Today in Literary History – December 24, 1863 – William Makepeace Thakeray dies

The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray died suddenly from a stroke on December 24, 1863. He had been in poor health for a long time due to his indolence and gluttony. He described his chief activities as “guttling and gorging.”

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Thackeray was born in India, where his father was an official with the British East India Company but was raised in England from the age of five.

Thackeray squandered his inheritance and after marrying and becoming the father of three daughters he turned to journalism to earn a living. He wrote a number of satirical columns, art criticism and short fictional pieces.

His financial needs became even more pressing after his wife began to suffer from severe bouts of suicidal depression which necessitated her being kept in expensive sanatoriums.

His novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon was serialized beginning in 1844 but Thackeray became truly famous with the serialized publication of his masterpiece Vanity Fair beginning in January, 1847. It sold about 7,000 copies a month over its 19 month span and was much talked about and each installment was keenly anticipated.

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Henry James described Thackeray’s novels after Vanity Fair as “loose baggy monsters” and Thackeray is mostly known today only for Vanity Fair. His chief rival in his own time was Charles Dickens, and like Dickens he toured America on successful and lucrative reading tours.

I first read Vanity Fair in university (in a course on Victorian literature) and read it again in my forties (a time when I returned to some of the classics I read in my teens and twenties) and was completely absorbed both times.

It is a panoramic story of British society set during the years of the Napoleonic Wars. Thackeray considered himself a realistic writer but Vanity Fair contains a good deal of satire and is a very funny book. The demands of serialization means that the book also has plenty of cliff-hangers that make it compulsively readable despite its length.

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Thakeray and Dickens

Thackeray’s funeral drew thousands of mourners. He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London on December 29, 1863.

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