Thackeray stories of separation
As I discuss in Biography Chapters 3 and 4 , Julia Stephen’s mother, aunts, sisters and many other children were sent from India ‘home’ for their education. This meant that parents and children were often separated for long periods of time. William Makepeace Thackeray, the famous novelist and Jackson family friend, was one of the many children whose separation from his mother haunted him for the rest of his life.
William’s mother was Anne Becher, a celebrated beauty from another influential, but volatile and imprudent, Anglo-Indian dynastic family. She had her own sensational, haunting story of separation. She had been born in India but as a young child was sent back to be cared for by her grandmother in Fareham, England. According to Thackeray’s biographer, D.J. Taylor:
The Fareham regime was strict, but it was liberal enough to allow the fifteen-year-old Anne to attend a ball at Bath, where she met a handsome officer named Lieutenant Henry Carmichael-Smyth. The lieutenant, currently on leave from his regiment, the Bengal Engineers, was a second son with no money and few prospects. His pursuit of his teenage inamorata, consequently, was carried out in the teeth of grandparental opposition. At first Carmichael-Smyth chartered a boat, and navigated the river that adjoined the Bechers’ terrace. When these clandestine visits were discovered, Anne was confined to her room with the door locked, although a sympathetic maid smuggled in letters. Finally Mrs Becher tried a double line of attack, telling Anne that the lieutenant had died unexpectedly of a fever, and Carmichael-Smyth that her granddaughter no longer wished to see him. Neither having the means of authenticating their stories, both accepted the situation. Anne, dressed in a green riding habit that would prefigure a lifelong taste in eccentric clothes, was sent to India […] to recover.1
Thackeray did not have far to look for the plots of his novels! An even more sensational plot was to follow.
In India a ‘suitable’ husband was soon found for Anne Becher. This turned out to be Richmond Thackeray who by the time he was 30 had been promoted to the prestigious post of Collector of the Twenty-four Pargannas.2 He also had at least one illegitimate child and a Eurasian mistress. Anne Becher was just 17 when they married and soon had their son, William. One evening, according to family story, Richmond brought a new guest home to dinner. Anne, hysterical with shock, came face to face with her ‘dead’ lover Henry, newly arrived in India with his regiment.
Richmond died of fever five years after their marriage and, when she was still only 23, Anne was able to marry her first love, Henry Carmichael-Smyth.
The event was traumatic for five-year-old William Thackeray. A few weeks before the wedding in 1816, he and his four-year-old cousin Richmond Shakespear, accompanied only by an Indian servant, were sent off on the Prince Regent to relatives and school in England.
William Thackeray never returned to India, but it permeates his fiction.3 In ‘Two Children in Black’ the narrator remembers seeing two children setting off on a boat from Calcutta with their mothers left on shore, and confesses, ‘boy or man, [I] have never been able to bear the sight of people parting from their children’.4 It was a feeling inherited by his daughter, Julia Stephen’s friend Anny Thackeray Ritchie. In her novel Old Kensington, three-year-old Dolly is sent ‘home’ to her aunt Sarah in Kensington, where she meets an older brother whom she recognises only from a photograph, and waits in vain for her beautiful young mother to come from India. Ritchie is drawing on Julia’s experience, and that of her sisters Adeline and Mary, of going back to England to her aunt Sarah Prinsep in Kensington, though they were not sent alone, but taken by their mother.
- Mr & Mrs Thackeray and their son William by George Chinnery, Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston. https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/mr-and-mrs-richmond-thackeray-and-their-son-william-265822/view_as/grid/search/venue:harris-museum-art-gallery-6196–works:mr-and-mrs-richmond-thackeray-and-their-son-william/page/1 (accessed 22/04/21).
- D.J. Taylor. Thackeray (London: Chatto & Windus, 1999) 22.
- This was the sort of title which W.M. Thackeray ridiculed in his novel, Vanity Fair, where Joseph Sedley, an employee of the EIC, was Collector of Boggley Wollah, ‘an honourable and lucrative post’.
- Ibid. 24-25.
- W.M. Thackeray, ‘Two Children in Black’ Roundabout Papers (London: Smith Elder, 1897) 10.