'In her father's steps she trod': Anne Thackeray Ritchie imagining Paris.
William Makepeace Thackeray, perhaps the most self-consciously cosmopolitan writer of his generation, believed that the English, whatever strides they might make in linguistic competence, were constitutionally incapable of understanding the 'real, rougeless, intime' life of the French. (1) Consequently, the essays in his Paris Sketch Book (1840), though they affect the tone of the man about town capable of seeing through the shabby tricks of exiled British aristocrats, or the louche goings-on of the dispossessed French minor nobility, are confined to the social manners of the French: to their politics, their theatre, art, and literature rather than to their inner lives. His sally into melodramatic French romance, 'The Story of Mary Ancel', if shorn of its French props--a handy guillotine and post-Revolutionary enmities--could equally well have been played out against the troubled histories of the British Isles. Similarly the tale of 'Beatrice Merger' is accessible to Thackeray because she is of the 'servant of all-work' class whose routine labour subjects her to the casually inquisitive gaze of English travellers. Her use to Thackeray, it transpires, lies precisely in the typicality of a story which could, but for her nationality, render her indistinguishable from her many servant-maid counterparts in England: her Frenchness is a stalking horse, employed as a defamiliarizing trick, which allows Thackeray to point the finger at the monstrous indifference of the British Establishment towards the sufferings of the poor, and to Anglican intolerance of Catholicism. The narrator of the Paris Sketch Book performs as both tour guide and a man whose extensive travel entitles him to mock the timid insularity of the Englishman abroad, while also feeding his countrymen's prejudices concerning such matters as French duplicity and military cowardice. The narrator's easy assumption of superiority stems from his conviction that he can read aright, or at least has the good sense to know where his powers of translation stop, whereas as soon as the Channel appears his travelling companions are all at sea. The cramped quarters of the cross-Channel steamer, where mistress and maid are sick by turn in the same spitoon, and French danseuses mingle with innocent girls sent out to train as governesses, launch that disconcerting process by which English class- and gender-markers start to dissolve, and by the time the English reach Boulogne, en route for Paris, their uncertainty drives them to steer clear of French food, drink, and politics and take lodgings within the safety of the British colony. (2) If the English gentleman abroad glorying in his adventurousness is a picture of pitiable folly, how much more mistaken in their ambitions, Thackeray suggests, are the women travel writers of his day:
With our English notions andmoral and physical constitution, it is quite impossible that we should become intimate with our brisk neighbours; and when such authors as Lady Morgan and Mrs. Trollope, having frequented a certain number of tea-parties in the French capital, begin to prattle about French manners and men,--with all respect for the talents of those ladies, we do believe their information not to be worth a sixpence; they speak to us, not of men, but of tea-parties. Tea-parties are the same all the world over; with the exception that, with the French, there are more lights and prettier dresses; and with us, amighty dealmore tea in the pot. (3)
Lady Sydney Morgan's France (1817) and Frances Trollope's Paris and the Parisians in 1835 (1836) had enjoyed the kind of popular success to which the young Thackeray, when he wrote these words, still aspired; and in brashly disparaging their work Thackeray was intent on indicating that his rivals' accounts necessarily suffered from gender limitations from which his own work would be free. Morgan and Trollope's cultural credentials are called into question by reducing salon attendance to prattling over the teacups. It could be argued that Morgan laid herself open to such an attack by handing over to her husband, the diplomat Sir Charles Morgan, four appendices on 'Law, Finance, Medicine and Political Opinion'. Moreover, her account of France lacked the denunciations of political and religious oppression, inflected by her own notorious Irish Nationalism, which marked much of her other work; nevertheless, the book's serious discussion of educational and literary matters certainly raised it above social tittle-tattle. Similarly, Trollope might be held to have invited Thackeray's condescension by entitling her earliest venture into travel writing Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832); but her success as a travel writer depended upon her very generous interpretation of this rubric. No one who had read the preface to her book on France could doubt her intention of engaging with a world beyond the teacups:
I found good where I looked for mischief--strength where I anticipated weakness--and the watchful wisdom of cautious legislators, most usefully at work for the welfare of their country, instead of the crude vagaries of a revolutionary government active only in leading blindfold the deluded populace who trusted to them. (4)
In fact Morgan's and Trollope's accounts are both more consistently focused attempts at taking the cultural temperature of post-Revolutionary France than Thackeray's oddly assorted collection of previously published journalism, satirical essays, stories translated from the French, together with reflections on 'public events' and on 'Parisian Art and Literature'. (5) He had some reason to be anxious as to the success of a venture which hovered between the assertion that some of the accounts it contained were 'in the main true' and the implication that the book was a work of fiction, and trivial domestic fiction at that, in the opening 'Dedicatory Letter' from M. A. Titmarsh to his Parisian tailor. His letters during the summer of 1840 show him hard at work securing 'puffs' for the book and an understandable mixture of relief and jubilation when its sales persuaded Chapman and Hall to accept his proposed terms for a similar work on Ireland. (6)
By the time that he had started work on the Irish Sketch Book Thackeray's wife was showing serious signs of mental instability, and in late autumn 1840 he entrusted his two young daughters to his mother and stepfather to raise in Paris's Anglo-Indian colony (1840-46). Between the ages of three and nine Anny Thackeray, (7) and her sister Minnie, grew up in this strangely sequestered enclave off the Champs Elysees, their routine varied only by summer decampments to a provincial hunting-lodge at Creil (40 kilometres from Paris), or the occasional trip to the Normandy or Belgian coast. The life to which they had been committed by their father was one which he chose as the safest solution for their welfare, but which he also mocked as old-fashioned in its unswerving loyalty to Republicanism, and dogmatic in its narrow Protestantism. When visiting this reconstituted household, Thackeray always took separate lodgings, with the result that the children never knew quite when to expect this welcome excitement in their otherwise cloistered lives.
