Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thackeray satirized English aristocracy

William Makepeace Thackeray
It is the birthday of English satirist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811), whose satirical novels Vanity Fair and The Luck of Barry Lyndon brought him fame and fortune. At the height of his popularity, he was considered second only to Charles Dickens in writing talent. Though he receives less attention today, Vanity Fair remains on many college reading lists.

Both books poke fun at the English aristocracy in the 19th century, and both have been adapted for film several times in the 20th century. It was the English aristocracy who were most intrigued by Thackeray's work, a factor that some critics say led to his losing that sharp wit in his later works. Thackeray was the toast of English society and often sought as a speaker.

Thackeray was born in Calcutta to a writer for the East India Company and the daughter of a writer for the East India Company. He was sent back to England at the age of four for education. He did not like the boarding schools he attended and satirized them in some of his writings. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge but didn't graduate, choosing instead to travel in Europe. When he returned to England, he tried studying law but quit that as well.

At age 21 he received an inheritance but frittered much of it away gambling and investing in two newspapers that eventually failed. He also lost considerable sums when two Indian banks failed. Forced to work for a living, Thackeray turned to writing. Most of his work was published by Fraser's Magazine. Vanity Fair and The Luck of Barry Lyndon were both serialized in the publication.

Vanity Fair, which concerns the exploits of  Becky Sharp, a scheming social climber who manipulates those around her to achieve financial security and position, drew praise from critics during Thackeray's lifetime. He made two trips to America, where he was well received. The story has been adapted for movies, television and radio for generations, most recently as a 2004 film starring Reese Witherspoon.

The Luck of Barry Lyndon tells the story of an impoverished Irish gentleman who tries to become a member of the English aristocracy. After a series of hilarious misfortunes in Europe, he stumbles into a favorable marriage and remakes himself into a fashionable country squire, only to later be ruined again. Director Stanley Kubrick adapted the book into a film in 1975.

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