William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811, to parents both of Anglo-Indian descent. Upon his father's death Thackeray went to England to live at age five. He attended several boarding schools, which experiences (including exceedingly dry lessons and canings) later provided material for Thackeray's writing. They also led him to find escape by reading the popular fiction of the day, including Sir Walter Scott and Pierce Egan. He entered Cambridge University in 1819. Not an outstanding student, he survived only two years of an inaccessible mentor and a preference for wine parties and gambling before he left.
Deciding his best route to an education was through extensive reading and educational travel, Thackeray set out for continental Europe. He led the dissipated lifestyle of a young gentleman even after losing much of his inheritance. But he began to supplement his income by contributing to newspapers, often about his travels. Then in Paris he met and married Isabella Shawe in 1836. Determined to support his family, Thackeray began writing in earnest. He published literary and art criticism, general articles, essays, travel books, and fiction, usually under a comic pseudonym.
Thackeray's travel writing frequently took him away from home, and when at home he often went to the quiet of men's clubs to work. Thus he missed the early signs of his wife's growing illness and depression. But after the birth of their third child, Isabella became almost completely withdrawn. Thackeray began searching for a cure, taking his wife to various doctors and health spas, all to no avail. She eventually went insane.
In the meantime, Thackeray still needed to write to support his wife and two surviving daughters. It is believed that his wife's illness began Thackeray's lifelong study of the situation of women in Victorian England, and his creating the memorable and believable female characters that appear in his masterpieces, Vanity Fair (1847), The History of Henry Esmond, Esq. (1852), and others. With his growing success, critics began to compare him to authors such as Charles Dickens. Thackeray enjoyed literary relationships with several authors and editors, including Dickens. The two men often had minor literary disagreements and still remained friends, until a breach that lasted years caused by Thackeray's publicly letting slip information about Dickens' mistress. This was healed only a few months prior to Thackeray's death, when Dickens and Thackeray met by chance in the street and shook hands.
Thackeray also produced numerous magazine publications, for a five-year period publishing an average of 59 articles per year in addition to working on his novels. Part of Thackeray's creative process included interaction with people: talk was a "necessary ingredient" of his research. He continued to travel and to visit and work with friends. He contributed numerous critiques on the writings of his contemporaries, including Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton. An artist as well as an author, Thackeray's lifetime output was so great that to this day no comprehensive bibliography of his publications has been compiled. Toward the end of his life he noted that his writing had earned him back his wealth, and he was proud that he could leave his daughters an inheritance. He died of a stroke in 1863, and an estimated 2000 people attended his funeral.