Yet, between the ages of three and eighteen, Anny was to gain intimate experience of a domestic life in France never available to her father, who, by the time he first spent any length of time in Paris, had already acquired the self-confident veneer of the Carthusian and Cambridge-educated gentleman. Six years after their first abrupt transplantation, the children were uprooted and brought back to live under their father's liberal regime in Kensington. In 1852, during Thackeray's American lecture tour, the girls were returned to their grandparents' care in Paris. Once again the change was very sudden: Thackeray had promised to come to Paris to take leave of them but went straight from Liverpool without saying farewell. Anny was now fifteen, painfully aware of the loss of her unconventional companionship with her father, whose amanuensis she had become the previous year, and resentful of the pious, circumscribed life her grandmother wished to impose. By the time of the girls' next prolonged visit to Paris in 1855, Anny was eighteen and her sister fifteen, old enough, their father considered, to form their own household in a flat adjacent to their grandparents', and to accept invitations, independently of their grandmother, from family friends such as the Dickenses and the Brownings. Taking tea in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's salon gave Anny access to the 'tea-parties' which the female authors, so despised by her father, had managed to parlay into a saleable commodity, while visiting the theatre with Mrs Sartoris, complete with George Sand in the audience, also allowed Anny a glimpse of some of the Parisian amusements which had been available to the author of the Paris Sketch Book.
Seven years later, Anny's first Parisian tale, The Story of Elizabeth (1863), appeared to instant acclaim. (8) Rhoda Broughton later recalled, 'the memory of my astonished delight when The Story of Elizabeth burst in its wonderful novelty and spring-like quality on my consciousness, written, as I was told by a girl hardly older than myself'. (9) Rhoda Broughton's first novels, Cometh Up as a Flower (1867) and Not Wisely but Too Well (1867), were instantly classified as part of the genre, labelled 'sensation fiction', and the review of Anny's Story that Margaret Oliphant penned for Blackwood's Magazine in August 1863 immediately followed her remarks on such recent additions to the genre as Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862) and Aurora Floyd (1863), Wilkie Collins's No Name (1862), and Ellen Wood's East Lynne (1861) and Foggy Night at Ooord (1863). Despite disapproving, as had the Athenaeum's reviewer, (10) of one element of the plot--the heroine's competition for the aoection of hermother's former lover--Oliphant found herself strangely charmed by this 'bold, yet modestly told story of a troublesome girl'. She ascribed the tale's attraction to Anny's singular capacity to disclose 'the secrets which lie within that mixture of sanctity and supposed angelhood in which the heart of a petty girl is veiled from close inspection. [...] It is utterly impossible to approve of her in any point of view; but quite as little is it possible to refrain from liking and being interested in her.' (11) George Eliot, who claimed to read little contemporary fiction, was similarly taken by the 'melancholy' tale. (12)
It might be as well, at this point, to offer a brief synopsis of The Story of Elizabeth. The tale, the narrator declares, is 'the story of a foolish woman, who through her own folly, learnt wisdom at last; whose troubles--they were not very great, they might have made the happiness of some less eager spirit--were more than she knew how to bear' (p. 1). The eighteen-year-old Elizabeth (Elly) Gilmour is taken to Paris by her scheming, widowed mother, in order to prevent the development of an attachment with a former lover of her own, Sir John Dampier. The mother's growing anxiety over the uncertainties of her own position leads her to marry the tender-hearted, but grimly ascetic, French Protestant minister Pasteur Tourneur, modelled on the celebrated Calvinist Pasteur Adolphe Monod, whose weekly confirmation classes Anny and Minny had been required to attend by their grandmother.(13) Elizabeth, suddenly transplanted from the pleasures of the social season to the rigid economies and monotonously pious life of the Pasteur's household, wishes herself dead.
Choosing to stay behind in Paris while her mother and stepfather spend a week in the country, she defies the French servants and a step-aunt whom she loathes and ventures alone into the streets of Paris. Emerging from a Catholic church where she has sought timely consolation, she comes upon Sir John Dampier, who whisks her off for an unchaperoned ride beyond the city limits in his carriage. Both Elizabeth and Sir John, who is now promised to his wealthy cousin Laetitia, a former schoolfriend of Elizabeth's, are aware that such an outing with a man who is neither brother nor husband constitutes 'wrongdoing'. Moreover, though the Pasteur's home seemed a prison, it turns out that Paris is merely a larger site of surveillance. Two further outings that week, both achieved by climbing out of her bedroom window, are seen by the French bonne, and by a former French suitor of Elizabeth's, who comes across the couple first in the Louvre and then at the theatre, where, appropriately enough, they are watching Goethe's tale of Faust and Marguerite. Sir John, to avoid embarrassment, declares himself engaged to Elizabeth, only to disabuse her of this notion when her former suitor leaves their box. Her shame is complete when her stepfather, accompanied by another Pasteur, appears to drag her home from the theatre. Elizabeth succumbs to a delirious, life-threatening fever, is forgiven by the Pasteur, and is slowly nursed back to health by Sir John's aunt, who completes Elizabeth's recuperation with a stay in a hotel at Boatstown, the ferry disembarkation point on the English side of the Channel. During this period of convalescence Elizabeth acquires the capacity to put others' happiness first, relinquishes all hope of marriage to Sir John, turns down an offer of marriage from Sir John's clergyman cousin, and vows to busy herself with doing good in her stepfather's household in Paris. Meanwhile Sir John vacillates between fulfilling his obligation to the equable Laetitia and rewarding Elly's pathetic devotion.
