Saturday, November 19, 2011

Star-Crossed Love in the Regency

My first two posts here at Romancing the Past focused mostly on the Past aspects of the regency period, so this time I thought I'd look at a little more closely at the Romancing side of things. Most regency fans are familiar with William Makepeace Thackeray, whose most famous work, Vanity Fair, has a regency setting and even hinges on the Battle of Waterloo. But did you know his mother's real life love story was worthy of any regency romance?

Anne with her son, William.

Anne Becher was born in 1792 in India and, like many children of East India Company families, was sent to live with relatives in England—specifically her paternal grandmother, also named Anne Becher. The younger Anne grew into a beauty, with dark curly hair, soulful eyes, and a tender, dignified manner. In 1808, when she was 15, she met a handsome 28-year-old lieutenant of the Bengal Engineers, Henry Carmichael-Smyth, at the Assembly Ball in Bath. Henry hailed from a respectable Scottish family; his father, James Carmichael-Smyth, was a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and "physician extraordinary" to mad King George III. In a courtship right out of Othello, Henry won Anne's heart with stirring tales of his military service in India.

But Henry was only a younger son, and Anne's grandmother had hopes of a better match for her. Moving quickly to quash the romance, she forbade Anne to see any more of the dashing officer. Since her grandmother's property sat beside a river, a rebellious Anne slipped out of the house and met Henry on the riverbank, where he came by boat to see her. Unfortunately the two were caught together, and Anne's grandmother locked her in her room.

Anne wrote to Henry with the help of a servant, but Mrs. Becher discovered the clandestine correspondence. Taking matters into her own hands, she informed Anne that Henry had died of a sudden fever. Storytelling seems to have run in Thackeray's genes, for Mrs. Becher told Anne the poor dying officer had remembered her with his last breath. Meanwhile, she separately informed Henry that Anne had lost interest in him.

Determined to keep her granddaughter from learning the truth, Mrs. Becher packed Anne off to India. Anne no sooner arrived in Calcutta than the British community there hailed her as a great beauty. A prosperous young East India Company man, Richmond Thackeray, began to court her. The son of a legendary elephant hunter, Thackeray held a prestigious post as Secretary of the Board of Revenue. On October 13, 1810—her eighteenth birthday—Anne became his wife.

The Thackeray family—Richmond, Anne, and their son William.

Just nine months after the wedding, Anne went into labor with the couple's son, the future author of Vanity Fair. William Makepeace Thackeray was born with such a large head his mother never entirely recovered, and he was to remain her one and only offspring, though William did have an older half sister from his father's pre-marital dalliance with a mistress.

Five months after William's birth, Richmond Thackeray was promoted to Collector of the 24 Parganas, the district around Calcutta, a position roughly equivalent in Bengal to that of Home Secretary in England. The Thackerays' future looked bright. Then, in 1812, Richmond met "a most delightful officer" and invited him back to his official residence for dinner. Imagine Anne's surprise when the man walked in—and was none other than her first love, the supposedly dead and buried Henry Carmichael-Smyth.

Whatever looks passed between Anne and Henry and whatever their feelings for each other may have been—and subsequent events make it clear the two still loved each other—Anne seems to have been a model wife and mother. No rumors or scandal attached to Anne and Henry while Richmond Thackeray remained alive.

Then, in 1815, at the young age of thirty-two, Richmond suffered the very fate Anne's grandmother had invented for Henry Carmichael-Smyth, dying of a fever. A year later Anne sent her young son to England to live with his great-grandmother, the same disapproving matriarch who had told her Henry was dead; apparently, Anne possessed a most forgiving nature.

William Makepeace Thackeray
Yes, his head was huge.

Three months later, on March 13, 1817—a decorous interval of 18 months after Richmond Thackeray's death—Anne wed Henry Carmichael-Smyth at last.

United despite all obstacles, the couple remained happily married until Henry's death in 1861, forty-four years later. Anne even outlived her famous son, dying in 1864 on the first anniversary of his death.

The only shadow on Anne's happy ending was that she and Henry were unable to have children together, owing to William Makepeace Thackeray's enormous head.

Alyssa Everett's debut regency, A Tryst With Trouble, is available now for pre-order from Amazon. Her second, Ruined by Rumor, is due out in May. She hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, where she promises not to spam you relentlessly.


Georgie Lee said...

I really enjoyed reading about Thackery's mother. I did not know this about the famous writer. Thanks for the great post.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks so much, Georgie! Thackeray himself had an interesting and sometimes tragic life. His wife went into a permanent state of post-partum psychosis and had to be quietly institutionalized. Unfortunately, Charlotte Bronte didn't know that when she dedicated Jane Eyre to him--a novel featuring a hero who secretly locks away his mentally disturbed wife.

Wendy Soliman said...

Fascinating! I didn't know any of that. Thanks for your interesting post.

Alyssa Everett said...

I'm glad you found it interesting, Wendy! It's always fun to come across a real-life story that sounds like it was ripped from the pages of today's romances.

Anonymous said...

Loved your post. It was very interesting.

Alyssa Everett said...

Thanks for reading, Ella!

Claire Robyns said...

Oh my word, there's enough in there for at least 6 romance novels - and what an ogre of a granny, but I guess times were different then and she really believed she was acting in Anne's best interests. I'm so happy they found each other again :)

angelyn said...

Nice post. I learned a lot!

Regencyresearcher said...

Lovely post, Glad that story worked out for Anne and Henry.
Quite often when people say they are acting in your best interest, they really are acting in their own.

Cheryl Bolen said...

Alyssa, your articles are always fascinating! I'm sure your debut will be, too.

Alyssa Everett said...

@Claire - What amazes me is that there were apparently no lingering hard feelings, since Anne sent William to England to stay with the grandmother.

@angelyn - Thanks for stopping by!

@Nancy - I agree about people who claim to be acting in someone else's interest. Usually there's an ulterior motive in there somewhere.

@Cheryl - Thanks so much! My first book release is approaching fast enough that nerves are beginning to kick in, so I appreciate the kind words.

Vonnie Hughes said...

Really useful and interesting post as usual, Alyssa. I dare say she sent her son to the grandmother since that was the most logical place to send him. She could be sure the old bat would at least have his interests at heart.

Karen Dobbins said...

What a great story! I am so glad Anne got her HEA. Often that doesn't happen in real life. There's really nothing new under the sun, is there?

Alyssa Everett said...

@Vonnie - It's always amazed me, the number of English children who grew up separated from their parents (often because the parents were diplomats or civil servants posted to some remote location).

@Karen - Telling someone her true love is dead is so diabolical, I keep picturing the grandmother looking like a character from a soap opera, or maybe Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty.

Rose Lerner said...

I have to admit, being a huge Thackeray fan, this story makes me kind of sad because he had to go live with this awful woman! To me this either says his mother was very forgiving...or she wasn't very invested in her son. And I get the impression from his books that he didn't have a very happy childhood (although to be fair a lot of that had to do with British public's easy to forget that upperclass English boys didn't live at home most of the time even if they lived at home).

Alyssa Everett said...

@Rose - Based on the sources I've read, Thackeray really loved his mother, so I don't think it was a case of her not being very invested in her son. At the time she sent him to England, his father was already dead, and the Indian climate was considered unhealthy. He wrote in a biographical passage in The Roundabout Papers, "We Indian children were consigned to a school of which our deluded parents had heard a favorable report, but which was governed by a horrible little tyrant, who made our young lives so miserable that I remember kneeling by my little bed of a night, and saying, 'Pray God, I may dream of my mother!'"