Thackeray and Charles Dickens
William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens were two of the most eminent Victorian novelists of their generation. They knew each other well, mixing in the same circles, but they were also literary rivals whose differing personalities and viewpoints eventually led to a bitter feud.
Both Dickens and Thackeray began their careers as journalists, but Dickens was first to achieve literary fame, with publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836-37. Other bestsellers followed, and Dickens became a darling of critics and the public. Thackeray did not earn his literary fame until a decade later, with Vanity Fair, published in 1847-48. Thackeray’s next novel, Pendennis, was issued at the same time as Dickens’s David Copperfield, and critics began to draw comparisons between the two authors. Though Dickens sold more novels, Thackeray was equal in popularity with the critics, and Thackeray became Dickens’s chief rival in the market for fiction. Dr. John Brown, a mutual friend of both novelists, remarked that Dickens “could not abide the brother so near the throne.” Although Dickens and Thackeray were always cordial, their relationship grew strained over minor literary disputes. Partisan friends and associates fanned the flames until the relationship between Dickens and Thackeray erupted into a bitter feud in 1858.
In 1858, Dickens separated from his wife Kate, and Dickens was very sensitive to public and private opinion over his actions. He was very upset when Thackeray repeated information he had heard about Dickens’s affair with actress Ellen Ternan. One of Dickens’s protégés, a young journalist named Edmund Yates, was motivated by Dickens’s bad feelings to anonymously publish a slanderous attack on Thackeray for Dickens’s magazine Household Words. Thackeray would have ignored this insult, but it was brought to his attention that the author was Yates, who was an acquaintance and a fellow member of a social club called the Garrick Club. As a gentleman, he felt the need to defend his honor and responded to Yates, demanding an apology. Yates showed the letter to Dickens, who helped Yates write an unrepentant reply.
Thackeray was also incensed that Yates had been writing newspaper articles about some of the literary discussions he had been involved in while in the privacy of the Garrick club. He eventually brought a complaint to the committee of the Garrick Club, which moved to revoke Yates’s membership. Dickens tried to intervene behind the scenes, but Yates lost the dispute. Yates continued to attack Thackeray in pamphlets and journal articles through 1858-59; when Dickens realized that his own reputation was being hurt because so many people assumed that he was encouraging and perhaps financially underwriting Yates, he finally convinced Yates to let the matter drop. This breach in Thackeray and Dickens’s friendship would last until shortly before Thackeray died in 1863.