According to Anny's daughter, 'it was Anne Thackeray's father who made her change the end of the "The Story of Elizabeth" into a happy one', (14) and it seems probable that Anny had intended this tale, like many others she was to write, to prove that true happiness lies in recognizing the loneliness and suffering of others. The deviation between the intentions announced at the tale's outset and its eventual conclusion would certainly help to explain its first readers' appraisal of the tale as variously 'spring-like' and 'melancholy'. In the penultimate chapter Elizabeth offers comfort to an English spinster, whose fate as she lies mortally ill in a poverty-stricken Parisian lodging-house foreshadows her own imagined end. Elizabeth's solitary musings, however, are suddenly interrupted by the reappearance of Sir John, whose growing sense of romantic attachment to the girl who has suffered so disproportionately for her infatuation with him has finally triumphed over the worldly prudence which dictated his engagement to Laetitita. This time he comes openly to the Pasteur's house and proposes to Elizabeth, and the two are reunited amid general thanksgiving. To achieve this happy outcome the possibility of an alternative husband for Laetitia is hinted at and the subplot of the previous unhappy relationship between Sir John and Elizabeth's mother reduced to a dim memory, which does no more than make the couple feel 'awkward [...] and uncomfortable' (p. 185). The novel's final chapter tries, against the grain of the plot, to wrench the tale around to recuperate Anny's original, more pathetic, vision: the narrator and the elderly aunt remind us of the eternal life which all must come to (p. 191) and we are assured that the heroine, although she has chosen earthly happiness and prosperity in preference to the 'self-denial and holy living' practised by Tourneur p>ere et fils, 'must have' gained a depth and wisdom by her sufferings that will sustain her in troubles to come. The novel's final sentences take us to the Paris of 1860, where, we are reminded, Baron Haussmann's grand designs have swept away Pasteur Tourneur's house, in which Elizabeth had felt herself a caged bird. Anny's sudden switch of chronological perspective--a favourite device of William Thackeray's for mocking the vanity of our worldly concerns-produces a different tone in the daughter's work, where it serves as a gently elegiac reminder of the transience of human life. In the longer run, her story suggests, both individual sufferings and the apparent yearnings and triumphs of a materialist culture are revealed as passing features of a greater metaphysical cycle.
The plot of The Story of Elizabeth, as Oliphant approvingly commented, contained no crime or passion, so why did contemporary reviewers see it both as in some way allied to the sensational fiction of its day and yet also strikingly fresh in its approach? The answer, I would suggest, lies in the way that the circumstances of Anny Thackeray's upbringing had encouraged her to reappraise various fictional conventions of her day.
First, and most obviously, this novel takes a fresh look at representations of the English girl confronting French culture. Female novelists of the day frequently used the Continent, especially francophone Europe, to stand proxy for a variety of sins, more particularly those of the flesh. As a ten-year-old child, Anny had indulged in the illicit reading of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre (1847), much of which, she later recollected, was unintelligible. (15) Nevertheless, fresh from a six-year sojourn in her grandparents' cloistered and puritanical French home, she is likely at least to have noted the alternative Paris, characterized by the 'conservatory flowers and sprinkled essences' adorning the Parisian hotel love nest in which Rochester had installed his mistress, the opera dancer Celine Varens. (16) Villette (1853), which portrayed a Protestant girl's encounter with the 'intime', but not necessarily 'rougeless', life of a francophone boarding-school, appeared when Anny, aged sixteen, was enduring the second and more difficult seven-month spell in the grandparental home, so that Lucy Snowe's miserable incarceration within Madame Beck's establishment and her various encounters with a carnivalesque Catholic culture (17) and alternative English exilic lifestyles could not have failed to interest her. (18) The sensation fiction with which Anny's tale was so often bracketed continued this representation of French culture as sexually permissive. Geraldine Jewsbury's shudder of propriety at Ellen Wood's choice of Boulogne as the watering place where the worthy middleclass hero of East Lynne proposes to sends his wife to recuperate--a place where 'no English husband would be likely to send his wife unprotected' (19)--turns out to be fully justified when Isabel Vane encounters the disreputable Sir Frances Levison in this coastal resort. Wood's own experience of living in provincial France for twenty years, married to an English banker with an honorary consular position, may have confirmed her view of Englishmen's capacity to behave badly abroad, but it seems more likely that she was simply resorting to fictional stereotypes. Incarceration in a private asylum on the Franco-Belgian border is felt both as an appropriate punishment for Lady Audley, of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862), but also, when we recollect that her misdemeanours include bigamy and attempted murder, as in some way an evasion of the full price that would have been exacted for her crimes in England.
This sense of France as the site of lawlessness, a land where the consequences of English debts and duels could be escaped, where Anglo-Saxon social proprieties and Protestant morality were in abeyance, was to persist for almost a century after the Revolution and was not confined to female novelists: Henry James, who became a close friend of Anny's, was to build a substantial part of his aeuvre upon the interrogation of these beliefs. (20) However, foremost among the early Victorian novelists who had pandered to and milked such prejudices was Anny's own father, William Makepeace Thackeray. The novelty of her tale must have struck contemporary readers all the more for directly following her father's retracing of his early days in Paris in the Adventures of Philip, published in the Cornhill Magazine. (21)
Thackeray's Philip is a tired novel, which trots out a range of the author's stereotypical characters, and once again feeds off that early period in Paris when Thackeray had been a young man in love, earning a living by journalism and learning to loathe his mother-in-law. The tone of the novel veers uncomfortably between the sentimental and the satirical, lauding the naive but manly hero and his innocent love, lambasting vicious old aristocrats, and poking fun at the ignorant mistakes and petty economies exercised by English families who have fled to France to avoid their debtors. For the narrator, Thackeray fell back on the worldly Pendennis, now married to his saintly wife Laura. Her thoroughgoing espousal of the romance between Philip and Charlotte Baynes ensures that the various stratagems Philip employs to secure moments a deux with his beloved in both Boulogne and Paris are excused any hint of impropriety.
