Earlier this month, I read Period Piece by Gwen Raverat, a lovely memoir of a Victorian, Cambridge childhood that I found endlessly charming and beautifully told. So with A London Child therefore I was very much back in familiar territory, which Liz bought me for Christmas, and is on the Seven Ages of Women list.
Molly Hughes was born Mary Thomas in 1866 and she tells us that her childhood memories begin in 1870 and end in 1879 when the family underwent a seismic change. A London Child of the 1870’s is in fact the first of a quartet of memoirs by Molly Hughes: A London Girl of the 1880s, A London Home in the 1890s, and A London Family Between the Wars. I can’t help but wonder whether Persephone books will ever re-issue the rest of Molly Hughes story.
“A girl with four brothers older than herself is born under a lucky star. To be brought up in London, in the eighteen-seventies, by parents who knew how to laugh at both jokes and disasters, was to be under the influence of Jupiter himself.”
Molly was the youngest of five children, the others all boys. Here, each of her older brothers are portrayed with great affection, Tom the eldest kindly often taking Molly’s part in arguments, Vivian (called Dym by Molly) the scientist, Charles the artist and Barnholt, the least academically gifted, but probably everyone’s favourite. Molly Hughes’ faithful recreation of family life shows that people were not so very different in the Victorian era as we sometimes think. Each family has its own funny little ways, its own traditions and often repeated stories, and the Thomas family was no exception.
Molly’s father Tom Thomas was a stock market dabbler, and so the family fortunes would therefore wax and wane; there would be times of plenty, followed by leaner times, and then times when the family’s poverty meant doing without servants. Living in a large London House in Canonbury Park, the family are quite delightful, a seemingly happy and close family, who shrug off those times of hardship as if they never existed, the children never knowing a moment’s unease. While her brothers went to a private school, Molly’s education was undertaken by her mother, until she reached the age of eleven, when finally she went to school – not a boarding school, an establishment for young ladies, where finally Molly had to learn to rub along with her fellows.
There is an undeniable nostalgia in this memoir – written in the 1930’s when the author was apparently living alone – no doubt there is an aspect of harking back to those happiest of times, before the world darkened. Here we have memories of Christmas traditions, bus rides with her brothers as well as happy times playing great games in the ‘study’ the room set aside for the particular, exclusive use of the children. The story of Barnholt going missing for two days is told with a surprising lack of drama as he was thankfully found safe and well, but I am sure we can all imagine the terror of Molly’s poor mother, convinced she would never see her youngest son again. This is a world of dank, London pea soupers, hansom cabs, button boots, chimney sweeps, yet nothing could be less Dickensian than the world of Molly Hughes childhood.
Molly’s mother – rather an adventurous type in her youth – was a Cornishwoman, and it is the family visits to Reskadinnick, her mother’s former home, that are related with particular fondness and nostalgia. A three hundred mile journey by train in the 1870’s with five children was no mean feat and yet Molly’s mother undertook it each year. In Cornwall was Aunt Tony, Aunt Knight and a host of girl cousins to roam with. Her times at Reskadinnick seem truly idyllic, a place she always found it so hard to tear herself away from. Her memories of it are naturally vivid.
“A churn was never seen at Reskadinnick. it had been heard of, and actually used by my aunt who lived up in the town, but Tony, my golden aunt of Reskadinnick, tossed her head at the idea. She had her own ritual of butter-making, and many a time I used to curl up in the corner of the kitchen window-seat to watch it. Her hands had to be elaborately washed first, and dipped in cold water to be cool. The wooden tub with the cream in it had to be held at a special angle on her lap. With fixed eye and stern mouth she then began to swirl the cream round, and you mustn’t speak to her till the butter ‘came’. One day I was allowed as a great treat to make a little butter all by myself, with no one even watching. When it ‘came’, behold, it was very good, and the joy of creation was mine.”
NB: Future readers do not read the Preface to this edition by Adam Gopnik before reading the book – I am so glad I didn’t – it would quite probably have changed the way I saw Molly and her family whilst I was reading.
(Slight spoiler) The memoir closes with a poignantly brief recounting of what happened to Molly’s dear father in 1879, events which so changed life for all of them. Reading the preface to this Persephone edition, (after reading the rest of the book) and a quick consultation of Wikipedia, shows that Molly Hughes’ account is not entirely accurate, hardly surprising really that she wanted to skirt around painful events.
A London Child is an engaging little memoir, and I really would like to meet up with Molly and her brothers again in Molly Hughes’ other volumes, although it doesn’t quite have the timeless appeal of Period Piece. Still, there is something very readable and strangely comforting in these recreations of long ago childhoods.