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Houghton Explores the Many Sides of Thackeray

William Thackeray  

Thackeray in the 1860s. Autograph File, R.


July 15, 2011 – Though his popularity once rivaled that of Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray is today largely remembered as the author of Vanity Fair. A new exhibition, “The Adventures of Thackeray In His Way Through the World: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Family,” opening July 18 at Houghton Library, hopes to reintroduce viewers to Thackeray’s varied work as both a writer and artist, while offering a more in-depth view of the author’s life beyond his literary celebrity.

Timed to coincide with the bicentennial of Thackeray’s birth, the exhibition offers early sketches, done by Thackeray, of illustrations from Vanity Fair, manuscripts from Thackeray’s wildly successful lecture tour of the United States in the mid-1850s, an unauthorized edition of The Adventures of Philip printed by a Confederate publisher during the Civil War, and even objects like Thackeray’s favorite gold pen.

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The exhibition also features an entire case devoted to Vanity Fair, which will feature a portion of the book’s manuscript, on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, and items from the Harvard Theatre Collection highlighting various stage adaptations of the novel.

“Many people don’t realize Thackeray was a novelist of more than just Vanity Fair,” said Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton Library and curator of the exhibition. “Though his books are very witty and rewarding, his work isn’t as widely read as that of Dickens because, I believe, Thackeray was trying to portray a side of human nature that wasn’t always positive. Dickens is more sentimental – his stories typically come together with happy endings, whereas Thackeray is more satirical. In the case of Vanity Fair, for example, he said he ‘wanted to leave everybody unhappy at the end of the story.’”

It was Dickens, ironically, who played a crucial role in launching Thackeray’s career as a writer.

Thackeray originally aspired to a career as an artist, and dropped out of Trinity College, Cambridge, to study art in Weimar and Paris during the early 1830s. Upon hearing that Dickens was seeking an illustrator for his upcoming book The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Thackeray prepared a number of drawings in an effort to get the job. Dickens, unfortunately, rejected the drawings, prompting Thackeray to turn his attention to writing. The rejected drawings will be among the items in the exhibition, Cole said.

The exhibition also explores Thackeray’s private life. In 1836, the fledgling author married Isabella Gethin Shawe. The couple quickly produced three daughters, but the second died after only eight months. Shortly after the birth of their third child, tragedy struck again, when Isabella fell into a deep depression. Unable to recover, she was eventually confined to private psychiatric care, and the couple was never reunited.

Though initially left in the care of Thackeray’s parents, the author’s children rejoined Thackeray as his success grew. For the remainder of his life, Thackeray – in a break from the traditional image of the Victorian-era man – was known as a caring and involved father.

The exhibition is a prelude to the October 6 symposium on Thackeray that will include a curator’s tour of the exhibition and talks by several noted Thackeray scholars, including Peter Shillingsburg, the Martin J. Svaglic Professor of Textual Studies at Loyola University; Thackeray family biographer John Aplin; and Sue Lonoff, former associate director of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and a professor at the Harvard Extension School. The symposium is open to the public, but registration is required. For information, see the symposium Web site.

“I think people viewing the exhibition or attending the symposium will understand that there is more to Thackeray than simply Vanity Fair,” Cole said. “It’s my hope that this will inspire people to go read some of his other works.”

The Adventures of Thackeray In His Way Through the World: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Family,” will be on display in the Edison and Newman Room in Houghton Library from July 18 through October 15. Directions, Hours