The other Thackeray

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Despite his tumultuous personal life and competitive rivalry with his contemporary Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray is still regarded as one of English literature’s most famous names.

William Makepeace Thackeray, seen here at the age of around 30, was born on July 18, 1815.

On a mild day in the early winter of 2012, over 1 million Mumbaikers lined a 5-km route to watch a 2-km-long funeral cortège meander its way through the heaving crowd. The curious, the devoted, the party faithful, the politicians and the Bollywood set had all turned out — most of them to pay their respects, some to take part in the commotion, others because they had little choice as one of the world’s largest cities had come to a nervous halt.

Over 2,000 km away and almost 200 years earlier, a less tense and solemn Christian funeral procession marched its way in an orderly manner down (the then) Calcutta’s Park Street. East India Company traders, merchants, officials alongside British and Indian officials walked behind a horse drawn carriage on which lay one of their own officials — a District Magistrate who had been in charge of Dacca and Murshidabad. At the tail end of the Calcutta monsoon, the mourners would have been sweating as they walked the 2-km route in the city’s stifling and oppressive humidity. The man is buried in North Park Street Cemetery, which also had the final resting place of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the ‘White Mughal’ made famous by historian William Dalrymple.

The funeral of Richmond on September 13, 1815, is not as noteworthy to us as one of the mourners is; his four-year-old son who was born on this day in Calcutta and went on to become one of English literature’s most famous names. William Makepeace Thackeray would be sent home to England the following year, his ship stopping midway in St. Helena where he saw the imprisoned Napoleon Bonaparte. As typical to the upper classes, he got a good private education in the UK, including the prestigious Charterhouse — which he referred to as ‘Slaughterhouse’, but the school nevertheless gave him a memorial in their chapel after his death.



A formal education wasn’t for young William; he crashed out Charterhouse and another prestigious institution — Trinity College, Cambridge (which has plenty of Indian connections, including Nehru, Rajiv & Rahul Gandhi and Amartya Sen). He then went on to study Law at Middle Temple, but that wasn’t to his taste either and thus began a trail of dabbling in a number of trades such as painting, investments and managing a newspaper, all of which failed. In the midst of his experiments, he had met the German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe. In a strange double-coincidence, Kolkata’s Goethe Institute has its office on the very street that William Thackeray was born in, Freeschool Street, and while Thackeray was born where Armenian College now stands, the Goethe Institute is in Park Mansions, which was built by an Armenian.

His family life would prove to be equally tumultuous; he married Isabella Shawe, a young and poor Irish girl and the daughter of a British army Colonel who was posted to India, Matthew Shawe. The young couple lost one of their three daughters in her infancy, and his wife’s mental condition would slowly deteriorate over the years to the point where William would have to admit her at various mental asylums, including in Paris, before sending his wife off to live under the care of a family in the English countryside, effectively widowing him. He found solace in the arms of Jane Brookfield, the wife of his friend Henry, until Henry woke up to it and told them both to end the affair immediately, breaking William’s heart.



William then tries to shake off the bleak and cold streets of Victorian London, with its gloomy memories, and heads to the United States, where he joins the lecture circuit. His lectures gained traction and were published — The English Humourists of the Eighteenth Century (1853) and The Four Georges (published 1860). It was around this time that William Thackeray got into a famous spat with his contemporary, Charles Dickens (whose son Walter, incidentally, is buried in the same cemetery as William Thackeray’s uncle Henry — Calcutta’s Bhowanipore Cemetery).

Dickens was leagues ahead of William in the field of Victorian literature, but the latter’s novel Pendennis (1850) was published at the same time as the former’s David Copperfield’ and finally earned William a comparison to, and subsequently put him on equal footing with, the towering Dickens in an article in the North British Review. A common friend, Dr. John Brown, said that Dickens “…could not abide a brother so near the throne”. The hitherto friendship between Dickens and Thackeray was put to the test with the article, and it was strained when Thackeray, upping the ante on his literary foe, leaked information about Dickens’ extra-marital shenanigans to London’s high society. An infuriated Dickens responded by allowing naïve young journalist Edmund Yates to launch a scathing attack on Thackeray in the journal Household Words. All three parties — Dickens, Yates and Thackeray — were members of London’s Garrick Club, a watering hole for London’s elite, so when the club was dragged into the imbroglio, the episode earned the name ‘The Garrick Club Affair’.

Ploughing himself into writing, William tries to ameliorate his personal turmoil through his pen. His early works, such as The memoirs of Barry Lyndon and The Rose and the Ring got his name established. He then proceeded to copy the Dickens model of publication, monthly serialised novels, with a brand that would finally earn him fame — Vanity Fair (1847). He went on to write The History of Henry Esmond (1852)  and The Newcomes (1855), based on a fictitious Colonel returning home from his posting in India. He then turns his pen toward the U.S. with The Virginians (1859).



During his lifetime, William Thackeray was seen as the only other penman who could be compared to the mighty Charles Dickens, and although Dickens’ wide range of work were all immortalised, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair has also been accepted as one of Victorian England’s timeless classics. For this, he was honoured with a bust among Britain’s greatest in Westminster Abbey.

It was the work of this Thackeray, William Makepeace, which inspired an upper-caste Hindu reformer from Maharashtra, Keshav Thakre, to change the spelling of his son’s surname when admitting him into school.

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