Mrs. William Makepeace Thackeray, Isabella Gethin Shawe (December 5, 1816-January 11, 1894)

I wish I was rich sometimes but if with riches comes such a joy of the world as to make one forgetful of the ties of nature may I ever remain as I am. (Letter 389 From Mrs. Thackeray, 1839).

Watercolor of Mrs. William Makepeace Thackeray (Isabella Gethin Shawe) painted in 1836 by her husband and author, William Makepeace Thackeray.
Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Merrick Shawe by Samuel Andrews, 1800.

William Makepeace Thackeray and his wife, Isabella Gethin Shawe were both born five years apart in Calcutta, British India. Her father, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Merrick Shawe married Isabella Creagh Shawe of the Parish of Donerail in County Cork, Ireland on 9 December 1813. Soon afterwards, he left his home at Est Lodge in Galway, Ireland, to work as Military Secretary to Marquis of Wellesley in India where they settled until his death at sea on 11 April, 1826. He was forty six years old. Leaving behind five children, his wife soon realized his savings and pension was not enough to remain. So, she  returned to her family home, Donerail in County Cork, Ireland where she would remain until her death in December 1871 at 81 years old.

Mrs. Thackeray as illustrated in Vanity Fair as Becky Sharpe

Petite, redheaded, spitfire, Isabella Shawe spent most of her life between her parents home in Cork, Ireland and her grandparents home in Paris, France where she was known for her beautiful singing voice and piano playing. Her mother would always make her sing and play for guests at the parties of family friend Mrs. Crow, the wife of a newspaper magnet. One night in 1835,  she met a young man named William who was in Paris eking out a meager living 'sketching' females along the Rue des Beaux Arts. He was immediately smitten with the diminutive young girl. They kept up a writing relationship when in January 1836, William's friend, Henry Reeve wrote to William's mother, Mrs. Carmichael, 'He has fallen in love and talks of being married in less than twenty years! What is there so affecting a matrimony! I dined yesterday with his object, who is a nice, simple, girlish girl.'  As the months went by and their correspondence continued, Isabella's mother interfered in the relationship, hiding some of William's letters in an attempt to break them up because she didn't approve of him. He had no money, was not a student, worked at a newspaper yet had no direction in life. He would gather in the many bars around Paris with his buddies talking about women, art and literature. His future mother-in-law was not happy about his occupation and hobbies. However, what she neglected to see was how her daughter's love would transform William for the better, giving him direction and confidence; at least for a little while! 

William Makepeace Thackeray, 1830s

For as I sit here alone I grow thoughtful & querulous, and discontented because I cannot have what I most want — you — your little red-polled ghost pursues me everywhere, the phantoms of some of your songs are always in my ears — but melancholy & pale as ghosts should be 5 and of mornings I wake very early and toss about in my bed & think of you — Letter from William Makepeace Thackeray to Isabella Shawe, 1836.

During their brief courtship, William showed the engagement ring to his friends who said it looked more like a mourning ring than an engagement ring. He gave Isabella this diamond ring set between two opals. Sadly, there are no surviving letters from Isabella to William so we don't know her reaction or feelings during this exciting time; we only have William's letters to his mother. 

Illustration from Vanity Fair


As was recorded in the parish records at the British Embassy in Paris, France, where the couple were married on 20 August, 1836, 

William Makepeace Thackeray of the Parish of St. John Paddington, in the County of Middlesex Batchelor and Isabella Gethin Shawe of the Parish of Donerail in the County of Cork Spinster and the minor was married in this house with the consent of her mother Isabella Creagh Shawe this twentieth day of August in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-six by me M. H. Luscombe, Bishop and Chaplain. This marriage was solemnized between us William Makepeace Thackeray, Isabella Gethin Shawe, in the presence of V. Spencer, Isabella Creagh Shawe, Senior, J.W. Lemaire. 

