Finding Fairy Tale in the Mundane: Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood”

These days, Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1837-1919) may be best known as the woman who edited the correspondence of her novelist father William Makepiece Thackeray, not always to the satisfaction of later scholars. She was also, according to most sources, the first person to publish a version of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”—a recognition almost always followed by the caveat that she probably didn’t invent the saying herself. But as her step-niece Virginia Woolf noted, in her own day, Ritchie was known and loved for far more than merely being the daughter of the author of Vanity Fair and the scribe of wise sayings—including her fairy tales, early examples of fairy tales retold using realistic, contemporary settings.

Ritchie, called Anny by close friends and family, was born in 1837, the first child of Thackeray and his wife Isabella. After her third pregnancy, Isabella Thackeray suffered from deep depression, possibly brought on by then-untreatable post-partum depression. She attempted to commit suicide when Anne was only three. After her suicide attempt, Isabella Thackeray was cared for in various insane asylums and by private caretakers, far from her two surviving children, Anne and Harriet. This early separation from a still-living mother was something Anne’s father could appreciate: he had been sent from his own mother at the age of five, after his father’s death, to be educated in England while his mother stayed in India. But he was not quite appreciative enough to try to raise his daughters as a single parent. Instead, he sent Anne and Harriet to live with their Calvinist grandmother, seeing his daughters in brief intervals. Anne remained devoted to him, and equally devoted to searching for happy endings.

Thackeray died unexpectedly early in 1863, at the age of 52, when Anne was 26. By that time, she and her sister had already embarked on a life that focused on visiting and staying with numerous literary and artistic figures—including Leslie Stephens, father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, who married Harriet in 1867. Harriet’s death in 1875 plunged Anne into grief—eventually leading her straight into the arms of a cousin seventeen years younger than she, Sir Richmond Thackeray Willougby Ritchie. Sir Ritchie, a respectable British civil servant, occasionally cheated on her, and the couple continually bounced in and out of other people’s houses or had others bounce in and out of their own, with the related stress. But Sir Ritchie also provided needed emotional and financial support, and the marriage survived until his death in 1912.

By then, inspired by her father and his literary friends, she had already launched a critically if not financially successful literary career, forming literary friendships that included letters like this, to Robert Browning in 1885:

If you could come to lunch at 1:30 next Sunday we have a friendly lion tamer Capt. Speedy….

(No, that has nothing much to do with fairy tales or anything in the rest of this post, but I’m always up for inserting any reference that includes Robert Browning and lion tamers, no matter how much of a reach it is.)

It is perhaps no wonder that she, in turn, inspired many women and girls that she met to try their hands at writing and poetry (if, apparently, not lion taming), including Virginia Woolf, who listened mesmerized to many of her step-aunt’s tales, and later loosely based some of her characters on her always interesting aunt. Ritchie was not, by most reports, the most practical, organized or thrifty person—and she could be overly emotional, but she could also be highly sympathetic, as shown in her writings.

Her first major work, The Story of Elizabeth, was published in the same year her father died. It was followed by several novels, biographical sketches of the people she met, essays, letters, short stories, and novellas. Partly to honor her father, and partly to trade upon his name as a sales technique, her work usually appeared under the name of Miss Thackeray: a copy of one collection scanned into the internet by the University of Toronto contains a carefully scrawled “Anne Isabella Thackrey (Lady Ritchie)” under the name “Miss Thackeray,” a correction which perhaps would have been more meaningful had “Thackeray” been spelled correctly. Later scholars tended to call her Ritchie, Lady Ritchie, or Anny to distinguish her from her father—who also wrote novels, biographical sketches, essays, letters, short stories and novellas.

As Ritchie admitted both in the texts of the tales themselves, and in the introductions she later wrote for her short fiction collections, Five Old Friends and a Young Prince (1868) and Bluebeard’s Keys, and other stories (1874) her primary motivation for turning to fairy tales was quite simple: she loved them. She may also have been inspired by her father’s success with a sarcastic, book length, original fairy tale, The Rose and the Ring (1855), which offered an example both of an original fairy tale and of the social critiques that could be made under the guise of fairy tales. And, as many of her fairy tales show, she wanted both to preserve the messages and warnings of the original tales—and assure readers that their magic still persisted, even very ordinary, magicless settings, and that even very ordinary girls who were not princesses at all could enjoy happy endings.

