Today is the birthday (1811) of William Makepeace Thackeray who in the 19th century was considered second only to Dickens in the British literary world. These days he is mostly forgotten except for Vanity Fair, a staple of Eng. Lit. classes. Thackeray was an only child, born in Calcutta in British India, to Richmond Thackeray (1781 – 1815), secretary to the Board of Revenue in the British East India Company, and Anne Becher (1792–1864), the second daughter of Harriet Becher and John Harman Becher, who was also a secretary for the East India Company.
His father died in 1815, which caused his mother to send him son to England in 1816, while she remained in British India. The ship on which he travelled made a short stopover at Saint Helena, where the imprisoned Napoleon was pointed out to him. Once in England he was educated at schools in Southampton and Chiswick, and then at Charterhouse School, where he became a close friend of John Leech. Thackeray disliked Charterhouse, and parodied it in his fiction as “Slaughterhouse”. Nevertheless, Thackeray was honored in the Charterhouse Chapel with a monument after his death. Illness in his last year there, during which he reportedly grew to his full height of six foot three, postponed his matriculation at Trinity College, Cambridge, until February 1829. Thackery was indifferent to academic studies and so left Cambridge in 1830. However, some of his earliest published writing appeared in two university periodicals, The Snob and The Gownsman.
Thackeray then traveled for some time on the continent, visiting Paris and Weimar, where he met Goethe. He returned to England and began to study law at the Middle Temple, but soon gave that up. On reaching the age of 21 he came into his inheritance from his father, but he squandered much of it on gambling and on funding two unsuccessful newspapers, The National Standard and The Constitutional, for which he had hoped to write. He also lost a good part of his inheritance in the collapse of two Indian banks. He was thus forced to consider a profession to support himself, turning first to art, which he studied in Paris, but did not pursue it directly. In later years he did produce illustrations for some of his own novels and other writings. He married 1836, Isabella Gethin Shawe (1816–1894) in 1836, second daughter of Isabella Creagh Shawe and Matthew Shawe, a colonel who had died after distinguished service, primarily in India. They had three children, all girls: Anne Isabella (1837–1919), Jane (who died at eight months old) and Harriet Marian (1840–1875), who married Sir Leslie Stephen, editor, biographer and philosopher (and Virginia Woolf’s father by a different wife).
After marriage, Thackeray began “writing for his life”, as he put it, turning to journalism in an effort to support his young family. He primarily worked for Fraser’s Magazine, a sharp-witted and sharp-tongued conservative publication for which he produced art criticism, short fictional sketches, and two longer fictional works, Catherine and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. Between 1837 and 1840 he also reviewed books for The Times. He was also a regular contributor to The Morning Chronicle and The Foreign Quarterly Review. Later, through his connection to his school pal, John Leech, he began writing for the newly created magazine Punch, in which he published The Snob Papers, later collected as The Book of Snobs. This work popularized the modern meaning of the word “snob”. Thackeray was a regular contributor to Punch between 1843 and 1854.
Thackeray’s wife, Isabella, succumbed to depression after the birth of their third child, in 1840. Finding that he could get no work done at home, he spent more and more time away until September 1840, when he realized how grave his wife’s condition was. Struck by guilt, he set out with his wife to Ireland. During the crossing she threw herself from a water-closet into the sea, but she was pulled from the waters. They fled back home after a four-week battle with her mother. From November 1840 to February 1842 Isabella was in and out of professional care, as her condition waxed and waned. She eventually deteriorated into a permanent state of detachment from reality. Thackeray desperately sought cures for her, but nothing worked, and she ended up in two different asylums in or near Paris until 1845, after which Thackeray took her back to England, where he installed her with a Mrs Bakewell at Camberwell. Isabella outlived her husband by 30 years, in the end being cared for by a family named Thompson in Leigh-on-Sea at Southend until her death in 1894.
In the early 1840s Thackeray had some success with two travel books, The Paris Sketch Book and The Irish Sketch Book, the latter marked by hostility to Irish Catholics. However, as the book appealed to British prejudices, Thackeray was given the job of being Punch‘s Irish expert, often under the pseudonym Hibernis Hibernior. It was Thackeray, in other words, who was chiefly responsible for Punch‘s notoriously hostile and condescending depictions of the Irish during the Irish Famine (1845–51).
Thackeray achieved more recognition with his Snob Papers (serialized 1846/7, published in book form in 1848), but the work that really established his fame was the novel Vanity Fair, which first appeared in serialized instalments beginning in January 1847. Even before Vanity Fair completed its serial run Thackeray had become a celebrity, sought after by the very lords and ladies whom he satirized. They hailed him as the equal of Dickens.