A portrait of Isabella and daughter, Anny Thackeray ca 1837 by William Makepeace Thackeray

The first two years of marriage (1836-38) were the happiest the couple would have; especially with the birth of first born daughter, Anne Isabella Thackeray, named after both mothers, on 9 June 1837. She was a chubby, happy, active baby. 'Anny' as she was called would be the only sibling to live through to old age. Anne would marry her cousin Richmond Ritchie seventeen years her junior. She would publish several novels moving to the Isle of Wight. She had a wonderful relationship with her niece Adeline Stephens better known as Virginia Woolf. 
Several months later, Isabella was pregnant with a baby girl named after her sister, Jane. She gave birth to Jane Thackeray on 2 July, 1838 and on 14 March 1839 she passed on. However, for unknown reasons, baby Jane Thackeray died at eight months old. William Makepeace Thackeray, wrote a letter to his mother, Mrs. Carmichael Smyth:

and now I would be almost sorry — no that is not true — but I would not ask to have the dear little Jane back again and subject her to the degradation of life and pain. O God watch over us too, and as we may think that Your Great heart yearns towards the innocent charms of these little infants, let us try and think that it will have tenderness for us likewise who have been innocent once, and have, in the midst of corruption, some remembrances of good still. Sometimes I fancy that at the judgement time the little one would come out and put away the sword of the angry angel I think her love for us and her beautiful purity would melt the Devil himself — Nonsense, you know what I mean. We have sent to Heaven a little angel who came from us & loved us and God will understand her language & visit us mildly (Letter from William Makepeace Thackeray to Mrs. Carmichael-Smyth, March 1839).

Isabella is pregnant again with her third baby and gives birth to daughter, Harriet Marian Thackeray on 27 May, 1840 nicknamed, "Minnie". She would grow up to marry Leslie Stephen having miscarried twice finally giving birth prematurely the third time to daughter, Laura Makepeace Stephen weighing just three pounds. Laura may have been what is now called, autistic. Her parents put her in Priory Hospital where she remained until her death in 1945. For Harriet, she was pregnant again, suffered from complications and passed away from eclampsia (apoplexy) on November 28, 1875 the same thing that her mother would pass away from. It was after the birth of Minnie that her depression began to take shape affecting her husband, William mostly.  According to, The Psychiatric Case History of Isabella Shawe Thackeray and her doctor, Stanley Cobb; here is his diagnosis:

In discussing the cause of this mental breakdown the fact that the patient’s mother had periods of depression after her children were born is probably important. Although mild depressions are common enough during the nursing period, there is abundant evidence that Mrs. Shawe was unstable and difficult. So if blame is to be placed, it may well begin with putting it on the egg, with stressful environment as secondary. Life before her marriage was not easy for Isabella Shawe, and the year of engagement to Thackeray had stormy passages with the mother, who wished to break up the match, and with the lover as mentioned above. Then the four years of marriage, though happy, brought heavy physical burdens — three pregnancies in quick succession. Added to this were all the adjustments to marriage and the grief over losing a child. There is no evidence that Thackeray himself was a cause of trouble; in fact, he seems to have made a positive contribution towards happiness.

The diagnosis is schizophrenia, of a type that often begins with depression and ideas of unworthiness a few weeks after childbirth. 2 Some of these patients get well spontaneously in a few months and the diagnosis of a “post-puerperal depression” is made. Others seem to drift into a permanent state of apathy and live the rest of their lives in an unreal world of fantasy, with gradual mental deterioration. Such was the fate of Mrs. Thackeray.

 Stanley Cobb, M.D. 

According to census' 1871-1891, Isabella Gethin Shawe  Thackeray was placed in care at Eden Lodge, Leigh, Essex, United Kingdom. Her husband made sure she was being cared for at the home of friends of his, in this case, Henry and Emma Thompson. She passed away there on 11 January 1894 at the age of seventy-seven from eclampsia (apoplexy) with her first born daughter, Anne Thackeray Ritchie present at her bedside.






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