The Story of Elizabeth, composed in the interstices of Anny's work as her father's amanuensis, forms an intertext for Philip in the most literal sense. Elizabeth Gilmour, Anny's protagonist, occupies the position of one of her father's innocent heroines, courted by a number of more and less suitable beaux, but she inhabits the role very differently. Unlike Thackeray's put-upon ingenues, moving to the tune of needy parents or peremptory lovers, Elizabeth is spirited, carefree, and thoroughly at home in Paris when the story opens. Instead of the embattled encounter on the doorstep with a concierge, boarding-house keeper, or hotelier to indicate the trepidation with which the English set foot on foreign soil, we first see Elizabeth happily ensconced in a Parisian flat near the Madeleine, looking out onto a busy, cobbled, Paris street. Whereas Thackeray pere tends to draw girls of a marriageable age as either sweet, if sentimental, maidens or calculating minxes, his daughter draws a more complicated picture. Limiting the role of Dampier's cousin, Laetitia, to that of a plot functionary, offering, as her name suggests, a deliberate counterpart to Elizabeth's eager search for happiness allowed Anny to critique the polarized accounts of the female temperament popular with her father and a range of other contemporary novelists. It is not because the character she paints has greater psychological depth: Elizabeth could scarcely be said to know herself sufficiently to make this possible. Rather, the particular combination of traits she exhibits at the story's outset, where she is described as 'a wayward, charming, beautiful girl' (p. 8), permits a greater range of responses to the changing circumstances she experiences. At the beginning of the tale she looks set to become a beautiful but heartless heroine, of the sort just then becoming popular in the novel of sensation: Dickens's Estella and Braddon's Lady Audley, neee Helen Maldon, serve to suggest the type. In the course of the novel it seems as if she may indeed turn into the middle-class 'girl of the period' whose brazen self-centredness, Eliza Lynn Linton was to suggest in her infamous Saturday Review series of articles under this title, might well lead her to be mistaken for a member of the demi-monde. (22) Slowly, however, Elizabeth is transformed from a thoughtless hedonist, apparently unaware of her mother's jealous misery, and more piqued than heartbroken by Sir John's failure to propose, to a passionately sentient being. The middle portion of the novel sees Elizabeth transmogrifying from the role of Charlotte Bronte's Ginevra Fanshawe to that of Lucy Snowe. Her 'nervous fever' serves as the vehicle for enforcing and enacting a passivity as to her own fate that marks a moral and emotional break from her previous selfish concerns. A late arrival on the scene, Will Dampier, John's clerical cousin, is used to help the reader judge the way in which Elly has broken free of the stereotypical mould. Having heard the bald outline of her story but not met her, he feels justified in assuming her to be 'a young woman [who] has behaved as badly as possible; she has made a set at poor John, who is so vain that any woman can get him in to her clutches' (p. 131). Spending a week or so in the company of 'John's imbroglio', however, is sufficient to change his reading so radically that he ventures upon a proposal to Elizabeth, who in her newly chastened state can only fear that her shallow flirtatiousness must be to blame.
This capacity for change, for deviating from the fictional stereotypes of the period in surprising and thought-provoking ways, characterizes both the personae and events of the tale. (23) Elizabeth's mother's story, as sketched in during the first chapter, hints at another, murkier, and altogether more sensational tale. The mother and daughter's apparently whimsical decisions to come and go from London to Paris and back are, it transpires, driven by the mother's compulsion to follow her former lover, and her 'reproachful' presence haunts the early encounters of Elizabeth and Sir John Dampier:
[...] those eyes which had once fascinated and then repelled him, and that he mistrusted so and almost hated now. And this is the secret of my story; but for this it would never have been written. He hated, and she did not hate, poor woman! It would have been better, a thousand times, for herself and her daughter, had she done so. (p. 6)
Desperate to prevent Sir John's burgeoning love for her own daughter, the mother is represented simultaneously as potential hysteric, fallen woman, and penitent:
While Elizabeth lay dreaming in her dark room, her mother, with wild-falling black hair, and wrapped in a long red dressing-gown, was wandering restlessly up and down, or flinging herself on the bed or sofa, and trying at her bedside desperately to sleep, or falling on her knees with clasped outstretched hands. Was she asking for her own happiness at the expense of poor Elly's? I don't like to think so-it seems so cruel, so wicked, so unnatural. But remember, here was a passionate selfish woman, who for long years had had one dream, one idea. (p. 12)
The suggestion of 'the scarlet woman' conveyed in this scene resonates yet more clearly as she makes her way into Sir John's dreams that night,
coming and going in a red gown and talking to him, though he could not understand what she was saying; sometimes she was in his house at Guildford; sometimes in Paris; sometimes sitting with Elly up in a chestnut-tree, and chattering like a monkey; sometimes gliding down interminable rooms and opening door after door. (p. 13)
It is the oscillation of image, and therefore of meaning, that disturbs in this nightmare: it is unclear, for instance, whether the scarlet woman glides away, inviting pursuit, or is herself the pursuer--an ambiguity implicit in every detail of the little that we are permitted to know of these former lovers' story. The suggestion of a previous domestic intimacy is cruelly disrupted by images of ghostly, or even animal, unintelligibility. Elly too becomes incorporated within imagery where fertile sexuality too swiftly turns into senseless animality. The budding spring trees, genus unspecified, of the Tuileries gardens, where the three characters have met earlier that day, turn into a single chestnut tree, which both stands proxy for the walnut and chestnut trees of the pre-1870 Tuilieries and invokes a symbolic code in which the chestnut betokens reproductive power. (24)
Repeatedly the first chapter of this novel invokes the imagery that practised readers of the nineteenth-century novel, both then and now, recognize as auguring ill for the morality of the Gilmour household, only to question or dispel these swift judgements. Caroline Gilmour is never allowed to settle entirely comfortably into the role of hardened vengeance-wreaker, nor of a woman softened by suffering. 'Because she prayed' during this wretched night, the narrator tells us, 'she blinded herself to her own wrong-doings, and thought that heaven was on her side'. A passage of moralizing commentary that intervenes before her next appearance seems, however, to be preparing us for a change of view:
We have souls, and we feel and we guess at more than we see round about us, and we influence one another for good or evil from the moment we come into the world. Let us be humbly thankful if the day comes for us to leave it before we have done any great harmto those who live their lives alongside with ours. And so the next morning Caroline asked her daughter if she would come with her to M. le Pasteur Tourneur's at two.
