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Introduction to Chapters From Some Unwritten Memoirs. Munnelly, Lindsay Marie.
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Introduction to Chapters From Some Unwritten Memoirs

By Lindsay Munnelly


From the first moments of Some Unwritten Memoirs, the reader is invited into a familiar, familial environment. Anne's father, the great William Makepeace Thackeray, grandparents, and sister, along with Anne herself, become the main characters of these memoirs, and yet are never referred to by their proper names—it is as if the reader, unlike the public, already knows each of them so well that he has become part of the family. Indeed, the memoirs themselves reveal a repository of family history so that, rather than a history of Thackeray’s public life, or a one-dimensional recounting of Anne's encounters with famous writers and artists, the book becomes a collection of half-remembered moments, letters, and excerpts. It is truly, as one of her chapter titles puts it, a "witches' cauldron." Bits and pieces of memories—not always her own—are thrown into the brew to produce as complete a picture as she can of her father's daughter, rather than a writer's daughter, who is herself also a writer.

At one moment, Anne says: "Early life is like a chapter of Dickens, I think—one sees people then; their tricks of expression, their vivid sayings, and their quaint humors and oddities do not surprise one; one accepts everything as a matter of course" (Ritchie 182). Of course, the people Anne sees are notables, including Dickens himself, and she is writing in the 1890s, "later in life [when] one…begins to judge, or to make excuses, or to think about one's companions instead of merely staring at them" (182). One of Anne's skills as a "memorist," to borrow her own suggestive term, is her capacity to capture these moments as if she were still eight years old, remembering characters like "Jasmin the poet" (a French hairdresser turned bard) and her own grandparents as they were, rather than remembering her impressions of them.


Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) was a significant and innovative Victorian writer and well-connected correspondent. As the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, Anne spent much of her life among the most renowned literary and artistic figures of the period, figures critical to the new celebrity culture.

Some Unwritten Memoirs is filled with references to them—Chopin, frail and ailing, to whom a friend of her grandmother's delivers food, with little Anne in tow, and who plays while the old woman weeps for him; Dickens, whose "shining" Twelfth Night parties are recalled with childlike joy (78); the artist and dandy Count D'Orsay; Charlotte Brontë, brought to town as a "lion" by her publisher, George Smith, the "signs and tokens" of whose shy and "trembling" presence Ritchie later hunted for in Yorkshire and in the last of her father's "Roundabout Papers" in the Cornhill magazine, a "'last sketch' and most touching chapter in the never-to-be-written book" of her married life (67); the actress Fanny Kemble; Prime Minister Gladstone; the Duke of Wellington; etc., etc. The modern idea of the celebrity was first conceptualized during the Victorian period, as Nicholas Dames has argued; and Ritchie both witnessed and contributed to its conceptualization.

Until the 1840s, the word "celebrity" wasn't yet used to refer to a famous, or celebrated, person; Victorians at the time would have been more familiar with the term "notable" or (as Ritchie uses the term on her first page), "notability," a person understood as famous only within a certain social, political, or cultural group. Many, like Thomas Carlyle (another of the "notabilities" of Ritchie's pages), were deeply suspicious of "common Lionism," which he felt "ruins innumerable men"—like poor Robbie Burns. There is a perversion in the public process of the ordinary man becoming a lion, and the Victorians were cautious of the dangers in that kind of "untamable" fame (Carlyle).

Given Anne's understanding of the popular perception of the lion, it is no surprise that her father is considered to have coined the term "celebrity," first as a journalist and later as an author. In The Newcomes, Charles Honeyman uses the word—one of the first times it is used as such in the English language: "Let me whisper to you that your kinswoman is rather a searcher after what we call here notabilities…My dear Mrs. Newcome, I am giving my brother-in-law a little sketch of some of the celebrities who are crowding your salon tonight" (Dames 31-32). Within these few lines, Honeyman articulates the shift from notability to celebrity. Dames argues that Honeyman's being a "fashionable preacher…so well informed about such medical, political, and literary celebrities argues well enough for their status as celebrities" (32). The celebrity, then, is marked for his being known outside the circle in which he has established himself—the literary celebrity, for example, is known to members outside the literary community. Importantly, the threatening—even ravaging—process of lionizing is absent here; becoming a celebrity allows one to live among others of the same rank and thus above the influence of those who have been excluded.

