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W M Thackeray studied maths, law and the foibles of humanity

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Uncategorized on Thursday, 16 May 2013

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This edited article about W M Thackeray originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 257 published on 17 December 1966.

Vanity Fair, picture, image, illustration

Becky Sharp famously throws Dr Johnson's Dictionary out of the carriage at the beginning of 'Vanity Fair'

The small, pale-faced boy felt lost and bewildered as he stood amidst the rush and bustle of the quayside at Calcutta, in India. He was about to embark on the most thrilling journey of his short life, the voyage to his ‘home’ in England – a country he had heard so much about, but never seen.

Five-year-old William Makepeace Thackeray was not excited at the adventure before him. He was sad to be leaving his widowed mother and his relatives and friends. He missed his pet monkey, who was not allowed aboard the three-decker ship, Prince Regent.

William’s father had been an important official of the East India Company, but the harsh climate of India had never really suited him, and he had died early in 1816. Mrs. Thackeray had decided to send William to live in London with his Aunt Charlotte Ritchie, so that he didn’t suffer unnecessarily in the cruel Indian sun. His mother was going to marry an army captain, and she promised William that she would come to England after her marriage.

So, in December, 1816, William set sail. He was accompanied by his cousin, Richmond Shakespear, aged four, and a trusted Indian servant. As his mother waved the ship out of sight, she little knew that William was to become the foremost writer of his day.

On the voyage home boatloads of passengers from the Prince Regent visited the Atlantic island of St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte had been imprisoned in 1815. The infamous ‘Boney’ was said to eat children alive. William persuaded Lawrence Barlow to take him to Napoleon’s garden, where they saw a short, worried-looking man pacing feverishly to and fro, hands clasped behind his back.

William won the admiration of everyone on the Prince Regent by sketching the Little Emperor in his garden jail. His drawings, however, were not conventional portraits. They were caricatures showing a midget Napoleon almost hidden by giant-sized guards. It was this talent for clever exaggeration that was to gain William more praise – and also land him in trouble!

The Prince Regent docked at Weymouth in May, 1817, and William and his cousin Richmond were taken on their first-ever mail coach ride to London and the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie. From there William was sent to a school in Southampton, where he was very unhappy. He could not grasp any of the strange new lessons, and he found the food – weak soup, stew, and stale bread – almost inedible after the spicy, curried dishes he was used to.

When winter came, he felt the cold far more than the other boys, and was in agony from chilblains. He almost wished that he was back again in the heat of India, and was not happy until his aunt removed him to a school at Chiswick, which was then a picturesque fishing village just outside London.

This establishment was run by a Dr. Turner and his wife. Dr. Turner was more tolerant than William’s last teacher, but despite this the boy was soon in trouble. Instead of studying hard, he filled the margins of his exercise-books with unflattering caricatures of the masters. They were skilfully and wittily drawn; one teacher in particular, a Mr. Papendick, had his large nose and thinning hair ridiculed without mercy.

Unfortunately for William, one of his sketches fell into the hands of Dr. Turner. The Head was naturally annoyed, but William was let off lightly. Although Dr. Turner called him ‘deplorably lazy’, he recognised the talent in the caricature and assured the culprit that, if he would only concentrate, he would be ‘a credit to the school’. Even the affronted Mr. Papendick went so far as to point out to William the house in Chiswick of the 18th century painter and engraver, William Hogarth, famed for his drawings of London people and London life.

Then, in July, 1820, when William was nine years old, his mother and her new husband, Captain Carmichael-Smyth, returned from India William, who was overjoyed to be with them, told them he no longer wanted to be an artist, and was more interested in writing.

From Chiswick he was sent to Charterhouse public school, near Smithfield Market, in London. His stepfather told him that this was where the essayists Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, and the poet-priest Richard Crashaw, had been educated.

During all his schooldays, his boyhood and young manhood, William carefully noted everything of importance that happened to him. He met many fascinating and original people, and he determined to put them all into the novels which he was one day to write.

William studied mathematics at Cambridge University and then he spent a year in Germany, read law, and bought his own newspaper, The National Standard. The paper failed, and this, together with gambling debts and unlucky investments, stripped him of the money he had inherited from his father.

But the heavy loss did not worry him. He at last felt free to earn his living from literature. Thackeray published Vanity Fair, ‘a novel without a hero’, which first appeared as a serial in 1847-48, and contained an immortal villainess in the person of Becky Sharp. He followed this with the autobiographical Pendennis, in which his mother features as Mrs. Pendennis; Henry Esmond, a brilliant recreation of the social, political and literary life of London in the reign of Queen Anne; and The Newcomes, which contains a telling description of Charterhouse and a portrait of his stepfather as Colonel Newcome.

Thackeray also wrote many Christmas books and the classic children’s fairy tale, The Rose and the Ring. He died in 1863.

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