Thackeray began as a satirist and parodist, writing works that displayed a sneaking fondness for roguish upstarts such as Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, and the title characters of The Luck of Barry Lyndon and Catherine. In his earliest works, written under such pseudonyms as Charles James Yellowplush, Michael Angelo Titmarsh and George Savage Fitz-Boodle, he tended towards savagery in his attacks on high society, military prowess, the institution of marriage and hypocrisy.
One of his earliest works, "Timbuctoo" (1829), contains a burlesque upon the subject set for the Cambridge Chancellor's Medal for English Verse (the contest was won by Tennyson with "Timbuctoo"). Thackeray's writing career really began with a series of satirical sketches now usually known as The Yellowplush Papers, which appeared in Fraser's Magazine beginning in 1837. These were adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2009, with Adam Buxton playing Charles Yellowplush.
Between May 1839 and February 1840 Fraser's published the work sometimes considered Thackeray's first novel, Catherine. Originally intended as a satire of the Newgate school of crime fiction, it ended up being more of a picaresque tale. He also began work, never finished, on the novel later published as A Shabby Genteel Story.
In The Luck of Barry Lyndon, a novel serialised in Fraser's in 1844, Thackeray explored the situation of an outsider trying to achieve status in high society, a theme he developed more successfully in Vanity Fair with the character of Becky Sharp, the artist's daughter who rises nearly to the heights by manipulating the other characters.
Thackeray is probably best known now for Vanity Fair. In contrast, his large novels from the period after Vanity Fair, which were once described by Henry James as examples of "loose baggy monsters", have largely faded from view, perhaps because they reflect a mellowing in Thackeray, who had become so successful with his satires on society that he seemed to lose his zest for attacking it. These later works include Pendennis, a Bildungsroman depicting the coming of age of Arthur Pendennis, an alter ego of Thackeray, who also features as the narrator of two later novels, The Newcomes and The Adventures of Philip. The Newcomes is noteworthy for its critical portrayal of the "marriage market," while Philip is known for its semi-autobiographical depiction of Thackeray's early life, in which he partially regains some of his early satirical power.
Also notable among the later novels is The History of Henry Esmond, in which Thackeray tried to write a novel in the style of the eighteenth century, a period that held great appeal for him. Not only Esmond but also Barry Lyndon and Catherine are set in that period, as is the sequel to Esmond, The Virginians, which takes place in North America and includes George Washington as a character who nearly kills one of the protagonists in a duel.
In the number of FRASER'S MAGAZINE for January 1844 appeared the first instalment of 'THE LUCK OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ., A ROMANCE OF THE LAST CENTURY, by FitzBoodle,' and the story continued to appear month by month--with the exception of October--up to the end of the year, when the concluding portion was signed 'G. S. FitzBoodle.' FITZBOODLE'S CONFESSIONS, it should be added, had appeared occasionally in the magazine during the years immediately precedent, so that the pseudonym was familiar to FRASER'S readers. The story was written, according to its author's own words, 'with a great deal of dulness, unwillingness and labour,' and was evidently done as the instalments were required, for in August he wrote 'read for "B. L." all the morning at the club,' and four days later of '"B. L." lying like a nightmare on my mind.' The journey to the East--which was to give us in literary results NOTES OF A JOURNEY FROM CORNHILL TO GRAND CAIRO--was begun with BARRY LYNDON yet unfinished, for at Malta the author noted on the first three days of November--'Wrote Barry but slowly and with great difficulty.' 'Wrote Barry with no more success than yesterday.' 'Finished Barry after great throes late at night.' In the number of Fraser's for the following month, as I have said, the conclusion appeared. A dozen years later, in 1856, the story formed the first part of the third volume of Thackeray's MISCELLANIES, when it was called MEMOIRS OF BARRY LYNDON, ESQ., WRITTEN BY HIMSELF. Since then, it has nearly always been issued with other matter, as though it were not strong enough to stand alone, or as though the importance of a work was mainly to be gauged by the number of pages to be crowded into one cover. The scheme of the present edition fortunately allows fitting honour to be done to the memoirs of the great adventurer.