When people write of the past, those among us who have reached a certain age are sometimes apt to forget that it is because so much of it still exists in our lives, that it is so dear to us. — Anne Isabella Ritchie, Chapters from Some Memoirs [191]

The year 2011 marks the bicentenary of the birth of William Makepeace Thackeray, a true genius of Victorian literature: a novelist, satirist, essayist, journalist, magazine editor and even an illustrator. His major novels, Vanity Fair, Pendennis, The History of Henry Esmond, and The Newcomes, are memorable panoramic surveys of English society.

Professor John Aplin’s homage to the great Victorian, a two-volume publication, The Inheritance of Genius: A Thackeray Family Biography, 1798-1875 and Memory and Legacy: A Thackeray Family Biography, 1876-1919, narrates intimately and thoroughly the details of the Thackeray family life. Volume two, which is the subject of the present review, draws the reader into a captivating domestic history of Annie Thackeray, the writer’s elder daughter, her family, friends and acquaintances.

Anne Isabella (Annie) Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919), a beloved step-aunt of Virginia Woolf, was a significant intellectual figure of her time. She and her younger sister, Harriet Marian (“Minny”) Thackeray Stephen (1840-1875), lived among Victorian literary society. Annie was well-acquainted with a number of the great names of British literature, including Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Edward FitzGerald and Henry James. Brought up in France and England together with her sister Minny, Annie was her father’s closest companion until his death. Although her literary talent was inferior to her father’s, Annie became a recognised author. She published five domestic novels, of which Mrs. Dymond (1885) is her most significant work. She also modernised classical fairy tales, such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty, setting them in the Victorian time, and replacing magical elements for realistic ones. In her fiction Annie provided a rather mild picture of Victorian domestic life, but she did not avoid showing the restricted condition of women in Victorian society.

Over the course of her life, Annie wrote several diaries, journals and lots of letters in which she described, among other things, her unconventional upbringing and relations with her famous father. Her literary formation started when she was still a teenager and her father dictated her portions of his works. At the age of 23 she published her first article, “Little Scholars”, in the Cornhill Magazine, edited by her father. In 1862, she published in the Cornhill, under the editorship of George Lewes, her first novel, The Story of Elizabeth, which received high acclaim from readers. For a number of years Annie published almost exclusively in that magazine. After Minny’s death at only thirty-five, in 1875, from complications related to the premature birth of her second child, Annie helped her sister’s widowed husband Leslie Stephen in upbringing of his first child, Laura. In 1877, Annie married her cousin, Richmond Ritchie (1854-1912), an undergraduate at Cambridge, who was 17 years her junior. They had two children; Hester, born in 1878, and William, born in 1883. Alfred Tennyson’s son, Lionel, was best man at Annie’s wedding.

Annie explored the female literary tradition in her Book of Sibyls (1883), a collection of essays about four famous women writers Anna Letitia Barbauld (1743-1825), Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), Amelia Opie (1769-1853) and Jane Austen (1775-1817). In 1913, Annie published a short sequel essay, A Discourse on Modern Sibyls, dedicated to her great literary predecessors George Eliot, Currer Bell (Charlotte Brontë), and Margaret Oliphant, one of her closest friends. These two books of essays may have inspired her niece Virginia Woolf to write about the woman as artist who has to overcome prejudice against her gender and her work.

Annie eagerly preserved the memory and legacy of her great father. At some point of her later life she gave up a literary career and was completely immersed in the preparation of Thackeray’s biography in spite of the fact that her father did not want to have a biography of himself published.

My Father never wished for any Biography of himself to be written, and for this reason I have never attempted to write one. It is only after a quarter of a century that I have determined to publish memories which chiefly concern his books. [168]

As Aplin shows, although Annie obeyed her father’s wish, she tried to write something that is not a standard biography, but a series of biographical introductions to Thackeray's works. Annie was an archivist by nature. She kept a great number of her father’s papers and correspondence. Besides, she knew and corresponded with a number of individuals who had known Thackeray. Before she decided to publish her memories of her father, Annie wrote a few biographical sketches devoted to Madame de Sévigné (1881), Alfred Tennyson, John Ruskin and the Brownings (1892). Annie also wrote reminiscences and memorials of her contemporaries, including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell; Anne Evans (1820-1870), a poet and skilled composer of dance songs; Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), a portrait photographer; Fanny Kemble (1809-1893), an actress and author, and her sister Adelaide Sartoris (1814-1879), a celebrated operatic soprano. In recognition of her literary merits Annie was elected President of the English Association in 1912.

Her autobiographical writings, also devoted to her father, include Chapters From Some Memories (1894), which anticipated her prefaces for an edition of his works published between 1898 and 1899. In 1911, Annie revised her introductions for the Centenary Biographical Edition, which amounted to 26 volumes. The effect of Annie’s solicitous efforts was that, for a time, Thackeray superseded Dickens in posthumous fame.

