- Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Links with the Past:Nostalgic for Progress
Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) was the eldest daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray and a writer of fiction, essays, and biography. She began her career anonymously in 1860 with the essay "Little Scholars" for the Cornhill Magazine, which was edited by her father. Over the next six decades, she wrote more than 100 periodical publications and built her reputation with five novels and two novellas, five books of short stories, five collections of essays, and, beginning in the 1880s, numerous biographical essays and memoirs about her father and his generation of literary friends. By the end of the nineteenth century, collections such as Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, and Browning (1892) and Chapters from Some Memoirs (1894) positioned Ritchie as an authority on a bygone era, and this reputation was only enhanced by Ritchie's biographical introductions to her father's complete works, which were first published between 1898 and 1899. 1 William Thackeray never wanted his biography written, and perhaps this refusal made the public even hungrier for one. In an early review of the still incomplete multivolume project, the Edinburgh Review expressed its "gratitude" to Ritchie: "[I]t would have been a kind of national misfortune if posterity had been left without some authentic record of his personal history." 2
On the heels of this publishing triumph, Ritchie began a series of essays called "Blackstick Papers." Named for the good fairy Blackstick in William Thackeray's 1855 Christmas book, The Rose and the Ring, the essays appeared intermittently from December 1900 to June 1907 in the Cornhill—which by that time was working hard to maintain its readership by reviving its Thackeray connection. The Cornhill's editor had already commissioned an article from Ritchie in 1896, "The First Number of The Cornhill," and in 1910 she would contribute "The First Editor: and the Founder." Considering these persistent reminders of [End Page 470] William Thackeray, it's no wonder that reviewers and readers so often referred to Ritchie as "Thackeray's daughter" and viewed her as a link to the past (Fig. 1). (She even titled one of her Blackstick Papers "Links with the Past.") But as compelling as this persona may be, Ritchie was no mere peddler of nostalgia, and we make quite a mistake if we assume that she acts simply as a preserver of the past or, as her stepniece Virginia Woolf dubbed her, a "transparent medium through which we behold the dead." 3
The Blackstick Papers offer an interesting study of just how Ritchie invites us to "behold the dead." Although the Athenaeum characterized these essays as "a series of reminiscences ... from a well-stored memory," and the Saturday Review described them as "charming sketches and reminiscences of persons and books, with the atmosphere of the early Victorian period or that of the late eighteenth century pervading them," 4 the Blackstick Papers are just as concerned with the future as they are the past. Memoirs of Joseph Joachim, George Sand, and Elizabeth Gaskell are interspersed with expeditions to women's colleges and insightful commentary about the purpose of art and literature in the new century. A closer examination of the Blackstick Papers reveals how Ritchie's seemingly nostalgic use of Blackstick and other Thackerayana serves her own progressive, feminist agenda. Furthermore, this strategy can be traced throughout Ritchie's career. Ritchie's persona as a "link to the past" follows from her career-long strategy of blurring the relationship between past and present. A better understanding of Ritchie's dynamic approach to the past not only complicates the stereotype of "Thackeray's daughter," but also reveals how Ritchie made feminist causes seem unthreatening to a conservative audience by making her readers feel paradoxically nostalgic for progress.
While it's no surprise that the shadow of William Thackeray looms large over his daughter's literary reputation, it does seem surprising that scholars remain so ambivalent about how to handle these interwoven literary careers. In a 1957 essay—appropriately titled "Thackeray's Daughter"—Naomi Lewis articulates the complexity of the problem, explaining that "she is remembered, being her father's daughter, for the very reason...