I don’t read as much non-fiction as I sometimes think I should – and I’m certainly not one to force the issue, but Period Piece represents the kind of non-fiction book I like best. Childhood memoirs of the Victorian and Edwardian era are a lovely sub-genre that I have found to be endlessly readable. This lovely book borrowed from Liz comes with lots of lovely illustrations by the author herself.
Gwen Raverat was a wood engraver, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, who died three years before she was born. Gwen was born into a large Cambridge family in 1885, her mother; an American had met and married her father George Darwin when on a visit to Cambridge in 1883. Although the book begins with the meeting of George Darwin and Maud Du Puy, and ends with Gwen’s admission to the Slade School of art, the book is mainly non-chronological, with each chapter following a particular theme rather than a period in time.
Gwen writes with warmth and wit about her marvellous relatives, seen through her child-like eyes – even from a distance of more than fifty years – they throw off their Victorian mustiness and become wonderful human characters. She writes with particular affection of her troupe of aunts and uncles, who all played a big part in her life.
“Margaret tells me how one spring, when Aunt Etty was quite old, she suddenly announced that she had never heard a nightingale sing, and must do so at once. But as the nightingale turn did not come on till quite late, she would get ready for bed first. So, at 10.30 Margaret pushed her in her bath-chair up to the wood at the end of the garden. She was in a special bird-listening costume of red dressing-gown, several shawls, scarves and rugs; a hot-water bottle and rubber boots; her hair was in a wispy pigtail, and she was without her teeth. (I am thankful to say that I never had an aunt who was afraid of seeming ridiculous.)”
With Josiah Wedgewood another of her ancestors and the impressive shadow of Charles Darwin looming over her childhood, Gwen lives a life surrounded by gifted thinkers, scientists and artists. Her life isn’t especially conventional, unlike the majority of children at the time Gwen was not brought up to be religious, her relatives are gloriously eccentric. There is a delicious irreverence in Gwen Raverat’s depictions of family and childhood, her astute observations of the pitfalls of being a Victorian lady, the awkwardness of society, and the joy of holidays in the country.
“The first religious experience that I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing mistress might be dead before we got to the Dancing Class.”
Gwen was the eldest of four siblings, and so it was on her that Gwen’s mother was able to first practice her various theories – which made up certain aspects of Gwen’s education. Some of these usually short lived theories included; jam weakened moral fibre, all milk must be boiled, gingerbread pudding gave you cancer and beef was bad but mutton was good. One of the most peculiar things expected of the young Gwen was that of chaperone to courting couples, even as quite a young child she was expected to sit primly to one side, within good sight of the young lovers, who naturally loathed her presence. The family spent many holidays and summers at their county home of Down – a place loved by almost all but Gwen’s mother Maud. Here was a place of magic for Gwen, from the old mulberry tree outside the nursery window, to the humble farm cottages and the miles of woodland and fields to play in croquet games and her wonderfully eccentric Aunt Etty. However, even at Down there were things that go bump in the night, things that act upon a childish imagination and send shivers down the spine.
“The only ghost I ever saw was at Down, and it was a rabbit. All the best beds at Down were great four-posters, with ceilings and curtains of stiff shiny chintz hanging all round them. One night, when I was sleeping in a little bed beside my mother’s big one, I saw, I most certainly saw, a rabbit come out on the top of the canopy and run all along it and disappear at the far end. They never would believe me about this, which was unkind of them, for the tops of beds were always dangerous places.”
This lovely memoir was such an engaging read, a faithful recreation of a vanished time and of a fascinating family. A time of gas light and button hooks, corsets and carriages, propriety and society, in a book which has apparently never been out of print, Gwen Raverat leads us through a childhood of the late Victorian period.