THE LATE Winifred Gerin, who had previously written biographies of Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell, in what was to be her last book chose, bravely and rightly, to devote her great skill as a biographer to a lesser writer who was a splendid human being. Although Anne Thackeray wrote eight novels and was famous and successful as a writer in her time, she is now largely unread and is an unlikely candidate for a reevaluation. Even her best work -- her volumes of memoirs and garrulousness, the sunny expansiveness which made her such a pleasure to know. Gerin did not, however, write this book to canonize the work. It is, she says in her preface, "more than time that this highly original, lovable woman, should be better known." I think everyone who reads this biography will agree.
Born in 1837, the year Victoria ascended the throne, Anne Thackeray was the elder of the great novelist's two daughters. Their mother went quietly and pathetically mad after the birth of Anny's sister, Minny, and remained in private care, away from the family, for the rest of her long life. Since Thackeray could not divorce his wife and remarry, the girls were destined to remain motherless and their affectionate, spirited father was consigned to bachelorhood. At first the girls were raised in Paris by their grandparents, but when Anny was 9, Thackeray resolved to make a home for them in London and to live with them himself. They became his chief delight and solace.
Thackeray frankly confessed, with the absence of humbug so characteristic of him, that his daughters took the place of his wife and helped to fill the emotional vacuum inside him. He was equally frank about his fears of losing them through marriage, especially Anny, who was cleverer than Minny and closer to her father. "I am brutally happy," Thackeray wrote, "That she is not handsome enough to fall in love with, so that I hope she'll stay by me for many a year yet." His dependence on his daughters and their closeness to him could have been a scenarion for domestic disaster, but it was not, largely, I think, because Thackeray made clear that any selfishness in the case was on his part. He wanted to keep his daughters with him for his own pleasure. If they fell in love and married, that was natural and not a perfidious desertion of him. Consequently, they did not want to leave him, and neither married until after his death.
When he died -- he was only 53 -- his friends rallied to help his daughters. Anny went to recover at the Isle of Wight cottage of the photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Tennyson, wrapped in a large cloak, was waiting for her on the dark night she arrived. Later, Jane Carlyle would take Anny and Minny driving in her carriage. Because the Thackerays knew and were loved by an enormous number of the talented people of 19th-century London, Gerin's book provides a privileged look at the private lives of the artistic great. And thanks to Anne Thackeray's memoirs, we have access to some extraordinary occasions, like the dinner party Thackeray gave for Charlotte Bronte to which he invited the most brilliant women he knew (Carlyle came with his wife ) but which turned out so dull that the host sliped away to his club before the guest of honor left!
Anny started writing in her teens and made her first appearance in print with a sketch in the Cornhill magazine when she was 23. Two years later, her first novel, The Story of Elizabeth, was serialized in the Cornhill and was a great success, bringing her both fame and a certain amount of fortune. So she was already established as a writer by the time her father died. She would continue to make money by her pen for the rest of her life, but she spent it almost faster than she made it. Gerin hints at imprudence, but Anny was supporting many people besides herself, including her mother. At the age of 29, when she might reasonably have thought she would never marry, Anny adopted the two baby daughters of a companion who had died in childbirth. One is struck, reading this book, by the flexibility and inventiveness in these Victorian living arrangements, by the impulsive creation of surrogate families, by the abandon with which people seem to take on responsilities for other people's lives. One must remind oneself that it depends on big houses, servants, money and a complete absence of alternatives (a state welfare system).
By the age of 39, Anne Thackeray was independent, successful, doing work she loved and had a circle of devoted friends, but she was lonely at the core of her being. She had no one to replace her father as the central love of her life. Her beloved sister, Minny, who had married Leslie Stephen in 1867, died in 1875, leaving Anny tied to her gloomy, difficult husband (who by his second wife would be the father of Virginia Woolf) and her mentally deficient daughter, Laura. The consolation Anny found was typically unconventional and shocked almost everyone she knew.
Thirty-nine, she fell in love with and decided to marry her cousin, Richmond Ritchie, 23 and just finishing at Cambridge. He was a young man of extraordinary self-possession who never seems to have been bothered by any inequality in the match. Despite Anny's fame, success and age, he thought he could make her happy and he was right. He entered the India Office and proved an excellent administrator, rising eventually to a knighthood (making his wife Lady Ritchie) and to the position of permanent undersecretary of state for India.
Anne Thackeray's life is worth knowing about if only because she broke so many taboos with so little fuss and so much success. She married a man almost 20 years younger than herself. She gave birth to her first child at the age of 41, without the blessings of modern medicine. (She woud have two children, both healthy.) Marriage and motherhood did not keep her from work; in fact, her work, which had always been dependent on experience, improved at this point. Her relationship with her father remained the central fact of her life and yet it does not seem to have stunted her in any way.
She outlived practically everyone she knew, even her young husband. She lived to see Leslie Stephen's second wife die and to inherit him once again, this time with even more children, including Virginia. (You realize, from Anne Ritchie's perspective, how preternaturally depressive that household must have been.) Then she sat by Leslie's bedside as he died. With her immense vitality, she wished at the age of 80 to be cut up into four young women of 20. During the First World War, kept awake by German bombers, she could appreciate the beauty of the moonlight sky, such was her unquenchable optimism. Virginia Woolf would write her obituary and call her a writer of genius. Perhaps she was being partial to a woman she knew well and loved deeply. More accurately, she said of Anne's writing that the string didn't quite unite the pearls, but the pearls were there. She also commemorated her aunt in the portrait of Mrs. Hilbery in night and Day, warm, generous, slightly scatterbrained, devoting her life to the biography of her father, a great Victorian poet.
Henry James said of her that she combined a minimum of good sense with a maximum of good feeling. It is impossible to read this biography -- as it was, apparently, impossible to know her -- without loving her. Anne Thackeray may or may not have inherited her father's genius. She certainly inherited his splendid humanity, never mroe fully suggested than here. One must be grateful to Winifred Gerin for her daring and imaginative choice of a subject. It has produced a work of remarkable sweetness, an intensely moving record of good people, living in good faith, with a great capacity for love and pleasure and no guilt about finding them, even in odd places, in a life sufficiently filled with pain.