Our momentary assumption that prayer has been efficacious is partly effected by Anny's characteristically equivocal use of the phrase 'And so', which she sometimes employed to indicate mere narrative sequentiality and at other times to indicate a degree of consequentiality: this grammatical ambiguity accords, at a deeper level, with Anny's sense of a world governed by a combination of chance and the human decisions taken in response to what fate delivers. Here the reader's brief dalliance with the notion that a higher power has intervened in Caroline Gilmour's life is swiftly challenged by a new picture of her as a consummate actress preparing to enact the role of her daughter's Gothic warder:
It was not the lady of the Tuileries the day before; it was not the woman in the red dressing-gown. It was a respectable, quiet personage enough, who went off primly with her prayer-book in her hand, and who desired Clementine on no account to let anybody in until her return. (p. 14)
And yet, when Mrs Gilmour encounters Sir John Dampier as she returns from Paster Tourneur's sermon, she proves incapable of carrying off her plan as a more accomplished liar would: 'she blushed up very red' and 'her face glowed with shame' (p. 15) as she casts the blame upon her daughter for refusing to admit Sir John to their house while she has been out. Throughout the remainder of the story, indeed, Caroline's indifference to her daughter's happiness never goes much beyond putting her own happiness first, and any pretension this episode might have enjoyed to the Gothic is further dissipated by Elly's reaction: first she 'stamped her little foot [...] in childish anger', and then having locked herself in her bedroom, forgets that her mother can just as easily enter by the balcony window. Caroline Gilmour, much to everyone's surprise, makes a success of transforming herself from social butterfly to a pasteur's wife and housekeeper to her husband's seminary, but her restless, ill-defined ambition remains unsatisfied. By the last chapter she is described as 'haggard and weary'--adjectives more frequently attached to the fallen woman of Victorian fiction--though the stern narrator grudgingly admits, 'But she remains with her husband, which is more than I should have given her credit for' (p. 194).
Elly persists in reading her plight according to the orthodoxies of theGothic, but where she mistakes her new French home for the traditional Gothic prison, readers are persuaded to see it as embodying a type of domestic goodness won at the expense of daily battles with boredom and discontent. Anny's reflections upon her own encounters with Protestant and Catholic religion in France led her to a notable departure from the traditional hostility to and suspicion of Roman Catholicism that formed such a cornerstone of English Gothic. Instead of encountering wily Jesuits and Roman Catholic casuistry, Elly is placed in the dour but honest environment of French Protestantism. The Pasteur's son, Anthony, far from being the dissembling seducer posing as devout seminarian that the Gothic tradition has led us to expect, turns out to be Elizabeth's one ally in this repressive household: a gawky youth, he is bewitched by Elizabeth's beauty and prepared to marry her to effect her freedom, even though he knows she will never love him. Accustomed to dealing with English servants who lie at their mistress's whim, Elly encounters a faithful French family retainer, who conscientiously hands out good advice.
When George Moore compared Anny Thackeray's picture of 'austere French Protestants' with the English Protestant ethic depicted in George Eliot's Mill on the Floss (1860), or the 'sandhills and ostriches sandwiched with doubts concerning a future state' drawn in Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883), he had no hesitation in finding Anny's far briefer invocation superior because, 'water-colour' though it was, she 'knew the limits of her talent'. (25) Setting to one side Moore's aspersions on this galaxy of female talent, he is acute in discerning Anny's restraint. The fidelity of a 'water-colour' was not a happy accident transferred from the insipid palette of a naif , but the result of offering a conscious challenge to a more lurid painting of continental religious practice.
