I knew roughly where W.M. Thackeray was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, but it took me ages to find the actual grave as I was looking for something rather grand. In fact I walked past the unassuming plain tombstone with its tatty plastic container a couple of times before I noticed it and had to double-check that I had indeed found the right place.
I should have known better, as by then I had become accustomed to the law that seemed to state that the greater the person’s fame, the simpler the tombstone – but this really pushed my theory to the limit! I have no idea who had decided that the simple inscription “WMT”, engraved on the side of the tomb, needed to be embellished, and find their attempt rather touching – a plain brown plastic window box as found in any garden centre, with the full name and dates scribbled on the side in black marker pen. I presume that when first placed on the tomb it must have been planted with flowers, but these had long died and all that was left was a crowd of weeds and grasses.
A rather poignant epitaph to someone who was regarded as a bit of a “snob” in his time…
William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta in 1811. His father died when he was five, and soon after he was sent to boarding school in England, where he was miserable – the separation from his mother was particularly hard for him at such a young age. While in school he developed two habits that were to stay with him all his life: sketching and reading novels.
His mother remarried and returned to England with William’s stepfather in 1820, and William later went on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became addicted to gambling and fell heavily into debt. Leaving college without a degree, and having frittered away his father’s £20,000 inheritance, he travelled in Germany and France, and scrabbled around trying to make a living as a painter. When this ended in failure he started writing articles for newspapers and periodicals such as Punch.
He met and fell in love with Isabella Shawe, and since he needed enough money to get married, his mother and stepfather, who were by now broke due to the economic collapse in India, scraped together all the funds they could find to start a newspaper called the Constitution. They appointed William as the Paris correspondent and he and Isabella moved to France where their first child, Anna Isabella, was born.
Unfortunately the Constitution collapsed, so they all returned to England and William began writing as many articles as possible and sending them to any newspaper which was likely to print them. He often used absurd pseudonyms such as Charles James Yellowplush, Michael Angelo Titmarsh, George Savage FitzBoodle
His personal life at this point was going downhill – his second daughter died at less than a year old, and after the birth of his third daughter, Isabella suffered from some mental illness – after a few months she was so suicidal and difficult to control that she was placed in an institution, and although William tried all options to help her find a cure, she remained in some form of institution or other for the rest of her life (outliving her husband by thirty years).
William’s professional life though started to pick up, and over the next few years he wrote a number of successful novels. In the most famous, Vanity Fair, he painted a panoramic picture of middle class life in England, and created one of the most fascinating immoral female characters, Becky Sharp. The book brought him prosperity and made him an established writer and popular lecturer in Europe and in the United States.
Towards the end of his life, Thackeray was proud that through his writing he had recouped the patrimony lost to bank failures and gambling, and that he passed on to his daughters an inheritance sufficient for their support and a grand house in Kensington. He died suddenly on Christmas Eve, 1863, of a cerebral effusion (a burst blood vessel). He was buried at the then-fashionable Kensal Green cemetery – his funeral drew around 2,000 mourners, including Charles Dickens.