July 18: William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811)

William Makepeace Thackeray

On was this date, July 18, 1811, that British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, British colonial India, where his father worked for the East India Company. Sent to school in England, Thackeray later attended Cambridge, where he lost a poetry contest to an upstart named Alfred Tennyson, and also met Edward FitzGerald, with whom he became friends for life. During his lifetime, Thackeray was ranked as a novelist second only to Charles Dickens, but he is now much less read. Thackeray supported himself by selling sketches until, in 1847, his novel Vanity Fair made his reputation among British novelists.

His History of Henry Esmond (1852) was admired by Anthony Trollope. Like John Ruskin and Tennyson, he was a Rationalist, but he did not go out of his way to criticize religion. One of his correspondents preserved a letter in which Thackeray describes a certain preacher as “on the evangelical dodge,” and exclaims, “Ah, what rubbish!”* Biographer Herman Merivale says that Thackeray “seems to have formed no very definite creed”** and biographer Louis Melville quotes him saying: “About my future state I don’t know: I leave it in the disposal of the awful Father.”†

Thackeray took a transitory interest in Spiritualism before anyone knew it was a hoax. He died on 24 December 1863 in London at age 52. Charles Dickens stood among the 2,000 who attended his funeral.

* Letters of Dr. J. Brown.
**Herman C. Merivale and Frank Marzials, Life of W.M. Thackeray, London: 1891, p. 31.
† Louis Melville, Life of W.M. Thackeray, 1899, vol. 2, p. 105.

Originally published July 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

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Posted in Famous Freethinkers, Writer

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John Mill

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