The eventful week when Elly wilfully chooses not to accompany her mother and stepfather to Fontainebleau for their week's holiday deliberately recalls and scales down the central portion of Charlotte Bronte's Villette, where Lucy Snowe, in a chapter entitled 'The Long Vacation', has been left in enforced solitude. Like Lucy, Elly leaves the confines of the seminarian household to walk the streets of the city, and again like Lucy, in the summer heat she finds the 'tranquil gloom, silence and repose' of a Roman Catholic church, whose doors are always open, inviting. With the deflation of anticipated melodrama that is by now becoming a hallmark of Anny's tale, Elly is deprived of Lucy's encounter with a seductive and psychologically acute confessor. Lucy's subsequent aporetic swoon is an indicator of the lure beyond dogma or logic she experiences in Pere Silas's blend of 'sentimental French kindness' and 'Popish superstition'. Elly is at this stage of her life too shallow to find casuistical Roman theology a threat. Instead, in revolt against the ritual of her new family life where, 'precisely at eleven o'clock on Sunday mornings', she finds herself 'tightly wedged in between two other devotees, plied with chaufrettes by the pew-opener, forced to follow the extempore supplications of the preacher', Elly finds in 'the shrine of the stranger' something of the solace she seeks and is driven to offer up perhaps the most difficult prayer of all for a Victorian heroine: 'to be made a good girl and to be happy' (p. 68). As she leaves the Catholic church at sunset, Elly's story once again appears to rejoin the narrative trajectory of Lucy's, in that they both enjoy dramatic street encounters. The horrors to which Lucy's adventures in the street might have brought her are both indicated and passed over as we hear a retrospective account of Lucy, like some abandoned woman, lying senseless on the steps of a Beguinage church. Good fortune, however, intervenes in the shape of an old friend, Doctor John Graham Bretton, who temporarily reabsorbs her into the 'auld lang syne' of his exiled English household. The shabbily dressed, 'worn' Elly could also all too easily have been mistaken for a streetwalker, but she too seems almost providentially to meet a figure from her past, Sir John Dampier. However, the meeting is no accident: he had been on his way to see her and will soon prove a 'quack doctor' for her woes (p. 81). Their series of three clandestine meetings retrace the entertainments provided for Lucy by her Doctor John: an expedition to a public art gallery, including an art moralise commentary and an encounter with another suitor, is followed by a visit to the theatre, where the actors' performance provide a similar text for the unspoken thoughts and emotions of the main characters. In place of the dramatic fire that extinguishes Lucy's hopes of John Bretton's affection, Elly is humiliatingly disabused of her dreams by Dampier's own words and by being treated as a disobedient child by her stepfather and his colleague.
The English family friend abroad, whom Elly misguidedly hales as her saviour, has turned out to be a marauder who will threaten her health, sanity, and reputation. And yet Sir John is not au fond a Lord Steyne. In this tale's characteristic mode, the portrait of Sir John vacillates between that of a well-intentioned man whose only fault is rating his own welfare above others', and that of a man with a past, now intent on settling down and establishing his line, yet sufficient of a roue to risk a young, upper middle-class English girl's reputation for the momentary pleasure it may offer. With his 'well-regulated heart' he is, according to his elderly aunt, a model young man of the period, but we also know that he has previously been entangled with Elly's mother: is he a young man who was led astray by an older woman, or a well-established rake? Indeed, when Sir John suddenly materializes before Elly in the street, he initially adopts a paternal guise as he persuades her to accompany him for a drive in an open carriage in the Bois de Boulogne: '"Why, I knew you when you were a baby-and your father and your grandmother--and I am a respectable middle-aged man, and it will do you good"', but before the sentence finishes, it takes a different and dangerous turn: '"and it will soon be a great deal too dark for any of your pasteurs to recognize you and report"' (p. 71). The following morning, 'comfortably breakfasting', Sir John dismisses 'all unpleasant doubts or suggestions' and vows, much in the language of Thackeray resolving to remove his daughters from his mother's Calvinist household, to enlist the help of Lady Dampier and his aunt in rescuing her from 'the tender mercies of those fanatics' (pp. 78-79).
By reframing the dichotomies of the traditional plot so that danger lurks in the loved and familiar rather than in the alien, in the titled Englishman rather than the French pasteur, Anny had found a way of embodying the moral and emotional conflicts of her childhood. Her grandparents' household and Monod's ministry not only represented the absence of her father, but a moral challenge to the ambience in which she knew her father moved. In Tourneur's house Elly experiences her misery as a sense of absence from the music and pageantry of the Champs Elysees, from the daily promenade and the round of social engagements so beloved as fictional material by Thackeray senior, but she nevertheless recognizes in this kindly, yet rigidly pious, Pasteur a new model of parenting that she cannot help but admire and love (p. 53). The challenge posed by Monod and his values to those of her father was spelt out, many years later, by Anny Ritchie in a journal composed for her niece, Laura Stephen:
Papa said this world was as much God's world as that other world for which M Monod wanted us to live alone He was very pale with dark cloudy hair and he had kind dark eyes I think except my own Papa nobody else talked to me as he did, for though I disagreed with him I could feel how good he was & how he was trying to be as good as he probably could and I think that is religious, to be true & good. (26)
In writing of Papa's Parisian haunts Anny had raised another spectre. If she left the protection of living where Papa had placed her, and took to describing the life of the Parisian streets, the person she was most likely to meet there was the other Thackeray--that most accomplished of Victorian .flaneurs. Her sudden meeting in a Parisian street with the man she longs for, Sir John Dampier, echoes Anny's memories, from her earliest years, of coming upon her father unexpectedly:
Another impression remains tome of some place near Russell Square, of a fine morning, of music sounding, of escaping from my nurse and finding myself dancing in the street to the music along with some other children. Someone walking by came and lifted me up bodily on to his shoulder, and carried me away from the charming organ to my home, which was close by. As we went along, this stranger, as usual, became my father, whom I had not recognized at first.
