OLD KENSINGTON, A NOVEL by Anny Thackeray Ritchie, was first published in 1879. Not much read now, in its time the book was highly popular and went into five editions. It came out as Kensington was taking its modern shape, the elegant squares and terraces of stucco town houses that define the area today replacing the ramshackle houses and fields of the mid-century when the romance was set.
“In those days,” she wrote, “…the hawthorn spread across the fields and marketgardens that lay between Kensington and the River. Lanes ran to Chelsea, to Fulham, to North End…there were strawberry beds, green, white and crimson in turn…there was a Kensington world…somewhat apart from the big uneasy world surging beyond the turnpike—a world of neighbours bound together by the old winding streets and narrow community of venerable elms and traditions that are almost levelled away.”
There is no mention of the Great Exhibition, which brought the wonders of industrialisation to Hyde Park at the time the novel was set, but the Crimean War and a cholera epidemic affecting the London poor provide a tragic backdrop to this otherwise idyllic scene. Light on plot and characterisation, the book follows the emotional adventures of Dolly Vanborough, a heroine thought to be modelled on Anny’s sister Minny.
Spoiler alert: the book tells how Dolly and her brother George are sent from India by their neglectful parents to live with their aunt in the sprawling family mansion Church House. She grows up and falls in love with a man she loves but we know to be an abominable prig. Her best friend Rhoda proves treacherous, running off with Dolly’s fiancé and also with her fortune. But in a plot twist characteristic of Victorian melodrama, virtue is rewarded and she retrieves her money and her happiness, ending up with Frank Raban, the man she should have married all along.
The book is worth reading for its nostalgic evocation of a time when Kensington was a “happy jumble of old bricks and sunsets,” and children played with their governesses in Kensington Gardens, an arcadian park then still surrounded by a high brick wall. But Ritchie’s novel is also a literary link between the Kensington of William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair and rival to Charles Dickens as the greatest Victorian novelist, and the Bloomsbury of Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell.
Thackeray himself had died suddenly at home in Kensington, at 2 Palace Green, on Christmas Eve, 1863, leaving his two daughters as orphans. They stayed for a while in the family mansion, which overlooked the royal palace and Gardens, before selling the house to a banker at a knockdown price, not the first financier to appreciate the charms of the area.They moved to No 16 Onslow Gardens, a new development for London’s burgeoning middleclasses. There, Anny began her literary career, writing stories for The Cornhill magazine and a succession of romantic novels.
Her writing was popular with readers, and appreciated by serious women writers such as George Eliot and Rhoda Broughton. But male critics were more dismissive, AnthonyTrollope complaining that Anny was unduly moralistic, always “endeavouring to prove that good produces good, and evil evil.” Her future brother-in-law Leslie Stephen bemoaned her lack of education, which was sadly typical for women of this time. Certainly, she became a matriarchal and moralistic figure, qualities later used by Virginia Woolf in her portrayal of Mrs Hilbery, modelled on Anny, in Night and Day. Yet she was a serious and successful author, making her own way in one of the few professions open to women at the time.
Soon after establishing herself at Onslow Gardens, her sister Minny met and married Leslie Stephen, a former Cambridge don who was embarking on a distinguished career as a man of letters. Born (in Kensington Gore) brought up (in Hyde Park Gate) to a distinguished family of public servants, he had at first pursued an academic career. He had then turned to what we would call freelance journalism after he lost his religious faith and had to abandon his fellowship at Cambridge as a result.
Striking to look at, tall, with a thin, pensive face, he was an embryonic late Victorian sage, in the tradition of Thomas Carlyle. Although not a great writer himself, he was an influential literary figure. As editor of the Cornhill, he published Thomas Hardy, and was later the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Known today chiefly as father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell (two of four children from his second marriage), he was also a celebrated climber, one of the great figures in the golden age of mountaineering.
Robert Louis Stevenson described Stephen as like an illustration of Robinson Crusoe’s goat. Thomas Hardy said his mentor was as craggy and brooding as the Finstaarhorn mountain (one of Stephen’s Alpine first ascents) in the middle of a storm. He was certainly an impressive figure, an intellectual of boundless energy. Minnie, whom he adored, was of a quieter, gentler temperament. “Her nature was one of quiet love,” Stephen wrote dotingly, “of a sort of complacent indulgence of tender, cherishing, caressing emotions”.
After they married in 1867, Stephen moved into his wife’s home in Onslow Gardens. Anny stayed on, and the three lived together happily. The house became a meeting point for many of London’s literary lions, from Stevenson to Hardy and Henry James.The Stephens’ marriage was also extremely happy, marred only by the fact that their beloved daughter Laura proved to be mentally disabled.
The ménage later moved to No 8 Southwell Gardens, now a prime SW7 address but then surrounded by a wasteland of rubble amid much speculative new building. Tragically, the domestic idyll came to an end in November 1875, when Minnie died. Stephen and his sisterin-law were plunged into profound grief.They found the empty house depressing and moved to 22 Hyde Park Gate – a residence now beyond the reach of all but an oligarch or hedge fund titan, but then a new residence appropriate for a freelance writer.
Stephen installed himself in a top floor study, complete with custom-built ventilator for his pipe smoke. Consolation came in the unexpected form of his neighbour Julia Duckworth, also grieving from the loss of a spouse. Stephen and Julia married in March 1878. By this time, Anny had moved out: Leslie walked in on her in the drawing room kissing her godson and cousin Richmond Ritchie, 17 years her junior.This odd couple were soon married.
Julia had two children of her own and went on to have four with Leslie, including the fabled Vanessa and Virginia, as well as their brothers Thoby and Adrian. With the two Duckworth children and Laura, this was a lively lateVictorian home, but with modern overtones of mental illness and abuse. As Virginia later wrote:
“When I look back upon that house it seems to me so crowded with scenes of family life, grotesque, comic and tragic: with the violent emotions of youth, revolt, despair, intoxicating happiness, immense boredom…with passionate affection for my father alternating with passionate hatred of him, all vibrating in an atmosphere of youthful bewilderment and curiosity.”
Many years later, Virginia and her sister Vanessa complained bitterly about their father’s miserliness and controlling behaviour. Being summoned to the study to discuss the household accounts became emblematic of oppressive Victorian patriarchy. Some of this is captured in Virginia’s To the Lighthouse, where the rueful Mr Ramsay is clearly modelled on Leslie Stephen. Ramsay worries that he has reached no more than the letter Q in the alphabet of literary reputations, a clear reference to Stephen’s efforts on the immense biographical A to Z that was the Dictionary of National Biography.
After Sir Leslie died in 1904, his daughters soon decamped to Bloomsbury, a couple of miles to the east.This was intended as a definitive break with the Victorian era, but that is not the whole story. Read Ritchie’s Old Kensington and one is immediately struck by the author’s emphasis on emotion and impressions, qualities central to Virginia Woolf’s own work. In fact, Bloomsbury descended directly from Victorian Kensington.
This article originally appeared in the Kensington Society annual report