Monday, April 11, 2011

{review} period piece


Period Piece

I've been dipping into Gwen Raverat's Period Piece for some bits and pieces to jazz up an alumnae newsletter. I was reminded what a wonderful book it is (and still in print, thank you Faber).  I highly recommend it if you like a well-written, chatty personal memoir of Victorian childhood, set in an idyllic location, and peopled by the truly eccentric. 

Gwen Raverat (1885-1957) was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin and her family home - now part of Darwin College in Cambridge (UK!) - sits plumb between Silver Street and the River Cam. All of her relatives appear to have been slightly mad, like Uncle William:
Another time, as he was watching the dowdy Newnham students of those days passing our house, he said sadly: 'Why do those young women always wear dung-coloured coats?' For he dearly liked to see a pretty girl well turned out. If he were out walking with me, leaning on my arm, as he usually did, and a pretty girl came by, he would stop dead, turn round, stare, and say loudly: 'Good looking young woman that.'
Raverat was an exceptionally talented wood engraver. She married the painter Jacques Raverat, and both were heavily involved with the Bloomsbury set. Period Piece includes many of Raverat's lovely little drawings. The caption on this one, from the chapter on clothes, reads, The Torturers. The daily dressmaker is on the left; my mother in her most implacable mood kneels on the right.


Another anecdote, very telling of its era:
When Uncle Frank was engaged to Aunt Ellen (his second wife), he was thirty-five, and she was twenty-seven, and a Fellow and lecturer at Newnham; and if any two people could be more respectable I would not like to know them. Yet, when Miss Clough, the principal of Newnham, had been away for a few weeks my grandmother wrote: 'Frank will be glad that Miss Clough has come back, so that he can call on Ellen again.' He had not been able to go there at all while Miss Clough was away! She sat in the parlour with them herself; no one else would do as a chaperon. Of course, there could be no question of his going to Aunt Ellen's own sitting room; nor obviously of her going to see him. One sometimes wonders how anyone was ever able to get engaged at all.

...Mrs. Alfred Marshall tells a story, which she told me herself when she was very old; how she and Miss Marion Kennedy, both of them Newnham lecturers of nearly thirty, took rooms at a London hotel in order to attend the wedding of their friends Professor Henry Sidgwick and Miss Eleanor Balfour; and of how her horrified father, the rector, sent her young brother, a boy of fourteen, posting off in haste, to chaperon them. 'And when he came, we stayed on another night, and even went to a theatre with him!' she told me in triumphant amusement; and ended up: 'But I was in disgrace at home for some time after that.'
Rating: 10/10.

If you liked this... it's interesting to compare how the straitlaced Victorian upbringing of children went completely to hell in the early twentieth century (although boys remained better educated). Hmmm. Perhaps Virginia Nicholson's Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1935.

Among the Bohemians Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939

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