Blog #208: To the Lighthouse From An Island, Anny Thackeray’s Freshwater Lighthouse

A second Isle of Wight epiphany. This time not in Dimbola, but four hundred yards away in the picturesque, thatch roofed church of St. Agnes. On the east wall of the church is a simple plaque which reads: “In loving memory of ANNE ISABELLA RITCHIE, wife of SIR RICHMOND RITCHIE, K.C.B.I.S.O, DAUGHTER OF William Makepeace Thackeray. Her writing reveals the inheritance of genius. Her life the inspiration of loving kindness. Born June 9th 1837. Died February 26th 1919.” The plaque gives a joltingly concrete reality to a fact I may or may not have half known—Virginia’s Aunt Anny lived on the Isle of Wight.

Strictly speaking, Aunt Anny was Virginia’s step-aunt and not her aunt. Not just the daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray, she was also the sister of Minnie Thackeray, Leslie Stephen’s first wife, and accordingly her life became deeply entwined with that of the Stephen family. Even after Minnie died, Aunt Anny, despite conflicts with Leslie, continued to maintain close contact with the family. Marriage to her much younger cousin, Richmond Ritchie, physically separated her from Leslie’s household, but throughout her life she remained an integral part of the Stephen family. When the grieving Stephen family spent August of 1895 in Freshwater, they likely did so with the encouragement and support of Anny. Anny had bought a Dimbola cottage, “the Porch,” when Julia Margaret Cameron had moved back to Sri Lanka in 1875, and she was always quick to share this with family and friends. Left to his own devices, Leslie likely would not have chosen Freshwater as a summer retreat. It was already a place which contained too many painful memories. As he wrote to his friend Charles Eliot Norton, “This place (Freshwater) is not very attractive to me, even apart from the circumstances, wh. make me feel just now as if I should look back to it with a shudder. I used to come here during my first marriage, when Mrs Cameron occupied the house.”

Anny herself had first formed her deep attachment to Freshwater shortly after the death of her father in 1863. On Thackeray’s death she and her sister went to stay there with Julia Margaret Cameron, and they quickly fell in love with this place where there was, as Anny wrote, “nothing but poets and painters everywhere and all gold and delicious over the hill.” It was on this healing visit to Freshwater that Anny deepened the family friendship with Tennyson and his family. The St. Agnes plaque bears testimony to the depth and longevity of the friendship, as it was commissioned and partly written by Hallam Tennyson, a man who, like Anny, knew what it was to have the responsibilities and burdens of having a literary giant as a father.

Anny and Minnie had had a Dickensian childhood, both metaphorically and literally. Because of mental illness, their mother was put into private care when Anny was only three (Anny would write to and regularly visit her mother until the latter’s death fifty four years later), and the children were raised by their father, with the help of family friends, governesses and also Thackeray’s mother who, with her second husband, lived in Paris. Included among the family friends were the Brownings, the Camerons, the Carlyles, the Tennyson’s and the Dickens family, and Anny was to built lifelong friendships with all of them. Central to her childhood, however, was her father, who took an intense delight in raising his daughters, frequently took them on his European travels and to plays and art galleries in London and Paris, and who, as Anny grew older, encouraged her reading and writing and made her a more than willing secretary and scribe. He provided loving, positive mentorship, and actively helped her to publish her first piece in Cornhill magazine.

It is hard to exaggerate Anny’s importance to Virginia, both as an aunt and as a writer. “Lovable, and even touching in her extreme good nature and erratic spontaneity,” as her eventual friend Henry James once described her, she provided an important family antidote to Leslie Stephen’s occasionally cross-grained and self-absorbed behaviour. Despite clashes with her, Leslie himself described her as “the most sympathetic person I ever knew…able to sympathize quickly with the feelings of all manner of people, to throw herself into their interests and thoughts and even for a time adopt their opinions.” Virginia said of her that “to embrace oddities and produce a charming, laughing harmony from incongruities was her genius in life and letters.” Loving, lively, caring, confident, and unconventional, Anny was the perfect aunt for Virginia, all the more so because both of them shared the early loss of a mother and both received the bulk of their early literary education from their fathers. Moreover, as a successful professional writer, Anny provided a powerful example and role model and example for Virginia.