Her first fairy tale, “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” originally appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in 1866. It begins with the narrator, in later tales revealed to be a Miss Williamson, an old lady, musing over fairy tales, and wondering why they have outlasted so many stories of more common people, and her friend H., in later tales revealed to be another old lady living with Miss Williamson, who theorizes that fairy tales have survived because they are the stories of real people, transformed into princes and princesses.

The two then consider their many mutual friends and acquaintances, realizing that H. is quite right: they do know several Cinderellas, girls that drop toads from their mouths (metaphorically), and, on an alarming note, at least six Bluebeards—not to mention any number of Sleeping Beauties. One of these beauties is Cecilia Lulworth.

Cecilia is hardly a princess, and her christening goes unmentioned in the story, leading me to assume that it was not attended by all that many real fairies. She is instead the daughter of a well off family, who live in Lulworth Hall, a house surrounded by dark overgrowth, rarely visited by anyone. The family itself is rather small: a great-aunt with a fondness for spinning wheels, who owns the house; Cecilia’s parents, a mother with a great sense of propriety and a quiet father who rarely speaks; and Miss Maria Bowley, daughter of Cecelia’s mother’s governess, brought to the estate to keep Cecilia in hand.

This hardly seems necessary: the house is so dull that Cecelia, too, becomes dull and quiet, rarely leaving the place even to see people in the nearby village. Their only visitors are the village rector and doctor, who rarely come, leaving the place quiet and alone, until one night, when the great-aunt, Mrs. Dormer, realizes that Cecilia is now twenty-five, still at home, with a life that has not changed since she was ten, unmarried, and with no prospects or friends besides her governess. In short, she is not living, but sleeping through life.

This hardly bothers Cecilia, who points out, shockingly enough for a sheltered Victorian beauty, that people are very stupid to marry, pointing to the example of a certain Jane Simmonds, beaten by her husband. The elderly Mrs. Dormer can’t exactly disagree with this point, even calling it wise. But the conversation makes Cecilia wonder, for the first time, if her life will ever change—and makes Mrs. Dormer decide to try to change it. After all, Mrs. Dormer does know, well, not a prince, but a cousin—a cousin who might just be willing to free Cecilia through a kiss.

In The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods, Ritchie draws a strong association between propriety and curses, manners and dark magic. As Ritchie notes, other things besides magic can entrap women, including education, tradition, family obligations, and family expectations. Ritchie never quite argues for the women in her tales to start up careers, even the genteel one that she herself followed. But she recognizes that the social structure of Victorian England could keep women both comfortable and trapped, and that it was a structure that often gave women limited options. Cecilia’s mother lives at Lulworth Hall because she does not have a home of her own; as a throwaway line notes, Maria Bowley is “in want of a situation.” Notably, Miss Bowley does not leave Lulworth Hall even after her charge is old enough not to need a governess. She has no place else to go.

Ritchie also notes the way education—at least, the wrong type of education, could leave women “stupid, suspicious, narrow- minded, soured, and overbearing,” or “nervous, undecided, melancholy, and anxious,” or, in Cecilia’s case, still like a child at the age of 25, even with an education, unable to be bored because she doesn’t know any better, respectable, but friendless and alone—and, Ritchie notes, adding very little to the world. The portrait she draws of Cecilia’s life slowly grows more and more horrifying, as Ritchie painstakingly notes every detail of the girl’s stinted life—a life, Ritchie notes, that was restricted with the best of intentions.

It is hardly a flawless tale—from time to time, Ritchie seems to mix up a couple of character names, and the climax of the story feels rather abrupt, to put it mildly. But the connection she draws between dark magic and acceptable education for women in Victorian England is a powerful one, as well as her observation that fairy tales can be found in real life as well as books, and that yes, women can find their happy endings—often with the help of elderly women.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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