Although this story had a happy ending, being abducted by a strange man in the street could have had a very different outcome. Minnie too had been disorientated: when Thackeray returned from a trip to the east sporting a moustache she failed to recognize him as her father. (27) Unsurprisingly, perhaps, as a single parent who craved his daughters' company to replace some of that domestic happiness of which his enforced separation from his wife deprived him, Thackeray at times seems to have found it difficult to maintain the usual boundaries which existed between a Victorian paterfamilias and daughters who were in this case his intimate companions from such an early age. In the journal written immediately after her father's death Anny recorded another incident, which again took place in the street. When he and Anny encountered some small children whom he knew, Thackeray began teasing them, gave them some money, and told them to go home and tell mama:
A gentleman met me And gave me a kiss And afterwards made me A present of this,
I told papa that one day I should come home & show him some money & say a gentleman met me & gave me a kiss & afterwards made me a present. Papa said 'I should like to see you--' (28)
Anny's unconventional upbringing, it seems, also encouraged her father's friends to presume upon a greater knowledge of the world than was customary in unmarried daughters: in August 1863 she wrote triumphantly to her publisher, George Smith, after the publication of The Story of Elizabeth, 'I am also very much pleased because two different heroes have asked me confidentially if I was not thinking of their affairs when I wrote the story!' (29) Almost a quarter of a century later, in her last novel, Mrs Dymond (1885), Anny, now married with her own children, managed to separate out the various strands of her relationship with her father into the heroine's marriage to a far older, emotionally needy, but crusty widower who has entirely made over his children's upbringing to relatives, and a disreputable, Irish stepfather, working as a Parisian journalist, who betrays his wife by adultery, his children by his fecklessness, and his friends by his political treachery, but nevertheless achieves spectacular success in his vivid reportage of the Paris Commune of 1871. In 1862, however, these threads had proved harder to disentangle and Dampier's appeal for Elly lay in exactly that jocular yet adoring relationship Anny enjoyed with her father:
He understood what she wanted to say before she had half finished her sentence; he laughed at her fine little jokes; he encouraged, he cheered, he delighted her [...] He suited her; she felt now that he was part of her life--the better, nobler, wiser part; and if he was the other half of her life, surely, she must be as necessary to him as he was to her. (p. 73)
Neither Anthony Tourneur's dog-like devotion nor the stalwart virtues of the muscular Christian cleric Will Dampier can compete with this. Their eventual marriage champions the virtues of chastened, domestic sobriety, but this is achieved by solitary and unromantic routes, as if admitting that Anny had reached an impasse in reconciling the roles of lover, father, and husband, or Papa's view that 'this world was as much God's world' with Monod's Protestant asceticism. Sir John is not redeemed either by Elly's life-threatening illness or by his love of a good woman, but returns to Elly through the combined factors of Laetitia's distrust and his own awakening sexual jealousy. Elly's 'nervous fever' and consequent delirium do not so much provide the space for the resolution of moral conflict traditionally found in the sickrooms of Victorian novels (30) as begin the double process by which she is divested of her former passionate discontent, while also, with the subsequent help of liberal Anglicanism, arriving at the possibility of a religion that embraces rather than spurns the world.
If Elly's illness does not of itself secure her lover's affections, what is the significance of her 'nervous fever'? Afflictions affecting the brain were unlikely to be taken lightly by a writer who had witnessed the swift collapse of her own mother into chronic mental instability. Whatever the causes, her mother had soon proved incapable of sustaining even the roles of companion and housekeeper to a gifted writer. In emerging from the shadowy life of being her father's scribe to tread her father's Parisian haunts as a novelist in her own right, Anny Thackeray might well have had reason to be fearful. Her desire to transform herself from domestic help to public competitor was subject to the stigma of 'unladylike' impropriety, but perhaps more importantly, the story she had chosen potentially risked her own and her father's happiness. Brain-fever was often proposed, to women writers, as the fatal consequence of over-exercising the imagination of the small female brain with which Victorian women were said to be endowed. In the event Thackeray's own sudden death in December 1863 meant that Anny did not have to contemplate Elly's lot of quiet domesticity, but it is also perhaps no wonder that Anny spent so many of her remaining fifty-six years as a writer in the dutiful filial task of memorializing her father's life.
(1) 'On Some French Fashionable Novels', in The Paris Sketch Book, The Biographical Edition of the Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. by Anne Ritchie, 13 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1898-1901), v (1900), 80-97 (p. 82).
(2) 'An Invasion of France', in The Paris Sketch Book, pp. 7-17.
(3) 'On Some French Fashionable Novels', p. 83.
(4) Frances Trollope, Paris and the Parisians in 1835, 2 vols (London: Richard Bentley, 1836), I, p. vi.
(5) Advertisement to the First Edition, London, 1 July 1840, in The Paris Sketch Book, p. 5.
(6) The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. by Gordon N. Ray, 4 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-6) [with 2-vol. supplement, ed. by Edgar F. Harden (London and New York: Garland, 1994)], I (1945), 455-57, 459, 461, 462, 464, 470-71.
(7) Anny was the name by which her circle knew her. Using her first name avoids the awkwardness, in an article, of her change of surname in the course of her writing career.
(8) Further references to The Story of Elizabeth will be to the text as it appeared in The Works of Miss Thackeray, 10 vols (London: Smith, Elder, 1876-1890), vol. vi (1886).
(9) Letters of Anne Thackeray Ritchie, ed. by Hester Ritchie (London: Murray, 1924), p. 118.
(10) This review, attributed to Geraldine Jewsbury (Letters and Private Papers, ed. by Ray, IV (1946), 410 n. 15), had complained both that the novel 'turns on a subject which is, or ought to be, quite inadmissible for a novel: the antagonismof a mother and a daughter, both rivals for the love of the same man' and that it 'is told in a mocking, sarcastic spirit, which is very unpleasant, and which degrades all characters alike' (Athenaeum, 25 April 1863, pp. 552-53).