Virginia’s awareness and acknowledgment of Anny’s influence took a variety of forms. In “Blackstick Papers” (1908), “Lady Ritchie” (1919) and “The Enchanted Organ” (1924), Virginia directly acknowledged and celebrated what she called her aunt’s “whimsical and capricious genius.” In Night and Day, she gave Anny a cameo role as Mrs. Hilberry, a character supposedly described by Katherine Mansfield as “that “charming amateur of every pleasant thing, with her amiability, her ineffective brilliance, her sweetness of soul”. According to Carol Hanbery Mackay (Creative Negativity: Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest, 2001), Virginia also learned a lot from Anny’s biographical writings and she and Anny shared many of the same subjects, such as the Edgeworths, Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mary Russell Mitford, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Also, in Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears: Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen (2015), Marion Dell suggests “Toilers and Spinsters”–an essay in which Anny uses a “playful, digressive narrative voice” to suggest that the real problem for spinsters is “a want of adequate means”–as a significant influence on A Room of One’s Own

Before looking at how Anny’s writing might have sparked elements of To the Lighthouse, I will mention one other Anny book which demonstrably influenced Virginia. In Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Cameron (1926), a book compiled and published while Virginia was working on To the Lighthouse, she very closely followed the structure and format of Anny’s Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his friends : a series of 25 portraits … in photogravure from the negatives of Mrs. J. M. Cameron and H. H. H. Cameron, an 1893 book which contained reminiscences by Anny and a brief introduction by H. H. Hay Cameron, Julia’s son. The book compiled by Virginia and Roger Fry contains 24 photographs instead of the 25 in the one compiled by Anny and H H Cameron. Like Anny’s essay in Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Woolf’s essay in Victorian Photographs is biographical rather than technical or critical. The biggest difference between the two books is that the one which Anny helped publish contains about twice as many of H. H. Hay Cameron’s photographs than it does of his mother’s. Of the 25 photographs only 8 are by Julia Margaret Cameron. Additionally, only one of the 25 photographs has a woman as a subject, and that photograph, also by Julia, is of Anny Thackeray Ritchie. All of the photographs in Virginia’s book are by Mrs. Cameron, yet the Anny Thackeray Ritchie one is not included. On the other hand, ten of the photographs include women or girls, and two of those photographs are of Mrs. Leslie Stephen (Mrs. Herbert Duckworth), Virginia’s mother.

Finally, at this point I want to explore the notion that Virginia’s 1926 engagement with Aunt Anny also extended to using elements of the latter’s 1877 novel, From an Island, in To the Lighthouse. To the Lighthouse can be read as containing a veiled tribute to Anny, even if the uses made of From an Island are superficial. From an Island is not Anna Karenina, and consequently Virginia’s treatment Anny’s novel differs markedly from what she does with Tolstoy’s novel. From an Island is a novel of impressions, a novel primarily of gentle moods and moving sunsets. The plot is frail and flimsy and there is little intellectual depth. The possible death of young husband in Brazil, and an uncertain yet ultimately successful courtship seem to exist only for the purpose of displaying the beauty of the ordinary. What intrigues and delights is the lyrical sketching of weather, the play of sunlight and shadow on the landscape, and the lovely ordinariness of a small circle of family and friends enjoying the simple pleasures of daily life in their quiet country retreat.

Despite the relative simplicity of From an Island, there are an impressive number of similarities between it and To the Lighthouse. To the fact that both novels center on a domestic oasis, one can add that both novels have strong biographical elements. Just as the Ramsay household is rooted in the personalities of the Stephen family and friendship circle in St. Ives, so the St. Julian household mirrors the extended Cameron household in Freshwater. The St. Julians are mutations of the Camerons, Lord Ulleskelf is easily recognizable as Tennyson, and Queenie, the narrator, is a version of Anny. The situation and state of the St. Julian family is very like that of the Ramsay family, though sketched without the depth and thematic complexities which Virginia achieves in her portrayal of the latter.

