Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Thackeray - A Writer’s Life by Catherine Peters

Recently I read Pendennis by William Thackeray. Someone told me that it was, in certain parts, based on experiences from his own life, so I made a mental note to read a biography of him. I have just been to Mallorca for two weeks, and stepping into the flat I was astonished when the first book I see on the shelf is a biography of Thackeray! Just shows the overview I have of my TBR shelves, especially in Mallorca.

This is a biography by Catherine Peters from 1987. Got raving views at the time and it is very well written. Ms Peters chooses to analyse his books in the back drop of his own life, which makes an interesting angle. She points out influences from his life and how they made it into his writing.

The Content Reader

His childhood was not happy and his school years disastrous and remained with him all his life.
We Indian children were consigned to a school of which our deluded parents had heard a favourable report, but which was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable that I remember kneeling by my little bed of a night, and saying, ’Pray God, I may dream of my mother!. (Roundabout Papers, ’On Letts’s Diary’
His continuous studies at Cambridge were idle and he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do. He was very good at drawing and writing was also one of his favourite occupations. He had a small heritage from his father, who died when he was young, but somehow he managed to waste part of it and lose the other part in bank failures by the time he was twenty-one. He travelled around Europe, spent time in Weimar, met Goethe and enjoyed the somewhat decadent life that took place there at the time. He married Isabella Shawe, a young lady totally under the influence of her mother (Thackeray had a life long antipathy for his mother-in-law) who was too fragile for this world and after giving birth to three daughters (one died when only eight months old), became incurably insane. Thackeray was not able to take care of her at home and she was living for the rest of her life in a private home with a private nurse. She survived him by twenty years.

Thackeray was not always a present father, but loved his daughters above everything else. Due to the difficulties with employing a governess in a house where there was no wife, they spent many of their earlier years with their grand parents. Furthermore, his mother seemed to be afraid that he would be emotionally attached to another woman.
Thackeray assured her that the next governess, Miss Drury, was plain enough not to be dangerous. But by October 1847 she too had gone, and Thackeray, who was reading (and deeply impressed by) Jane Eyre, may have felt that plainness was not a sufficient defence against gossip. The famous dedication to him of the second edition caused him endless embarrassment because of the parallels, of which Charlotte Brontë was quite unconscious, with his own life. 
His other great love was a married woman Jane Brookfield, with which he had a rich correspondence during many years. It was an unconsumed passion that ended disastrously some years later.

Thackeray fought all his life for an economically free life and to be able to leave something for his daughters. He worked hard with both journalism and writing books which also took a toll on his health. He suffered all his life from different diseases, among them malaria and a kind of intestinal disorder which was very painful. In spite of this, and though he was a rather shy man and did not like to speak in front of an audience, he had to make lecture tours in England and the United States to add money to his purse. Although, considered a great man already during his life time, he also seemed to have suffered from lack of confidence in his writing. Probably because his books, full of satire, dealt with the hypocrisies, religious issues at the time and the way in which the class system categorised people, many critics reviewed his books in a negative way. Charlotte Brontë, who almost worshipped him, ”objected again to his ’bitter satire’ and wished he would concentrate more on ’human nature at home’ and leave political and religious intrigues alone”. This in a comment on his novel Esmond. ”Even now Thackeray could never be quite Victorian enough to suit all his readers”.

Catherine Peters analyse thoroughly his most famous novels; Vanity Fair, Pendennis and Esmond, as well as his work for Punch and other magazines and relates them to experiences from his own life. He wrote special designed books for Christmas, one for children which became very popular. Other books to mention are The Luck of Barry Lyndon, which we probably mostly remember today as the 1975 film with Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, Newcomes and many more. Vanity Fair is probably the book that is best known today. There is a 2004 film with Reece Witherspoon as Becky.
”Henry James specifically mentioned The Newcomes in his famous attack on the form of the nineteenth-century novel: ’What do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean’.”
 There is no doubt about it, Thackeray’s books are long as are other writers’ during this time.

Last but not least, Thackeray was an excellent illustrator. He published a couple of drawing books and also illustrated several of his own books. The biography is full of these satirical (what else) illustrations and shows a great talent.

This biography is excellently and knowingly written and makes an interesting reading on one of the great 19th century writers. I very much liked Vanity Fair and Pendennis and would like to read some of the other novels mentioned in the biography. I love his satire and the way he describes the times. For his own life though, I feel I did not really get to know him. I found it difficult to grasp him as a person and he seemed to have had quite a depressing private life. Thackeray comes out of this biography as a very gifted observer of life, but not able to somehow observe and relate his own life. A restless person who did not really find his roots and happiness anywhere.


  1. I have been planning to read Vanity Fair for several decades. I hope to get to it by yeR end. I enjoy literary biographies and thank you for posting on this book.

    1. Vanity Fair is really worth a read. I was quite surprised by how it was written. Although long, as 'Pendennis' both of them are really worth reading.
      I enjoy literary biographies as well. It gives you another aspect when reading their books. I read a biography on Hardy recently (after a visit to Dorset) and I am looking forward biting into some of his books (I have read three). Biographies in general are an enjoyment to read. I loved your review of Coco Chanel so will try to read it one day!