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Book Title: Thackeray|
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Reader ratings: 6.4
The author of the book: D.J. Taylor
Edition: Chatto & Windus
Date of issue: December 7th 1999
ISBN 13: 9780701162313
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 713 KB
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Arguably the second greatest novelist of the Victorian era (behind Dickens), Thackeray is presented as a complex character in this incisive and absorbing biography by D J Taylor.
Born in India, Thackeray lost his father very early and his mother remarried so he was sent to England at a very young age to live with his grandparents, the Carmichael-Smyths. He did keep in touch with his mother, and at age seven he was writing to her, 'I am grown a great Boy. I am three feet 11 and a quarter high ... I have lost my cough and am quite well ...'. He schooled at Chiswick, before moving on to Charterhouse where headmaster Dr Russell was to declare, 'The boy knows nothing, & will just do for the lower form.' He did, however, begin to show prowess at drawing.
After Charterhouse he attended Cambridge University where he began to develop a modicum of literary talent, producing short articles to various magazines. He was never particularly happy at Cambridge and in the holidays he visited France for the first time, which started him on a rather peripatetic life for some time. He returned to Cambridge, decided that he wanted to leave, did so and, with his literary ambitions developing, set off on the Grand Tour.
He took a liking to Germany, had various love affairs there and met Goethe, a meeting that developed his long term interest in German culture. He eventually returned to London and began legal studies while also pursuing his literary career, which was fuelled by his meeting, and thereafter long friendship, with Edward Fitzgerald. He declared independence from his mother but his gambling habits and gross overspending began to cause him problems, especially as he had set his heart on owning a literary magazine. Indeed, it was stated that by the age of 21 Thackeray had squandered the best part of £20,000! Repeated disappointments in his intended career had him declaring that he was 'ready to hang myself: in fact I am as thoroughly disheartened as a man need be'.
He met and married Isabella Shawe and they had two children but his wife developed mental illness that was eventually to lead to her confinement and separation from Thackeray, who said a little later that he was 'a widower with a living wife'. All the while he was pursuing a journalistic career and the American Nathaniel Willis, one of the great copyright pirates of the day, declared him to be 'the very best periodical writer alive', adding, 'He is a royal, daring, fine creature, too.' But to Thackeray this was no substitute for ready money.
Fortunately a visit to France produced his first book in 1840, 'The Paris Sketch Book', attributed to 'Mr [Michael Angelo] Titmarsh', and at last some decent money was earned. A subsequent visit to Ireland produced 'The Irish Sketch Book' (1843) and with earnings from his contributions to 'Punch' Thackeray was making his mark on the literary scene. Taylor even suggests 'Punch, famously made Thackeray's name. His pseudonyms were known to the literary-minded public, and his appearances there urged on the steady growth of his reputation throughout the 1840s.'
'Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo' followed in 1846 but it was not until the arrival of Becky Sharp and 'Vanity Fair' in 1848 that Thackeray was truly recognised as a literary giant. But even so, he was still compared to Dickens, who outshone and outsold him in the serialisations of their respective novels.
He mixed with many literary celebrities of the day, including exposing Currer Bell as Charlotte Bronte, suffered various bouts of debilitating illness, had a long standing affair with Jane Brookfield, despite being on very friendly terms with her husband (at least to begin with!), and doted on his two daughters, although he did not see them as often as he would have liked. He visited American twice on lecture tours, a la Dickens, and even fell out with Dickens himself over an affair at the Garrick Club involving Edmund Yates.
In later life he began the 'Cornhill' magazine from which he eventually resigned due to his perceived inability to cope with day-to-day editorial duties, visited his wife on infrequent occasions but worked diligently on his novels to ensure that when he died he left a legacy so that his daughters would be comfortably off.
Increasing ill health affected him and, taken seriously ill on 21 December, he died on 24 December 1854. To his friends, the news of his death came as a profound shock and the obituaries were many and enduring. Dickens, with whom Thackeray had made friends once more before his death, wrote warmly in the 'Cornhill' but as the author states, 'but without displaying any great knowledge of or interest in the work, although he praised 'Denis Duval'.' But the war correspondent William Howard Russell (later Sir William) admirably summed it up when he wrote, 'My dear friend Thackeray died this morning. Oh, God how soon and untimely.'
D J Taylor has done extensive research into Thackeray's life and work and as such he presents a balanced and in-depth assessment of the man in this very readable biography.
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Read information about the authorDavid John Taylor (born 1960) is a critic, novelist and biographer. After attending school in Norwich, he read Modern History at St John's College, Oxford, and has received the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his life of George Orwell.
He lives in Norwich and contributes to The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman and The Spectator among other publications.
He is married to the novelist Rachel Hore, and together they have three sons.
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