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william makepeace thackerayWhile I plan to quaff at the bar of Dickens-mania with the best of you, I shall probably not become too deeply involved as such. My Dickens knowledge is pitiful, I shall probably simply use the anniversary as an opportunity for self-improvement Dickenswise.

While the 2012 Dickens anniversary is enjoying the full blast of publicity, many may not  have noticed that 2011 was the 200th birthday of William Makepeace Thackeray, who was born in India, on 18 July. He died this very day – Christmas Eve – unexpectedly from a stroke at his Brompton home in 1863. He was buried at Kensal Green, then quite a new cemetery. And he was hence as close as possible a contemporary of Dickens.

Dickens and Thackeray had a rather odd relationship that was heavily tinged with rancour. That these two titans were literary rivals was inevitable. They were careful to praise each other publicly in print. But Dickens, writing about Thackeray after his death, nonetheless still managed to have a pop:

We had our differences of opinion. I thought that he too much feigned a want of earnestness, and that he made a pretence of under-valuing his art, which was not good for the art that he held in trust.

Thackeray for his part, had said about Dickens in a public lecture:

I may quarrel with Mr. Dickens’s art a thousand and a thousand times, I delight and wonder at his genius.

Essentially it seems that these men grudgingly admired each other’s work, but as we can see, differences were clear. Things came to a head in 1858, but there had been an atmosphere in London literary circles for at least a decade, mainly indirectly between Thackeray and Dickens’ chief supporter and friend, John Forster. The two men traded insults in print on and off through the period, Forster’s position being that the author was “as False as hell”. The rancour was presented as differences in literary thought – all very academic – but seemingly was anchored in the different backgrounds and social status of the men concerned – Thackeray being born into solid middle-class stock whereas Forster and Dickens – as is well enough known – knew true poverty and had to make their own way in life.

But things came very sticky in 1858 over two incidents. In the immediate aftermath of Dickens’ separation from his wife Catherine, Thackeray found himself having to refute that Dickens was having an affair with his (Thackeray’s) sister-in-law, but not without letting on that Dickens was in fact seeing an actress, a situation that was both true and would have been considered decidedly infra dig in the day. The second – and probably more serious – incident became known as the Yates affair. A young writer called Edmund Yates attacked Thackeray in print, questioning the author’s integrity. Yates, a friend of Forster and Dickens, was expelled from the Garrick and despite support from his two friends, his appeals were rejected both by the club and in court. Thackeray was a big noise in clubland, including as a long-standing member of the Garrick.

A matter of weeks before his death, Thackeray is said to have bumped into Dickens at the entrance to the Athenaeum Club and shook his hand. We’d like to think that they had made their peace.

Both of these giants have long since taken – and kept – their places in the Pantheon of English literature. But before the New Year fireworks for 2012 light up the London sky for Dickens’ year and all that follows, do remember to raise a glass for William Makepeace Thackeray in celebration of his anniversary year.

Source: Virtually all of this from William Makepeace Thackeray by Peter L. Shillingsburg in the Dictionary of National Biography.

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