THACKERAY by D.J. Taylor


The Life of a Literary Man
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A critic and novelist (English Settlement, not reviewed, etc.) examines the short, stressful life (1811–63) of the great Victorian writer.

An unabashed Thackeray fan, Taylor begins with the novelist’s death on Christmas Eve and informs us that 2,000 people attended the interment of a man whose prodigious output in periodicals and serial novels exceeded one million words between 1846 and 1850. (He also wrote up to 2,000 letters per year.) In a volume with a generous supply of illustrations (many by Thackeray himself, who had started out as the proverbial starving artist), the author traces the Thackeray family back to a band of Yorkshire yeomen. Later generations worked for the East India Company. (Returning to England from India, where he was born, the five-year-old Thackeray glimpsed Napoleon at St. Helena.) Taylor follows Thackeray through Charterhouse School, then to Cambridge (he left with substantial gambling debts but no degree). After struggling as an artist, Thackeray worked for various publications, most notably Punch, before he began writing novels. He married in 1836, but his wife suffered from mental illness and spent most of her adulthood in private care. Taylor describes keenly the competition between Thackeray and his principal rival, Charles Dickens; their fragile amity was shattered in the late 1850s when Thackeray sided with Dickens’s abandoned wife. (Dickens did write a generous testimonial in Cornhill, the monthly that Thackeray edited.) Taylor portrays Thackeray as a gentle giant (he was 6’3”) and as a man who loved his daughters (he shaved a moustache because it frightened them) and who wrote what Taylor considers the finest of all Victorian novels, Vanity Fair. As Peter Ackroyd did in Dickens (1990), Taylor employs his talents as a novelist to include scraps of invention (e.g., a death notice by George Eliot); he inserts, as well, a couple of discursive interludes. (Scholars, however, will find the notes insufficient and will rue the absence of a chronology and comprehensive list of Thackeray’s works.)

Substantial and thoughtful, written with sympathy and affection. (16 pages b&w illustrations; 40 additional b&w illustrations throughout)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-7867-0910-3
Page count: 512pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2001


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