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Thackeray, William Makepeace

novel rich becky day

(British, 1811–63)

Thackeray was born in India where his father was a senior civil servant. He was sent to England to be educated at Charterhouse, which he hated, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he lived dissolutely. As a young man he suffered from bad luck as well as bad management. He lost most of his inheritance. His wife suffered an incurable mental breakdown after the birth of their children.

His greatest novel is the best place to start. Vanity Fair (1848) is a big book set in the early nineteenth century, when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France. This is Victorian literature at its best. The characters are rich and full; the plot has satisfying twists and turns. Vanity Fair begins with two young women finishing at a rather fraudulent ladies' school. Amelia Sedley is rich, gentle, and not terribly bright. Becky Sharp is poor, ambitious, and clever. The novel traces Becky Sharp's ruthless progress through society as she sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails in seducing or, occasionally, marrying men who will be useful to her. Thackeray was mocking the middle classes of his own day, as well as an earlier generation, and the book contains many brilliant comic moments. Less famous, but also a cracking good read are the autobiographical Pendennis (1850); the historical novel The History of Henry Esmond (1852); and a broad view of mid-Victorian social life and marriage, The Newcomes (1855). Thackeray was second only to Dickens in his day, and in some ways he is even better, especially if you like dry, satiric, and witty writing.

Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding TT

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