in the following year.

1852: “The History of Henry Esmond” is published as a 3-volume novel without first being serialised and for it he has to do a considerable amount of historical research. The book is celebrated for its brilliance. During these years, Thackeray lived virtually as a bachelor, even though now he had his daughters and grandmother with him. He spends time with friends, staff dinners for Punch magazine and attends social functions of fashionable society. His constant companion is Jane Brookfield, the wife of an old friend from Cambridge although this was mainly a platonic relationship despite Jane’s hatred of her cold hearted husband. Thackeray then goes away on a lecture tour of America.

1853: The first publication of “The Newcomes”. After a second profitable lecturing tour around Britain on “The Four Georges” (Hanoverian Kings), Thackeray stands for Parliament as an independent but is defeated when a well-known politician, Edward Cardwell, is substituted for the other candidate.

1855: Second tour of the United States.

1857: Thackeray publishes “The Virginians”, a novel set during the American Revolution.

1860: He accepts the editorship of a new magazine published by George Smith called “The Cornhill”. It begins with a record circulation and a number of distinguished authors, many of whom were persuaded to contribute because of Thackeray’s name. He makes enough money at this time to build a large house for himself in Kensington, London.

1862: Thackeray resigns as editor of the Cornhill as he preferred writing to editing. His last novels appear in The Cornhill Magazine. Thackeray’s eldest daughter, Anne, Lady Ritchie, was also an author and his youngest daughter Harriet married Sir Leslie Stephen father of Virginia Woolf.

1863: Isabella was to live for another thirty years after Thackeray’s death largely cared for by the Thompson family in Leigh-on-Sea, Southend.

When and Where did he Die?

24th December 1863, London, England after a stroke caused by excessive eating and drinking.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1837: “The Professor”.
1838: ” The Yellowplush Papers”.
1839: “Catherine”.
1840: “Sketches”. “An Essay on the Genius of George Cruickshank”. “A Paris Sketchbook”.
1841: “Comic Tales and Sketches”. “The Great Hoggarty Diamond”. “The History of Samuel Titmarsh”.
1842: “The Fitzboodle Papers”.
1843: “Bluebeard’s Ghost”.
1844: “The History of the Next French Revolution”.
1845: “The Diary of Jeannes de la Pluche”. “Legend of the Rhine”.
1846: “Cornhill to Cairo”.
1848: “Our Street”. “Vanity Fair”.
1849: “Dr Brick and his Young Friends”. “The History of Pendennis”.
1850: “The Kickleburys on the Rhine”. “Rebecca and Rowena”.
1852: “The Book of Snob”. “The History of Henry Esmond”. “The Luck of Barry Lyndon.”
1853: “The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century”.
1854: “The Newcomes”.
1858: “The Virginians”.
1861: “The Four Georges”. “Lovel the Widower”.
1862: “The Adventures of Phillipa”.
1863: “Roundabout Papers”.
(1867): “Denis Duval”.
(1876): “The Orphans of Pimlico”.


20th August 1836 to Isabella Shawe.

Site of Grave:

Kensal Green Cemetery, Kensal Green, London, England.

Places of Interest:


He stayed at No 17 The Circus, Bath in 1857 whilst giving his lectures on the Four Georges.


Visited Chatsworth House on tour.


Literary salons at Jane Brookfield’s House, Great Pulteney Street. (Jane, although married, was a platonic companion to Thackeray until her husband forbad them from further meetings).

The Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London, EC1M 6AN.


Visited Clevedon Court (National Trust) on tour.