'In Her Father's Steps She Trod': Anne Thackeray Ritchie Imagining Paris

By Jay, Elisabeth | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

'In Her Father's Steps She Trod': Anne Thackeray Ritchie Imagining Paris


Jay, Elisabeth, Yearbook of English Studies


Anny Thackeray's The Story of Elizabeth (1863) was written in the interstices of transcribing her father's last novel, and won instant acclaim for its 'freshness' when it followed William Makepeace Thackeray's The Adventures of Philip, in the Cornhill. A plot that challenges the Gothicized account of the Franco-English, Catholic--Protestant encounter given in Charlotte Bronte's Villette also carries as a subtext Anne's anxiety that by daring to enter the public domain she risks encountering the spectre of her father, the English flaneur whose urbane cynicism stemmed from having supped too deeply on worldly experiences.

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. …

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