How one has enjoyed things

Dinah Birch

  • Anny: A Life of Anne Thackeray Ritchie by Henrietta Garnett
    Chatto, 322 pp, £18.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 7011 7129 4

When Thackeray died in 1863 his eldest daughter, Anny, who was 26, was left not just with a famous name and a sum of money but with an established place in London literary life. Affectionate and needy, Thackeray had nurtured Anny’s talents, and used her as his amanuensis. Before his death she had begun to publish work of her own, including a vigorous novel, The Story of Elizabeth. Thackeray’s endorsement was the ground of an indestructible self-belief. Anny never quite outgrew a submissive dedication to his memory, but his death meant liberation. Her breezy assumption that there would always be enough money, with a little left over, caused her friends and family much bother. She was also a publisher’s nightmare: the genial George Smith ruefully recalled that her manuscripts were ‘a medley of pieces of paper of all shapes and sizes, written here and there and fastened together with a needle and thread’. These disorderly ways were the product of a conviction that she need not distract herself with life’s smallnesses. As Thackeray’s heir, it was her business to observe, to think and to write.

When she was 18, Anny wrote a fervent letter to a clergyman’s wife called Mrs Fanshawe:

O! if I was only a boy, I should make myself a clergyman in order to give a sermon wh. would make their hair stand on end . . . I should like a profession so much – not to spend my life crocheting, mending my clothes and reading novels – wh. seems the employment of English ladies . . . as my favourite Miss Martineau says it is far nobler to earn than to save. I think I should like to earn very much & become celebrated like the aforesaid Harriet who is one of the only sensible women living beside thee & me & 2 or 3 more I know.

The first thing she published was an engagingly enthusiastic endorsement of charitable schools in the poorest districts of London. She was particularly impressed by the Jewish foundations. ‘Little Jew babies are uncommonly like little Christians; just as funny, as hungry, as helpless, and happy now that the bowls of food come steaming in.’ The older girls showed off their mental gymnastics ‘until the room begins to spin breathlessly round and round, and I am left ever so far behindhand.’ Meekness was not expected or forthcoming from these children, ‘so self-possessed, keen-eyed, well-mannered’. Humility was not a quality she admired.

As I listen to them, I cannot help wishing that many of our little Christians were taught to be as independent and self-respecting in their dealings with the grown-up people who come to look at them. One would fancy that servility was a sacred institution, we cling to it so fondly. We seem to expect an absurd amount of respect from our juniors and inferiors; we are ready to pay back just as much to those above us in station.

The list of those who came into contact with her is astounding. Dickens, of course. He made much of Anny and her younger and more conventional sister, Minny, the bereaved children of a man from whom he had been estranged. Trollope, as strict in his daily routine as Anny was chaotic, welcomed the young women into his ‘sweet old prim, chill house wrapped in snow’. Tennyson was a close friend, and the Isle of Wight, where Anny and Minny were sheltered by the irrepressible Julia Margaret Cameron, became a lifelong refuge. Anny relished the island isolation, which allowed for something approaching bohemianism, particularly in the Cameron household, with its ‘tumblers of brandy & water’, and eggs and bacon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. ‘Everybody is either a genius or a poet, or a painter or peculiar in some way. Poor Miss Stephen says is there nobody commonplace?’ Poor Miss Stephen – Milly, Leslie Stephen’s timid sister – had a point. Soon they met Leslie Stephen, newly embarked on a literary career in London, who hesitantly courted and then married Minny. Anny felt the loss of her straightforward sister, who had been a sobering influence. But her circle of friends and acquaintances continued to expand: Millais, Elizabeth Gaskell, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Monckton Milnes, Ruskin, Katie Collins, Arthur Munby, George Eliot, the Carlyles, Henry Cole.

Some of these, like the Carlyles, were handed down from the old days, sanctified with the reflected glamour of the past. Anny was fond of Jane Carlyle, but sometimes lost patience with Thomas. ‘At this moment I am furious with him, cross-grained, ungrateful, self-absorbed old nut-cracker. He who could have such beautiful thoughts should have lamented not his fellow men but his own egotistical puerilities.’ But when the widowed old man was burgled, Anny organised 15 rich female sympathisers to buy a replacement for his stolen clock. The presentation was made on a February day suffused with ‘greenish vapours’ in Lady Stanley’s cavernous drawing-room, ‘where the fog had also penetrated, and presently from the further end of the room, advancing through the shifting darkness, came Carlyle’. The gift brought out his self-pity in its purest form. ‘What have I to do with Time any more?’ was his lugubrious response. Anny was mortified, though she was soon consoled by hearing that Carlyle was now boasting of his new clock, and of the womanly veneration that had provided it.

For all the bustle of her professional and social life, Anny looked back wistfully on the warmth and security of her days as Thackeray’s cherished daughter. All the more credit to her, then, for holding out against the seductions of Tennysonian sadness. ‘Toilers and Spinsters’, an early essay on the need for single women to work, is almost comic in its insistence on bracing activity. Reading ‘Mariana’ might be a luxurious pleasure, but it wouldn’t do to settle into the moated grange:

To come forward, for instance, and say, ‘Oh, alas, alas! What a sad, dull, solitary, useless, unhappy, unoccupied life is mine! I can only see a tombstone at the end of my path, and willows and cypresses on either side, and flowers, all dead and faded, crumbling at my feet; and my only companions are memories, and hair ornaments, and ghosts, prosy, stupid old ghosts, who go on saying the same things over and over again, and twaddling about all the years that are gone away for ever.’

