Saturday, May 23, 2015

W. M. Thackeray, Novelist and Gourmand, Dead Of Cerebral Hemorrhage at 52

William Makepeace Thackeray led a troubled life, plagued by a painful recurring urinary problem, financial failures, and a mentally deranged wife to whose care he devoted much of his time. His saga started in India, where William was born in Calcutta to an Anglo-Indian family on July 18, 1811. His father died of a fever when William was four, and at five he was shipped off to England for an education, while his mother remained in India and married her childhood sweetheart.

Thackeray studied—or, rather, didn’t study—at Trinity College, Cambridge, frittering away his time at wine parties and on long excursions to the Continent to gamble.  He left Cambridge after two years with no degree. He wandered for a while around Germany, where he met Goethe, and then returned to London, where he lived large, drinking, gambling, and womanizing, supported by his inheritance from his father—the princely sum of £17,000—until it was wiped out in the failure of an Indian bank. Thackeray then studied law briefly, and after that began to work as a hack journalist for various publications.

It was during this period that he very likely developed gonorrhea, which led to a stricture in his urethra, a condition that recurred throughout his life, incapacitating him for days at a time.  He also acquired his lifelong devotion to food and drink—“guttling and gorging” being his self-confessed major activities when he wasn’t writing.  He was especially fond of hot peppers, which invariably caused him indigestion.

As a writer for several publications, most notably Punch, he moved back and forth between London and Paris, where he met Isabella Shawe, a young woman who had also been born in India. They exchanged billets-doux (a number of which dealt with her concern over her constipation) and were married in 1836.

After the birth of their third child, Isabella began to show signs of mental illness.  Thackeray did everything possible to restore her health, placing her in spas and sanitariums, traveling with her on the Continent, and taking a sea voyage to visit her mother in Ireland, during which she threw herself overboard and would have drowned, except for an air pocket in her capacious crinoline dress. Thackeray continued to write frantically, turning out moderately successful travel books, hoping to ease the financial burdens that her illness caused. 

Eventually the Thackerays settled in England, where Isabella was placed in a private home and Thackeray found lodgings for himself, his children, and his mother in London.

In 1847, Thackeray hit the big time with the success of his novel Vanity Fair.  He followed it in quick succession with Pendennis, The History of Henry Esmond, The Rose and the Ring, and Barry Lyndon. With his finances thus assured, he was able to live an easy life in London, hobnobbing with Charles Dickens and other literary figures. His main pastime other than eating and drinking was horseback riding.  He also began to dote upon Jane Brookfield, the wife of an old Cambridge chum. The three became involved in an emotionally-fraught triangle—although probably platonic on Thackeray’s part—which ended only when Thackeray took an extended visit to America.

On December 23, 1863, Thackeray dined out with friends and returned to his London home, a mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens. Before he could undress for bed, a blood vessel in his brain burst, and he was found dead the next morning of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-two. 

Never a very religious man, Thackeray once said of an afterlife: “"About my future state I don't know. I leave it in the disposal of the awful Father." He was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery on a clear crisp morning without a formal ceremony. Several thousand people, including Charles Dickens, attended.  A memorial bust of Thackeray was later erected in Westminster Abbey.

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