(11) Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 94 (1863), 168-83 (p. 173).
(12) The George Eliot Letters, ed. by Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954-78), iv (1956), 209; vi (1956), 123.
(13) Anny later recalled how dissonant with her adolescent emotions Monod's teaching had proved: '"Ah, mes enfants", I can hear him saying, "fuyez, fuyez, ce monde!" Fly the world! If ever the world was delightful and full of interest it was then' ('In Villegiatura', in Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Chapters from SomeMemoirs (London:Macmillan, 1894), pp. 145-72 (p. 151)).
(14) Hester Thackeray Fuller and Violet Hammersley, Thackeray's Daughter: Some Recollections of Anne Thackeray Ritchie (Dublin: Euphorion, 1951), p. 9. Hester is not an entirely trustworthy source, and has been accused of silently editing both content and style in transcribing her mother's journals. See Lillian F. Shankman, preface to Anne Thackeray Ritchie: Journals and Letters. Biographical Commentary and Notes by Lillian Shankman, ed. by Abigail Burnham Bloom and John Maynard (Columbus:Ohio StateUniversity Press, 1994), pp. ix-xiii (p. xii). There are conflicting accounts as to Thackeray's involvement with The Story of Elizabeth. Ray unequivocally states that Thackeray did not read the tale (Letters and Private Papers, iv, 272 n. 34), as does Winifred Gerin, who nevertheless apparently believed that Thackeray was still editor of the Cornhill, a position he had in fact relinquished to George Lewes in April 1862 (Anne Thackeray Ritchie: A Biography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 126). However, Harden's fuller text of a letter written on Christmas Day 1862 gives us a clearer account at least up until that date. 'Have you read Anny's story of Elizabeth? I have read only one number and thought the style admirable. The reading it tearsmy entrails somehow: and I understand what my mother says that she cant [sic] read my books' (Letters and Private Papers, suppl., ed. by Harden, ii, 1107). Even if Thackeray did not read the final version in printed form, it would be surprising if he had not had the story read to him or discussed its evolution with his daughter.
(15) 'To say that we little girls had been given Jane Eyre to read scarcely represents the facts of the case; to say that we had taken it without leave, read bits here and read bits there, been carried away by an undreamed-of and hitherto unimagined whirlwind into things, times, places, all utterly absorbing and at the same time absolutely unintelligible to us, would more accurately describe our states of mind' ('My Witches' Caldron' [sic], in Chapters from Some Memoirs, pp. 53-82 (p. 61)). Again the waters have been muddied by subsequent accounts: Gerin, anxious to substantiate her chapter title, 'A Liberal Education', deliberately ignores the emphasis on the exciting element of the illicit in Anny's own account, asserting 'forbidden reading for many young persons at the time, Jane Eyre was also devoured by the Miss Thackerays [...] The reading of novels, like their father's friendship with the men and women who wrote them, was all a part of the girls' liberal education' (p. 45).
(16) CharlotteBronte, Jane Eyre, ed. by Margaret Smith (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 142.
(17) Recollecting the most difficult of her sojourns with her grandparents, she wrote of a period at a summer retreat in the village of Mennecy, near Corbeil: 'We used somewhat ruefully to wish to follow Pauline and Louise (our cross maid-of-all-work) through the swing doors behind which the incense was tossing and the organ rolling out its triumphant fugue. A Roman Catholic service seems something of a high festival, coming round Sunday after Sunday, bringing excitement and adoration with it' ('In Villegiatura', p. 155).
(18) I can find no evidence as to precisely when she read Villette, but her father, who read it while in America, was happy to discuss it with Lucy Baxter (only a year Anny's senior), whose family were reading it to one another (Letters and Private Papers, ed. by Ray, iii (1946), 232-33).
(19) Letter from Geraldine Jewsbury, 9 June 1861, British Library, MS Bentley 46656, fols 56-58. The novel had been serialized in the New Monthly Magazine from January 1860 to August 1861. (20) From the first encounter James found Anny's disregard for Anglo-Saxon proprieties both disconcerting and charming: she was 'further advanced toward confinement than I have ever seen a lady at a dinner party', but, none the less, 'lovable and even touching' in her 'extreme good nature and erratic spontaneity' (Leon Edel, Henry James: The Conquest of London, 1870-1883 (London: Hart-Davis, 1962), p. 332).
(21) The Adventures of Philip ran in the Cornhill Magazine from January 1861 to August 1862; the serialization of Anne Thackeray Ritchie's The Story of Elizabeth ran from September 1862 to January 1863.
(22) Eliza Lynn Linton's series was first printed between 1866 and 1868 and reprinted in 1883.
(23) The reference in the tale to Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook (1839) as a favourite with Dampier's aunt (p. 164) is but one example of Anny's sophisticated sense of the use of intertextual reference. Deerbrook's story of the part that family relations play within marriages, and of a hero torn between two women as potential wives, has an obvious resonance for Anny's tale.
(24) See, for instance, the part it plays in Henry Alexander Bowler's painting The Doubt: Can These Dry Bones Live?, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855.
(25) George Moore, Confessions of a Young Man (1888) (London: Heinemann, 1937), pp. 136-37.
(26) Shankman, p. 208.
(27) Both incidents are recounted in Fuller and Hammersley, pp. 22 and 31.
(28) Shankman, p. 121.
(29) Letters of Anne Thackeray Ritchie, ed. by Ritchie, p. 118.
(30) See Miriam Bailin, The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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