You may know William Makepeace Thackeray as the author of the epic tome Vanity Fair (not to be confused with the magazine) and The Luck of Barry Lyndon. In a time period dominated by the likes of Charles Dickens and his gritty look at English society, Thackeray took a more colorful approach and created some of English literature’s most iconic antiheroes in the process. Aside from his revolutionary characterization, Thackeray’s writing style was at once witty, insightful and melodic, which makes for some delightful quotes that stand on their own.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) was born in Calcutta, British India. After his father’s death in 1815, young Thackeray was sent back to England and resided there for the rest of his life. Thackeray inherited his father’s fortune but managed to squander it quickly, forcing him to write in order to survive. He published numerous articles on art and literature and, most famously, wrote panoramic novels such as The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) and Vanity Fair (1847-48), the latter of which is considered his masterpiece.
Thackeray is remembered as one of the great Victorian novelists, and his novels were a breakthrough in realistic fiction and crafting complex characters. Writer and literary critic G. K. Chesterton once said,
“Thackeray is everybody's past — is everybody's youth.”
Vanity Fair, also titled Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero, is a satirical view of English society that follows the lives of Becky Sharpe, an orphan who survives using her wit, and her friend Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy family. While they are the protagonists, the novel delivers on its subtitle "without a hero." In fact, Sharpe’s character was a revolutionary anti-heroine in a time when female characters were only allowed to be purely good or evil.
“All is vanity, nothing is fair.”
“The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face.”
“Never lose a chance of saying a kind word.”
“In the midst of friends, home, and kind parents, she was alone.”
“Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural.”
“Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?”
“Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”
“Are not there little chapters in everybody's life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?”
“The moral world has no particular objection to vice, but an insuperable repugnance to hearing vice called by its proper name.”
“One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.”
“Money has only a different value in the eyes of each.”
“It is the ordinary lot of people to have no friends if they themselves care for nobody.”
Many of Thackeray’s stories explore the inner workings of British society, such as The History of Pendennis, or the history of England as detailed in The History of Henry Esmond. One of his greatest works is The Luck of Barry Lyndon, the tale of an Irish gentleman who aims to become part of the English aristocracy. The novel was adapted by the legendary Stanley Kubrick as the award-winning film Barry Lyndon (1975).
“A lady who sets her heart upon a lad in uniform must prepare to change lovers pretty quickly, or her life will be but a sad one.” - The Luck of Barry Lyndon
“Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.” - The Luck of Barry Lyndon
“But it's a changeable world! When we consider how great our sorrow seem, and how small they are; how we think we shall die of grief, and how quickly we forget, I think we ought to be ashamed of ourselves and our fickle-heartedness. For, after all, what business has Time to bring us consolation?” - The Luck of Barry Lyndon
“Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.“ - The Luck of Barry Lyndon
“People hate as they love, unreasonably.“ - The Newcomers: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family
“The true pleasure of life is to live with your inferiors.” - The Newcomers: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family
“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?” - The Newcomers: Memoirs of a Most Respectable Family
“Good humour may be said to be one of the very best articles of dress one can wear in society.” - Sketches and Travels in London
“Stupid people, people who do not know how to laugh, are always pompous and self-conceited.” - Sketches and Travels in London
“Despair is perfectly compatible with a good dinner, I promise you.” - Lovel the Widower
“How hard it is to make an Englishman acknowledge that he is happy!” - The History of Pendennis
“Thus love makes fools of all of us, big and little.” - The History of Pendennis
“It is best to love wisely, no doubt; but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all.” - The History of Pendennis
“There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen to write.” - The History of Henry Esmond
“To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it; to go through intrigue spotless; and to forgo even ambition when the end is gained — who can say this is not greatness?” - The Virginians
“To be thought rich is as good as to be rich.” - The Virginians
“Bravery never goes out of fashion.” - Four Georges
“Life is a mirror, if you frown at it, it frowns back; if you smile, it returns the greeting.” - The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman
William Makepeace Thackery is known as one of the great British authors of the 19th century. Familiarize yourself with the wise words of other British greats.