Cover image for Thackeray : the life of a literary man
Thackeray : the life of a literary man
Taylor, D. J. (David John), 1960-
First Carroll and Graf edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf, 2001.

Physical Description:
xv, 494 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Chatto and Windus, 1999.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR5631 .T39 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Vanity Fair first hit Victorian London in 1847, and the serialized novel established its author, William Makepeace Thackeray, as a serious literary challenge to his popular contemporary Charles Dickens. By then, the thirty-six-year-old Thackeray had survived a difficult Anglo-Indian childhood dominated by the figure of his mother; the loss of the fortune he had made in his early twenties; ten arduous years of hack work; and a disastrous marriage to the beautiful Isabelle Shaw, who went irreversibly mad and left him to parent alone, and in conditions near penury, two small daughters.Success, however, did not end Thackeray's troubles, as this incisive new biography by D. J. Taylor poignantly shows. Drawing on a variety of unpublished and little-known sources, and with a novelist's feel for the intricacies of character and relationships, Taylor explores Thackeray's anguished platonic love affair with the wife of one of his oldest friends, his bitter quarrels with more eminent Victorians, his obsession with earning enough money to maintain his family, and his failure to match the success of Vanity Fair with later novels like Pendennis and The History of Henry Esmond.Taylor's portrait of Thackeray -- as doting father, restive son, despairing husband, literary lion, rejected lover, and loyal friend -- is complex, and the narrative is compelling.

Author Notes

D. J. Taylor is the author of four novels, among them English Settlement, winner of the 1999 Grinzane Cavour Prize and Trespass, as well as several works of nonfiction. He lives in London

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Admirers of Dickens may begin this biography suspicious of Taylor's announced objective of establishing Thackeray as the greatest English writer of the nineteenth century. But such wariness will soon melt away in appreciation, for Taylor portrays Dickens' great rival with disarming candor and rare insight. To substantiate his claims for Thackeray's surpassing genius, Taylor traces the fitful growth of the writer's literary gifts, deployed at first in his satirical journalism and later in his penetrating novels. Even in the steady stream of early hackwork Thackeray did to pay his debts, he won wide praise for his prose style, while sharpening the skills he fully displayed in his masterpiece, Vanity Fair. Careful investigation into this great novel reveals that writing it with great haste actually helped Thackeray maintain narrative tension and artistic spontaneity. And no one--not Eliot, not Trollope, not even Dickens--ever surpassed Thackeray as a chronicler of the shifting social dynamics of Victorian England. Yet, as an accomplished novelist himself, Taylor recognizes the sad decline in Thackeray's later fiction, diagnosing the woodenness of the later novels as a consequence of success: once enthroned as a literary aristocrat, Thackeray lost the subversive energy that informed his earlier work. Taylor's unblinking scrutiny exposes the flaws in the man as well as in his work, detailing the novelist's awkward attempts to find solace from a friend's wife for his own disastrous marriage and recounting all the novelist's needless squabbles with prominent contemporaries. By resisting--like Thackeray himself--easy sentiment and smug moralizing, Taylor has produced a rewardingly crossgrained biography sure to attract serious readers for decades. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

At 24, the age when Dickens established his reputation with Pickwick Papers, "Thackeray could only show," concedes Taylor (Trespass, etc.), a London-based novelist and critic, "a failed career as a newspaper proprietor, a folder full of indifferent sketches and some stray pieces of journalism." Yet early on, Taylor proposes "to demonstrate that he was the greatest English writer (writer, you note, not novelist) of the 19th century. And perhaps of all time." The claim evokes the novelist side of Taylor, who furnishes five fictional sources to enliven his biography (including a "lost" fragment of George Eliot's diary). Much of W.M. Thackeray's life (1811-1863) itself seems the stuff of Victorian fiction: origins in genteel Anglo-Indian society; bohemian dissipation in Paris; marriage to a beauty who is put away as insane for her persistent postpartum depression; ardent but unrequited passions thereafter; male bonding at the weekly Punch editorial dinners. He produced a great novel in Vanity Fair, the success of which he could not repeat, then suffered a "slide into mediocrity" and sentimentality. Plagued by chronic illness, he toiled at hack writing to provide for his two daughters, and died too soon. Although Taylor's account is often poignant, it never sustains his sweeping initial adulation of Thackeray, whose creative powers came late and quickly waned. Where the biography succeeds is in evoking the texture of social upheaval in the English 1830s and '40s, the subtext of Thackeray's writings. Since the audience for any of Thackeray's novels, even his greatest, is now small, and the reader is left to reflect with melancholy upon a failed life, the market for Taylor's biography is likely to be limited to devotees of the Victorian literary milieu. 30 b&w illus. plus 40 drawings by Thackeray. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Novelist and literary historian Taylor (English Settlement) provides a sympathetic and detailed biography the first in 20 years of the early Victorian creator of Vanity Fair and other novels (as well as many essays and humorous articles). Taylor utilizes a number of sources, including Thackeray's massive correspondence, the reminiscences of his daughter Annie, and the writings of the author's friends and literary colleagues. The reader gets a complex portrait of Thackeray as son, husband, father, friend, and bon vivant, as well as insights into how he transformed his experiences and the places he saw into the novels and journalism that made his reputation. Particularly vivid are the chapters dealing with the author's two trips to the United States, his literary quarrel with Dickens, and his intense relationship with Mrs. Jane Brookfield. Taylor's imaginary views of Thackeray do not add anything to this biography, but they are brief. Thackeray's charming drawings help to make this an appealing biography, especially for those interested in Victorian literature and its practitioners. For most public and undergraduate library collections. Morris Hounion, New York City Technical Coll. Lib., Brooklyn (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiv
I The Road to Kensal Greenp. 1
II Eastern Childp. 18
III The 370th Boyp. 32
IV Alma Materp. 45
V Weimar Daysp. 67
VI London and Paris 1831-5p. 84
VII 'The Gal of My Art'p. 118
VIII The Drowning Womanp. 134
IX The Uncleared Tablep. 161
Interlude--Thackeray: The Pursuitp. 179
X A Cockney in Irelandp. 182
XI The Vagrant Heartp. 197
XII Duty Keptp. 219
XIII 'All but at the Top of the Tree'p. 248
Interlude--Why Thackeray Mattersp. 275
XIV The Angel at the Hearthp. 285
XV Edged Toolsp. 305
XVI Stepping Westwardp. 328
XVII The Newcomesp. 344
XVIII The Public Eyep. 373
XIX The Garrick Club Affairp. 396
XX The Editorial Chairp. 415
XXI Ending Upp. 434
XXII Afterwardsp. 447
Appendix A Thackeray Scrapbookp. 457
Notes and Further Readingp. 459
Indexp. 479