Thackeray, By D J Taylor

The forgotten Victorian man of letters
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The Independent Culture

Will there be national celebrations this year for William Makepeace Thackeray's bicentenary? Probably not.

It probably isn't "fanciful to suggest", as D J Taylor does, "that Thackeray is the forgotten man of the Victorian novel". This is a man who saw himself as a rival to Dickens, yet not only has Dickens overshadowed him but so have George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, the Brontës, Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy. Taylor's enthusiasm for his subject is, nevertheless, undimmed: "He was the greatest English writer of the 19th century. And perhaps of all time."

Taylor's awareness of the task of biography is just one of the many delights of this fond, yet not overly reverent account. Thackeray's early years find a young man of means squandering the fortune his father left him. When the money ran out, he decided he needed a nice wife at home to look after him. Alas, this essentially selfish desire was frustrated after the birth of two daughters, when his young wife, Isabella, descended into madness.

Sympathy for Thackeray is mitigated by his handing of his children over to his mother, but a hard life of constant work, earning money from journalism to pay for his wife's care and for his daughters, loomed. To his credit, he responded to the challenge, producing a great many novels, although none quite matched the success of his greatest work, Vanity Fair. He died at 52 of a stroke, worn out and knowing that his best moment had passed. Has literary history made a mistake not to exalt him more? Quite possibly.