He remained “at the top of the tree”, as he put it, for the rest of his life, during which he produced several long novels, notably Pendennis, The Newcomes and The History of Henry Esmond, despite various illnesses, including a near-fatal one that struck him in 1849 in the middle of writing Pendennis. He twice visited the United States on lecture tours during this period. Thackeray also gave lectures in London on the English humorists of the 18th century, and on the first four Hanoverian monarchs. The latter series was published in book form as The Four Georges. In Oxford he stood unsuccessfully as an independent for Parliament. He was narrowly beaten by Cardwell, who received 1,070 votes, as against 1,005 for Thackeray.
In 1860 Thackeray became editor of the newly established Cornhill Magazine, but he was never comfortable in the role, preferring to contribute to the magazine as the writer of a column called “Roundabout Papers”. Thackeray’s health worsened during the 1850s and he was plagued by a recurring stricture of the urethra that laid him up for days at a time. He also felt that he had lost much of his creative impetus. He worsened matters by excessive eating and drinking, and avoiding exercise, though he enjoyed riding (he kept a horse). He has been described as “the greatest literary glutton who ever lived” (which is certainly hyperbole – there have been many). His main activity apart from writing was “guttling and gorging.”
On 23rd December 1863, after returning from dining out and before dressing for bed, he suffered a stroke. He was found dead in his bed the following morning. His death at the age of fifty-two was entirely unexpected, and shocked his family, his friends and the reading public. An estimated 7,000 people attended his funeral at Kensington Gardens. He was buried on 29th December at Kensal Green Cemetery, and a memorial bust sculpted by Marochetti was placed in Westminster Abbey.
Here’s a few memorable quotes:
To love and win is the best thing. To love and lose, the next best.
Good humor may be said to be one of the very best articles of dress one can wear in society.
If a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relative to do the business.
People hate as they love: unreasonably.
There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.
The wicked are wicked, no doubt, and they go astray and they fall, and they come by their deserts; but who can tell the mischief which the very virtuous do?
And now a rather longer quote from Vanity Fair leading to our recipe du jour.
“Give Miss Sharp some curry, my dear,” said Mr. Sedley, laughing. Rebecca had never tasted the dish before. “Do you find it as good as everything else from India?” said Mr. Sedley. “Oh, excellent!” said Rebecca, who was suffering tortures with the cayenne pepper. “Try a chili with it, Miss Sharp,” said Joseph, really interested. “A chili,” said Rebecca, gasping. “Oh yes!” She thought a chili was something cool, as its name imported, and was served with some. “How fresh and green they look,” she said, and put one into her mouth. It was hotter than the curry; flesh and blood could bear it no longer. She laid down her fork. “Water, for Heaven’s sake, water!” she cried.
Hot curry it is then. You may indulge in “guttling and gorging” if you wish — or not. You can take your pick of recipes I have already given, or make a vindaloo, which is often the hottest curry you can get in South Asian restaurants in Britain. Lamb vindaloo is my favorite, although it is commonly made with pork in Goa where it originates. I have had it made with duck and chicken as well. In this recipe I will list “meat” for the ingredient, and you can take your pick. Just remember that cooking times will vary depending on the meat you choose. The masala paste is the key to the dish. It gives it the pungent and fiery taste. Use brown sugar for the dish if you cannot get jaggery.
75 ml cider vinegar
700 gm meat, cut into chunks
4 tbsp ghee
500 gm finely sliced onions
60 gm tamarind pulp
10 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced
5 cm length of ginger, peeled and cut into slim matchsticks
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
2-4 small hot peppers
10 curry leaves
1 tbsp jaggery
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black mustard seeds
For the masala
2 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder or paprika
Seeds of 8 cardamom pods
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp turmeric
5 cm cinnamon stick
Grind to a coarse powder all the ingredients for the masala, then stir in the vinegar. Rub the mixture into the meat and leave it to sit for three to four hours.
Heat the ghee in a Dutch oven over medium-low heat, and fry the onions until they are soft and golden. Take your time with this step, stirring periodically to make sure the onions are evenly caramelized. Meanwhile, soak the tamarind pulp in 120 ml of hot water for 15 minutes, then gently rub any remaining pulp from the seeds and strain off the liquid, discarding the solids.
Stir the garlic and ginger into the onions and cook, stirring, for another five minutes, then add the tomatoes, hot peppers and curry leaves, and cook until the tomatoes start to break down.
Add the pork and the masala rub to the pan and turn the heat up to medium-high. Stir well, add the jaggery, salt and mustard seeds, followed by the tamarind liquid. Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, turn the heat down to a gentle simmer and cook for one hour.
Partially remove the lid and cook for another 30 minutes, until the meat is very tender and the sauce has thickened.
Serve with your choice of Indian flatbreads, Basmati rice, and a dish of dahl (at minimum).