One major element that both novels have in common is the presence of a strongly symbolic beacon or lighthouse (even if Virginia disingenuously denied meaning anything by her lighthouse), a major landmark which children are attracted to and to which, in both novels, visits are thwarted because of the weather. In From an Island we are told that the lives of the children “were one perpetual struggle to reach” the beacon, and still later a hoped for before-breakfast-visit fails because of rain. However, towards the end of the novel, a successful visit is made to the beacon when Emily, distraught at the likely death of her husband, flees to its bleak yet protective presence. Interestingly, just as Virginia’s lighthouse is modeled in part on Godrevy lighthouse of St. Ives, Anny’s lighthouse is modeled on the Nodes Beacon, a major landmark which in 1897, two years after the visit of the Stephen family to Freshwater, was replaced by the Tennyson Beacon, the 37 foot, Cornish granite, Ionian cross which marks Tennyson’s favourite spot on the Downs.

The From an Island beacon is given additional significance by being the subject of a vaguely ominous painting by St. Julian, a painting so disturbing to his wife and daughter that the picture is put away and for two years “lies forgotten in a closet.” The parallels between this picture and the one painted by Lily are heightened not just by Lily’s musings about her picture “rolled up and flung under a sofa” but also by the fact that both Lily’s and St. Julian’s picture are also mother and child paintings. St. Julian’s painting of his wife and daughter finds its counterpart in Lily’s painting of Mrs. Ramsay and her son. Even though Mrs Cameron was an extremely successful artistic photographer, Anny denied her Mrs. Cameron character any artistic capability, preferring to reassign her talents to St. Julian and to young Hexham, the photographer. Read against From an Island, Virginia’s assigning the role of artist to Lily redresses Anny’s authorial silencing of Mrs. Cameron’s pioneering accomplishments.

Many other elements in From an Island have counterparts in To the Lighthouse. The emphasis on windows, for instance. Just as with the Ramsays, the activities of the St. Julian family are repeatedly glimpsed through windows. “The Lodges,” as the narrator reports, “seem built for pretty live pictures; and the mistress’s room, most specially of all the rooms in the house, is a peep-show to see them from.” Also, there are strong correspondences between Mr. and Mrs. St. Julien and Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay. Like Mr. Ramsay, St. Julien, “active and mighty in his kingdom,” can be irascible and “admirably” impatient with old acquaintances. Like Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. St. Julian exhausts herself trying to meet her husband’s needs and those of the extended family, “doing too much for her own strength.” And, just as Lily, in the company of Mr. Bankes, glimpses Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay as a “symbolical” couple, so too does Hexham, in the company of the narrating housekeeper Mrs. Campbell, glimpse Mr. and Mrs. St. Julian arm in arm “standing at the threshold of their home,” and wish to make a photographic picture of them.

One last parallel. Tansley’s attack on Walter Scott has a clear antecedent in From an Island. Late in Anny’s novel, there is a sharp clash between Hexham, the young photographer, and St. Julian, the pater-familias. After St. Julian reads part of Wordsworth’s “London, 1802” to the assembled family circle, Hexham–off balance because of his courtship difficulties and “possessed by what the French call l’esprit moqueur”–responds by saying “I hate Wordsworth. He is always preaching.” Upset, St. Julian dryly answers, “ I am sorry for you” and goes on to say “I have never been able to read this passage of Wordsworth without emotion since I was a boy, and first found it in my school-books.” The clash between the young man and his future father-in-law is a sharp one, yet there are no further repercussions.