Anne's birth was a strange one: as her mother was about to give birth, the doctor recommended by her paternal grandmother proved so incompetent that Thackeray was forced to rush out and find a replacement. He was just beginning his literary career when Anne was born; as a result, the family was poor for most of her childhood. Their second child, Jane Thackeray, died at 8 months, and after the birth of Harriet Marian ("Minnie") in 1840, their mother, Isabella, began to suffer from depression. While on holiday in Margate, Isabella nearly drowned her eldest daughter in the sea, but then changed her mind and pulled Anne back out of the water. After a suicide attempt on the way to Ireland (when she threw herself into the sea), Isabella spent two years traveling with Thackeray to find a cure for her condition. She would eventually be placed in a house near Paris until her death in 1894, outliving her husband by thirty-one years. Meanwhile, he himself began to suffer from a stricture of the urethra that would plague him for the rest of his life.

While their parents were traveling, and for four years afterward, Anne and Minnie lived in Paris with their paternal grandparents, Major and Mrs. Henry Carmichael-Smyth. The beginning of her Memoirs details this period, including her grandmother’s evangelical beliefs and her own experiences growing up in France. She would later draw on this time for two of her novels, The Story of Elizabeth and The Village on the Cliff. In 1846, Thackeray returned to his children, and the three of them settled in a house on Young Street, Kensington Square. He became very close with his daughters, particularly Anne, who became his amanuensis, or scribe, as his health continued to deteriorate; in 1851 he wrote to a friend that "Anny is a fat lump of pure gold—the kindest dearest creature as well as a wag of the first order. It is an immense blessing that Heaven has given me such an artless affectionate companion" (Colby 91). He encouraged her literary aspirations and published her first piece, “Little Scholars,” in Cornhill Magazine, which he then edited, in 1860.

Anne was deeply affected by her father's sudden death by an unexpected stroke in 1863. In the last years of his life, he had taken his daughters on several trips abroad (in her Unwritten Memoirs, Anne mentions their trip to Italy in the winter of 1853) and introduced them to much of his literary and social circle. Even after their father's death, the Thackeray girls remained close to his friends; and after their grandmother’s death in 1864, Anne and Minnie settled in a small house at Brompton, supported by their inheritance of £20,000. Anne's literary career, first established with her father's help, was firmly established in the 1860s. The Story of Elizabeth was serialized in Cornhill in 1863 and became her first successful novel. In the years after that, she published The Village on the Cliff (1867) and Old Kensington (1873). Among Anne's admirers, one of the most notable was American author Henry James, who mentions The Story of Elizabeth in his essay, “The Art of Fiction” (1884).

Anne faced tragedy again in 1875 with the death of her younger sister. In 1867, Minny had married Leslie Stephens, the writer-scholar (and future editor of the Dictionary of Literary Biography) who moved into the sisters' Brompton house upon their marriage. After Minny's death, Anne and Leslie continued to live together despite their completely dissimilar personalities, partly for the sake of Leslie and Minnie's mentally handicapped daughter, Laura. In 1877, Anne married her second cousin, Raymond Thackeray Ritchie. He would eventually work at the India Office after graduating from Cambridge, and ultimately became the undersecretary of state for India. But he was seventeen years her junior. The marriage shocked her social circle as well as her brother-in-law, who reportedly discovered the two on the couch of Anne's sitting-room. With Ritchie, Anne had two children, Hester and William. However, Anne's irresponsible spending habits, which had plagued her father as well as her husband, eventually forced the family to move to his mother's house in 1886.

In addition to becoming a serious—though somewhat erratic—professional writer, Anne also cultivated an interest in photography and art. Her only historical novel, Miss Angel (1875), was inspired by the paintings and life of Angelica Kaufmann. In 1862, she made the first of many trips to the Isle of Wight (England's largest island, located in the English Channel, just south of Southampton and Portsmouth) as the guest of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, of whose circle she quickly became a member. It included author, fellow photographer, and mathematician Lewis Carroll, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who became a close friend. In 1876, Anne contributed a memoir to a book of photographic portraits about Tennyson and his circle, taken by Cameron. In that same year, Anne and Raymond spent a summer near the home of John Ruskin, and the two became friends. Her book on Ruskin, Tennyson, and the Brownings is considered a valuable primary source on these figures.

Anne spent much of the 1890s writing memoirs. The culminating project of this period of her life was a series of longer introductions to her father's works, published in 1897 and 1898. Though Thackeray had ordered that no biography of him should be written, through her introductions Anne was able to produce an impression of her father's domestic life, partially as a response to harsh criticisms that had been leveled against him. Her husband died unexpectedly in 1912, and in 1918 she and her daughter moved to the Isle of Wight. She died there on February 26, 1919.


