William Makepeace Thackeray was born at Calcutta in 1811. His father, Richmond Thackeray, had been an Indian civil servant, as had William's grandfather. His mother was nineteen at the date of his birth, was left a widow in 1816, and married Major Henry Carmichael Smyth in 1818.
On his way to England from India, the small Thackeray saw Napoleon on St. Helena. His attendance at a school run by a Dr. Turner gave him experience later used in Vanity Fair.
Always an independent spirit, he went his own way, attending various schools, but leaving Cambridge without taking a degree. His relatives wanted him to study law; he leaned toward the fine arts. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he contributed to a little paper called The Snob.
A visit to Weimar bore fruit in the sketches of life at a small German court which appear in Vanity Fair. In 1832, he inherited a sum which amounted to about five hundred pounds a year. The money was soon lost — some in an Indian bank, some at gambling, and some in two newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutional.
About 1834, Thackeray went to Paris and took up the study of art. He had early shown talent as a caricaturist. His pencil was at its best in such fantastic work as is found in the initial letters of the chapters in his books, and in those drawings made for the amusement of children.
He married Isabella, an Irish girl, daughter of Colonel Matthew Shawe, who enchanted him with her singing, and who was the model for Amelia in Vanity Fair. Three daughters were born, one dying in infancy. After the birth of the third child, Mrs. Thackeray's mind was affected and she had to be placed with a family who took care of her. The little girls were sent to Thackeray's mother in Paris. Although Mrs. Thackeray outlived her husband by thirty years, she did not recover.
In 1837, Thackeray came to London and became a regular contributor to Fraser's Magazine. From 1842 to 1851, he was on the staff of Punch, a position that brought in a good income. During his stay at Punch, he wrote Vanity Fair, the work which placed him in the first rank of novelists. He completed it when he was thirty-seven.
In 1857, Thackeray stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Oxford. In 1859 he took on the editorship of the Cornhill Magazine. He resigned the position in 1862 because kindliness and sensitivity of spirit made it difficult for him to turn down contributors.
His writing was filled with wit, humor, satire, and pathos. It is impossible to list here his many works of literature. The best known are The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. (1844), Vanity Fair (1847-48), Pendennis (1848-50) The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), The Newcomers (1853-55), and The Virginians (1857-59).
Thackeray drew on his own experiences for his writing. He had a great weakness for gambling, a great desire for worldly success, and over his life hung the tragic illness of his wife.
Thackeray died December 24, 1863. He was buried in Kensal Green, and a bust by Marochetti was put up to his memory in Westminster Abbey.