When we refer the Tansley incident to the Hexham one, it is immediately evident that Virginia has moved the conflict from the personal to the philosophical. Hexham clashes with St. Julien largely because he is off balance because of his courtship difficulties. Virginia could have duplicated that motive by assigning the Hexham position to Paul Rayley, who like Hexham is an unsettled young suitor “subject to the most barbaric of human passions.” Instead, by using Tansley she puts the emphasis on the teacher student relationship and on cultural transmission–the theme implicit, yet unexplored, in Anny’s choice of Wordsworth’s Miltonic sonnet. Whereas the master disciple relationship is barely evident in the From an Island clash—even though earlier in the novel Hexham gives credit to St. Julian’s artistic influence for the striking success of his photograph—it is central to Virginia’s novel. Through Tansley, and particularly through his attack on Walter Scott, Virginia foregrounds the master disciple relationship and the way in which the past is altered and revalued as it is taken up by the future. To see Virginia as a Hexham to Anny’s St. Julian adds delightful layers of playfulness and complexity to the subject.

Closing thought: prepositions matter. Virginia’s “To” pushes against Anny’s “From”. Was Virginia aware of this when she settled on her title? While To the Lighthouse is every bit as much about “from” as From an Island—indeed, more so—it is also far more aspirational. Anny is content with the past and celebrates it. Virginia, too, celebrates it, yet she also interrogates it and battles against it and works to change it. “To” matters for her in a way in which it doesn’t for Anny. Anny was at peace with the past and did not need to come to terms with her father or with her country. Virginia did. Hers was no passive vision. She wanted to understand the past and to improve the future. Passive acceptance was not enough. “From” was a means by which to reach “to.”

They were all strolling along the cliffs towards the beacon. It stood upon the summit of High Down, a long way off as yet, though it seemed close at hand, so clearly did it stand out in the still atmosphere of the sunset. It stood there stiff and black upon its knoll, an old weather-beaten stick with a creaking coop for a crown, the pivot round which most of this little story turns. For when these holiday people travelled away out of its reach, they also passed out of my ken. We could see the beacon from most of our windows, through all the autumnal clematis and ivy sprays falling and drifting about. The children loved the beacon, and their little lives were one perpetual struggle to reach it, in despite of winds, of time of meals, of tutors and lessons. The elders, too, loved it after their fashion. Had they not come and established themselves under the shadow of High Down, where it had stood as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember! Lord Ulleskelf, in his yacht out at sea, was always glad to see the familiar old stubby finger rising up out of the mist. My cousin, St. Julian the R.A., had made a strange rough sketch of it, and of his wife and her eldest daughter sitting beneath it; and a sea, and a cloud horizon, grey, green, mysterious beyond. He had painted a drapery over their heads, and young Emilia’s arms round the stem. It was a terrible little picture Emilia the mother thought when she saw it, and she begged her husband to turn its face to the wall in his studio.

“Don’t you see how limpid the water is, and how the mist is transparent and drifting before the wind?” St. Julian said. “Why do you object, you perverse woman?”

The wife didn’t answer, but her soft cheeks flushed. Emilia the daughter spoke, a little frightened.

“They are like mourners,” papa, she whispered.

St. Julian shrugged his shoulders at them. “And this is a painter’s wife!” he cried; “and a painter’s daughter!” But he put the picture away, for he was too tender to pain them, and it lay now forgotten in a closet. This was two years ago, before Emilia was married, or had come home with her little son during her husband’s absence. She was carrying the child in her arms as she toiled up the hill in company with the others, a tender bright flush in her face. Her little Bevis thinks it is he who is carrying “Mozzer,” as he clutches her tight round the neck with his two little arms.

I suppose nobody ever reached the top of a high cliff without some momentary feeling of elation, so much left behind, so much achieved. There you stand at peace, glowing with exertion, raised far above the din of the world. They were gazing as they came along (for it is only of an island that I am writing) at the great sight of shining waters, of smiling fertile fields and country; and of distant waters again, that separated them from the pale glimmering coast of the mainland. The straits, which lie between the island and Broadshire, are not deserted as is the horizon on the other side (it lies calm, and tossing, and self-sufficing); but the straits are crowded and alive with boats and white sails: ships go sliding past, yachts drift, and great brigs slowly travel in tow of the tiny steamer that crosses and recrosses the water with letters and provisions, and comers and goers and guests to Ulles Hall and to the Lodges, where St. Julian and his family live all through the summer-time; and where some of us indeed remain the whole year round.

From an Island

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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