Anne’s first published work was the 1860 essay titled “Little Scholars,” in Cornhill magazine. The piece explores the conditions of schools for "hungry, and cold, and neglected little children" (156). Thackeray came up with the title and corrected the essay for his daughter, and it was well received by the magazine's readers.

The Story of Elizabeth, serialized in 1863 and published as a complete work later that same year, was Anne's first significant literary success. Caroline Gilmour, upset by Sir John Dampier's dislike for her, prevents him from proposing to her daughter Elizabeth. After Caroline marries a pasteur, or minister, and Elizabeth is forced to live with her mother and stepfather, Dampier eventually manages the long-deferred proposal. In “The Art of Fiction” (1884), Henry James praised Anne for elucidating the life of a French Protestant. James explains that Anne, while traveling in France, had caught a glimpse of a group of Protestants sitting at table; that "glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience" (James). Both her knowledge of "youth" and "Protestantism" as well as her extraordinary capacity to see "produced a reality" (James). The Story of Elizabeth would eventually be reprinted in five editions, producing the main source of Anne's income over her lifetime.

Anne published The Village on the Cliff in 1867, just prior to Minnie and Leslie's marriage. It is another example of Anne's rich knowledge of French life. The novel's heroine, Catherine George, is a poor governess living in London who falls in love with her employer's nephew, a dilettante artist named Dick Butler. Dick, meanwhile, has fallen in love with Reine Chretien, who manages a farm in Normandy. After realizing that her own love is hopeless, Catherine marries M. Fontaine, a middle-aged bureaucrat. When she is suddenly widowed, though, Dick starts to make cautious advances towards her as he becomes keenly aware of the difference in his and Reine's social positions. Ultimately, Catherine unites Dick and Reine. The Village on the Cliff employs external situations and objects as indicative of interpersonal relationships and individual states of mind—techniques that would be developed in the twentieth century by Virginia Woolf, Leslie Stephen's daughter by his second marriage, whom Anne treated always as her own niece.

Old Kensington, published in 1873, weaves into its plot Anne's childhood memories of Kensington, where she and her sister had lived with their father. Dorothea Vanborough, having lost her father as a child and being neglected by an irresponsible mother, agrees to marry Robert Henley in the hope of finding a stable source of emotional support. However, Henley proves worthless, and she ultimately marries Frank Raban, who respects her as an individual in ways that her first suitor did not.

Anne's last novel, Mrs. Drymond, was published in 1885. When Susanna Dymond returns to England after living with her grandfather for the whole of her childhood, she finds a caring mother who is unfortunately beset by financial and social woes. Like Catherine George, Susanna marries an older man, hoping for stability, but is soon widowed. She learns to value herself as an individual and, at the end of the novel, has married Max du Parc, a French artist. In Virginia Woolf's obituary of Anne, she wrote that her aunt "will be the unacknowledged 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" (Woolf). Woolf lauds Anne's use of language, particularly in the creation of a narrative atmosphere, and her ability to produce a "melody [that] has found its way through one variation and another to its natural close" (Woolf).

Yet in reading Anne's Unwritten Memoirs, one finds that Anne's presence is anything but transparent. Her memories are certainly her own, but her obvious mastery of language also preempts and subtly manages how the reader will read and receive them. In “The Art of Fiction,” James argues that "if experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience" (James); in her great essay, “The Moment,” Anne’s memoirs produce a series of such impressions and moments. As Anne herself says, "looking back at one's own life, it is difficult to fit all the events and chronologies quite accurately into their places…perhaps, indeed, one of the compensating constituents of all our various existences consists in that disproportion which passing impressions happily take for us, and which they often retain notwithstanding the experiences of years" (Ritchie 88). Virginia Woolf, Ritchie's niece and literary inheritor, unravels the mystery at the heart of Ritchie's Memoirs—the existence of human beings, in time, in flashes and discontinuous illuminations.


  • Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Hero in History. Project Gutenberg. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.
  • Dames, Nicholas. "Brushes with Fame: Thackeray and the Work of Celebrity." Nineteenth-Century Literature 56.1 (2001): 23-51.
  • Dunlap, Barbara. “Anne Thackeray Ritchie (9 June 1837-26 February 1919).” Victorian Novelists After 1885. Ed. Ira Bruce Nadel and William E. Fredeman. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 18. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 251-257.
  • "The Art of Fiction" by Henry James.
  • "Lion, n." Def. 2b. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 15 December 2010.
  • Taylor, D. “Ritchie, Anne Isabella, Lady Ritchie (1837–1919).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press: 2004.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “Lady Ritchie.” Times Literary Supplement 6 March 1919, 894: 123.
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