Novelist, son of Richmond Thackeray, who held various important appointments in the service of the East India Company, and who belonged to an old and respectable Yorkshire family, was born at Calcutta, and soon after the death of his father, which took place in 1816, sent home to England. After being at a school at Chiswick, he was sent to the Charterhouse School, where he remained from 1822–26, and where he does not appear to have been very happy. Meanwhile in 1818 his mother had married Major H.W.C. Smythe, who is believed to be, in part at any rate, the original of Colonel Newcome. In 1829 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for a year only, and where he did not distinguish himself particularly as a student, but made many life-long friends, including Spedding, Tennyson, Fitzgerald, and Monckton Milnes, and contributed verses and caricatures to two University papers, “The Snob” and “The Gownsman.” The following year, 1831, was spent chiefly in travelling on the Continent, especially Germany, when, at Weimar, he visited Goethe. Returning he entered the Middle Temple, but having no liking for legal studies, he soon abandoned them, and turning his attention to journalism, became proprietor, wholly or in part, of two papers successively, both of which failed. These enterprises, together with some unfortunate investments and also, it would seem, play, stripped him of the comfortable fortune, which he had inherited; and he now found himself dependent on his own exertions for a living. He thought at first of art as a profession, and studied for a time at Paris and Rome.
In 1836, while acting as Paris correspondent for the second of his journals, he married Isabella, daughter of Colonel Shawe, an Irish officer, and the next year he returned to England and became a contributor to Fraser’s Magazine, in which appeared The Yellowplush Papers, The Great Hoggarty Diamond, Catherine, and Barry Lyndon, the history of an Irish sharper, which contains some of his best work. Other works of this period were The Paris Sketch-book  and The Irish Sketch-book . His work in Fraser, while it was appreciated at its true worth by a select circle, had not brought him any very wide recognition: it was his contributions to Punch — the Book of Snobs and Jeames’s Diary — which first caught the ear of the wider public. The turning point in his career, however, was the publication in monthly numbers of Vanity Fair (1847–48). This extraordinary work gave him at once a place beside Fielding at the head of English novelists, and left him no living competitor except Dickens.