Anny was 23 when she wrote this, and perhaps believed that she would not marry. If her life was to be spent as a spinster, that was no reason for despondency:

Are unmarried people shut out from all theatres, concerts, picture-galleries, parks and gardens? May they not walk out on every day of the week? Are they locked up all the summer time, and only let out when an east wind is blowing? Are they forced to live in one particular quarter of the town? Does Mudie refuse their subscriptions? . . . May not spinsters, as well as bachelors, give their opinions on every subject, no matter how ignorant they may be; travel about anywhere, in any costume, however convenient, climb up craters, publish their experiences, tame horses, wear pork-pie hats, write articles in the Saturday Review?

She was too busy with all this to become a serious novelist. Her fiction is erratic in construction and often hasty in conclusion. Trollope came up with a diagnosis: ‘There is not a line of which she need be ashamed, – not a sentiment of which she should not be proud. But she writes like a lazy writer who dislikes her work, and who allows her own want of energy to show itself in her pages.’ Anny was not short of energy, but she was never willing to subject either her life or her writing to the disciplines that produced Trollope’s stream of books. Her good-humoured narrative irregularities are both exasperating and illuminating. It was generally women who appreciated Anny’s writing. George Eliot, who might have been expected to disapprove, was an eager consumer. ‘I am obliged to fast from fiction, and fasting is sometimes known to weaken the stomach. I ought to except Miss Thackeray’s short stories, which I cannot resist when they come near me.’ Virginia Woolf drew on her memories of Anny, who was known as Aunt Anny to the Stephen children, in the figure of Mrs Hilbery in Night and Day:

Ideas came to her chiefly when she was in motion. She liked to perambulate the room with a duster in her hand, with which she stopped to polish the backs of already lustrous books, musing and romancing as she did so. Suddenly the right phrase or the penetrating point of view would suggest itself and she would drop her duster and write ecstatically for a few breathless moments; and then the mood would pass away, and the duster would be sought for and the old books polished again. These spells of inspiration never burnt steadily, but flickered over the gigantic mass of the subject as capriciously as a will-o’-the-wisp, lighting now on this point now on that . . . And yet they were so brilliant, these paragraphs, so nobly phrased, so lightning-like in their illumination, that the dead seemed to crowd the very room.

The romancing is often more hard-headed than this suggests. In Old Kensington, a knowingly nostalgic novel about the semi-rural Kensington of Anny’s childhood, the heroine lies awake after accepting a proposal: ‘She had found out, by her new experience, that Robert loved her, but in future he would rule her too. In her life, so free hitherto, there would be this secret rule to be obeyed, this secret sign. Dolly did not know whether she resented it.’ Finally Dolly rejects the priggish Robert’s advances and marries a less demanding suitor.

Like Dolly, Anny did not want to be ruled. But she too was reluctant to renounce love. At the age of 40 she unexpectedly solved the problem by marrying Richmond Ritchie, a cousin 17 years her junior. There was a certain amount of fuss; but not as much as might have been predicted, for it was understood that Anny was not to be governed by convention. She produced two healthy children in quick succession, and proved a competent mother. Perhaps her young husband (handsome, ardent) had a hard time of it: he gave up his own ambitions in order to support the family through years of faithful toil in the India Office. In later years he was less faithful in other ways. But the marriage was as happy as most, and Anny wrote on. Resilient to the last, she outlived her husband and most of her contemporaries. A pacifist all her life, she grieved bitterly over the outbreak of war in 1914. The Franco-Prussian War had taught her to hate chauvinism: then, she had slipped into Paris during the siege to help a cousin marooned there. In her final years, what money she could raise from her articles went to the refugees, widows and orphans the Great War left behind. ‘It is a good thing one is nearing the end at last,’ she wrote in 1917, ‘for life is too overpowering for this tired mortal coil – I hope I shall be two or three young cheerful capable people in my next life & O how one has enjoyed things here & thanked God for them – tho not half eno.’

Henrietta Garnett is the great-grand-daughter of Leslie Stephen, and so can claim a family interest in Anny Thackeray. Good-humoured, gossipy, and with a sharp eye for detail, her book has something of Anny’s best qualities. Vivid experiences sweep by, enlivened by Garnett’s sympathy with women who value their own lives but don’t take them too seriously. Men can look dull in this world, speaking for heavyweight concerns that seem peripheral. It’s an unscholarly approach, however, and it has its drawbacks. Much is omitted. Studious readers will still want to consult the invaluable 1994 Ohio edition of the journals and letters. As Anny often did, Garnett runs out of breath towards the end of her task and gives short shrift to the closing decades of her subject’s life. What emerges from the book with startling clarity is the intimacy of Virginia Woolf’s relations with her Victorian predecessor. The sense of elegy that haunts Woolf’s work, her contempt for the self-importance of masculine public life, her assumption of a certain social prestige, her compassion and her visual precision all reflect the example of Aunt Anny.