Memory and Legacy is a chronological reconstruction of Annie Thackeray Ritchie’s mature life illustrated by numerous quotations from her journal and letters as well as memories of people who knew her well. Thanks to a meticulous research of extensive manuscript collections of Anne Thackeray Ritchie papers, including her letters, diaries, journals and notebooks, kept in various locations in Britain and the United States, as well as other related manuscripts and published collections, Professor Aplin adds a great deal of information to Thackeray family biographies published earlier.

The book covers the life of Annie Thackeray from 1876 until her death in 1919. Aplin sets the life of Anne Thackeray Ritchie against the cultural background of her time and shows how she interacted with a number of eminent Victorians and Edwardians. Along with the personal details of Annie’s life, the reader gets a picture of the people around her, particularly her husband Richmond, Leslie Stephen and her young niece Virginia Woolf. There are also numerous references to her father’s literary friends, whom she met in her early and mature life, particularly Alfred Tennyson and Edward FitzGerald. Other references are to the children of the eminent Victorians, who were her friends and acquaintances. The descriptions of Annie’s relationships with her family, friends and acquaintances reveal her unique and captivating personality.

Aplin begins his narrative with Virginia Woolf’s fictional portrait of Annie as Mrs Hilbery in Night and Day (1919). Virginia was fascinated by her step-aunt’s devotion to the memory of her great father. Mrs. Hilbery, like Annie, tries unsuccessfully to create a coherent and exhaustive biography of her late father from manuscripts, correspondence and memory. The book consisting of ten chapters focuses not only on Annie’s domestic life and family relationships but also on her extensive friendships and acquaintances. Annie’s life was replete with friendships that stood the test of time. As a child Annie met a great number of eminent Victorians who visited her father, and in her later life she continued acquaintance with many of them and their families including Charles Dickens’s favourite daughter Kate Perugini, Elizabeth Gaskell’s daughters, Alfred Tennyson’s sons Hallam and Lionel.

Apart from people mentioned above, Annie’s wide circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances included Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister; J. M. Barrie, a Scottish novelist and playwright; Augustine Birrell, a politician, critic and author; Charles Booth, a philanthropist and social researcher, his wife Mary, and daughter Margaret (Meg), who married Annie’s son Billy; Jane Brookfield, the wife of William Thackeray’s Cambridge friend; Mary Brotherton, a rich and benevolent cotton heiress; Sariana Browning, Robert Browning’s sister, and his son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (Pen); Rhoda Broughton, a novelist; Ariana Curtis, Robert Browning’s old friend; Charles Darwin, his wife Emma and their daughters; Dr John Langdon Down, the discoverer of Down’s syndrome; George du Maurier, a cartoonist and author; Edmund Gosse, a poet, author and critic; George Eliot and George Lewes, Henry James; Andrew Lang, a Scottish poet; Charlotte Leigh Smith, the wife of the Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith; Frederic Leighton, a painter and sculptor; George Meredith, John Everett Millais; Margaret Oliphant, a novelist; George Murray Smith, founder of the Cornhill Magazine; Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anthony Trollope, Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband.

Annie lived a busy family and literary life. She was loved and admired by many. After her death Virginia Woolf wrote a moving and pertinent appraisal of her extraordinary step-aunt.

She will be the un-acknowledged source of much that remains in men's minds about the Victorian age. She will be the transparent medium through which we behold the dead. We shall see them lit up by her tender and radiant glow. Above all and for ever she will be the companion and interpreter of her father, whose spirit she has made to walk among us not only because she wrote of him but because even more wonderfully she lived in him. [258]

Annie proudly continued the legacy of her memorable father. Her lifelong friend, Hallam Tennyson, devised the following memorial tablet in St Agnes Church, in Freshwater Bay, Isle of Wight, where Annie regularly worshipped.

Her writing reveals the inheritance of Genius, Her life the inspiration of loving kindness. [254]

Professor Aplin’s absorbing and perceptive biography of Anne Thackeray Ritchie is illustrated with photographs: Thackeray’s watercolour portrait of Annie (front cover), Annie Thackeray, her husband Richmond Ritchie and their children, a page from Annie’s journal, Laura Makepeace Stephen, Thackeray’s carte de visite, Isabella Thackeray’s grave, a fragment of a letter from Thackeray to Edward FitzGerald. The book contains select bibliography and a detailed index for easy reference.

John Aplin’s Memory and Legacy: A Thackeray Biography, 1876-1919, is a feast for Victorianists and readers looking for biographies of Victorians. Aplin has sympathetically and minutely portrayed the fruitful and fulfilled life of Annie Thackeray Ritchie in a book that is as knowledgeable as it is compelling. The Lutterworth Press publication is a timely and valuable addition to both Thackeray and Victorian studies.

References

Aplin, John. Memory and Legacy: A Thackeray Family Biography, 1876-1919. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2011.

Ritchie, Anne Isabella. Chapters from Some Memoirs. Elibron Classic Series (Adamant Media Corporation), 2006.


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Last modified 1 March 2011