William Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India. His father, Richmond Thackeray, was a secretary to the board of revenue in the British East India Company. His mother, Anne Becher, sent him to England for his education when his father died in 1815. He eventually attended the Charterhouse School, which he despised and later parodied as "Slaughterhouse" in his fiction. It was here that his first writing appeared, in the publications The Snob and The Gownsman. His matriculation to Trinity College was delayed by illness, and he dropped out in 1830.
Over the next six years, Thackeray led a scattered and irresponsible life. He traveled all over Europe and met Goethe in Weimar. When he returned to England he began to study law, but soon abandoned the field. Thackeray lost much of his fortune to gambling and to failed investments as a result of the collapse of two Indian banks. Thackeray also tried pursuing an art career but again abandoned the subject when he did not find immediate success. Finally, he made two attempts at founding newspapers, but both resulted in failure.
William married Isabella Shawe, daughter of Colonel Matthew Shawe, a British Officer who served with distinction in India. Three daughters were born of the marriage, Anne, Harriet, and Jane, who died as a child. Tragedy struck his personal life during this period when his wife sank into a deep depression after the birth and quick death of this third child. She would never fully recover and would be confined in a home near Paris.
To support his family, Thackeray turned to journalism. The ten-year period from 1837 to 1847 were some of his most productive and saw him published in several magazines on topics ranging from literary and art criticism to political and social commentaries. He began to gain some notoriety when he published two travel books and The Book of Snobs, which appeared in the newly created Punch magazine as "The Snob Papers" (1846-47).
After years of attempt, fame was finally established when the novel Vanity Fair first appeared in serial installments beginning in January, 1847. Piggybacking on the success of Vanity Fair, several successful novels followed, including Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The History of Henry Esmond. Thackeray became much sought after as a lecturer in the US and in England, and he was hailed as an equal of Dickens. Feeling perhaps over-confident, William took a run for Parliament but fell short by a mere 33 votes. He continued to publish in magazines and became editor of Cornhill Magazine in 1860.
During the 1850s, William Thackeray's health began to deteriorate, exacerbated by over-eating and excessive drinking. On December 23, 1863, he suffered a severe stroke and died in his home. Several thousand mourners attended his funeral and he was buried at Kensal Green Cemetary. Marochetti sculpted a memorial bust which is still on display in Westminster Abbey.