Period Piece

by Gwen Raverat

I've been sorting out my book-shelves and -- horror -- throwing some away. Part of this job, of course, is sitting down on the floor with a book you've just rediscovered, and reading it for three hours, while others step over you.

          One rediscovered book, which distracted me for more than three hours, was Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, by Gwen Raverat, my copy of which is an old Faber paperback from the 1960s, pale pink, with a black stripe down the opening edge.   Its original price was '6s 6d, net.' (32p)

          Now Gwen Raverat was one of Charles Darwin's granddaughters, (though he died before she was born.) The eccentric Darwin family certainly gave her plenty of material, but it's not the Darwin gossip, nor even the vivid, child's-eye view of life in a wealthy family of the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries that make this book a treasure.  The book's immense charm, which doesn't diminish with re-reading (even when sitting cross-legged on a draughty floor in front of a bookcase), is entirely due to the personality of its writer.  Reading the book is like visiting a much-loved friend, and listening to her tell stories of her childhood with warmth, affection, perception, great humour, and even, yes, wisdom.  And just as, if you're lucky enough to have a friend like that, you go back again and again, so you return to this book.

           As Raverat says herself, in her preface, ' does not matter which chapter is read first or last.'  Some chapter titles are: Theories, Propriety, Aunt Etty, Ghosts and Horrors, Religion...I find it hard to choose a favourite.

            'Theories' is not about anything like the Theory of Evolution, but her mother's theories about how children should be raised : 'I was...born into the trying position of being the eldest of the family, so that the full force of my mother's theories about education were brought to bear upon me; and it fell to me to blaze a path to freedom for my juniors, through the forest of her good intentions.' As an eldest child -- though from quite a different kind of family -- I can identify with that.

             For those who may have theories and children of their own, Raverat has these soothing words: 'Dear Reader, you may take it from me, that however hard you try – or don't try; whatever you do – or don't do; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; every way and every day:


So it is no good bothering about it.  When the little pests grow up they will certainly tell you exactly what you did wrong in their case.  But never mind; they will be just as wrong themselves in their turn.  So take things easily; and above all, eschew good intentions.'
            In 'Propriety' she dissects the odd notions of good behaviour which held sway during her childhood, and which she seems to have found odd even then; and tells us of some things which actually did shock her.  '...I once saw, through the banisters at Down, one of my Darwin uncles give a friendly conjugal kiss to... his wife.  I rushed away in absolute horror from this unprecedented orgy...  And then there was 'Charley's Aunt'.  This was the first real play we ever saw.  It did not seem to me at all funny, only tremendous and exciting and, at one point, most dangerously improper...  [One] of the young men dressed up as Charley's Aunt, and ran across the stage, lifting up his petticoats, and showing his trousers underneath.  Nothing since then has ever shocked me so much.'

            The chapter on Aunt Etty was, I think, worth the 6s 6d alone, and Aunt Etty in full cry after the stinkhorns has made me laugh out loud, as has the short, illustrated passage on 'The Habitat of the British Tiger', and its sad suffering from 'canopy cramp'.  (The tiger is shown lurking on top of a bed's tiny canopy, the better to eat the child within the bed.) The tiger comes in another chapter, Ghosts and Horrors, some of which is genuinely disturbing.

           'Religion' opens, 'The first religious experience I can remember is getting under the nursery table to pray that the dancing class mistress might be dead before we got to Dancing Class.'

           A little later she describes God for us: '[He] had a smooth oval face, with no hair and no beard and no ears.  I imagine that He was not descended, as most Gods are, from Father Christmas, but rather from the Sun Insurance Office sign.  Even now this hairless, earless, eggshaped face... gives me a sort of holy feeling in my stomach.'

            It's a hard book to sum up.  It's a lively, vivid memoir of a particular time and place, and a wonderful recreation of the way a child sees and thinks about the world.  Since Raverat ends the book as a young woman, it could be called 'a coming of age story.'  She closes the book with the words: 'When I look back on those years when I was neither fish nor flesh, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two, I remember them as an uncomfortable time, and sometimes a very unhappy one.  Now I have certainly attained the status of Good Red Herring, I may at last be allowed to say: Oh dear, how horrid it was being young, and how nice it is being old and not having to mind what people think.'

            However it might be classified, it's a book I would never willingly part with, and I value it for its humour, its charm, its perception and wisdom -- all expressed with great elegance.


 You can find  'Period Piece' in many editions HERE.