A genuine ‘period piece’

Gwen Raverat’s memoir about her childhood in Cambridge of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, Period Piece, is just as the title indicates: a period piece describing her childhood sixty years prior to the book’s publication, in a time that was, even as she wrote, long gone. Sixty years after the book’s publication, that time seems almost dreamlike; the servants, the clothing, the transportation, the strictures on gender roles and what gentlemen and ladies might properly do make it an alien world to those of us alive today.

To be more specific, it’s a memoir of growing up well-to-do and part of a well known family in late Victorian England. The author’s father was the second son of Charles Darwin and her mother an American; they met in Cambridge and married in 1884, and Gwen was born an appropriate time later. She grew up amidst a wealth of cousins and uncles in comparative freedom, even based on today’s childrearing style; her parents’ technique was not strict by today’s standards by any means, despite Bill Bryson using the parents’ restriction on sweets as an example of how things have changed in this regard in his book At Home1. Though Charles Darwin had died some years before Raverat was born, his influence remained with the family: when she attended boarding school at the age of sixteen, her classmates teased her by asking “Don’t you really believe in Adam and Eve? Do you think we are all kind of monkeys?” Though Raverat remembers her own childhood with affection, she’s not particularly sentimental about the era in which she grew up. Indeed, I get the impression she was glad it was over! I have no idea how typical her upbringing was of that time–certainly, she came out of it a much more independent and determined woman than was the stereotype of the time2. Though it’s clear the author as the book’s narrator is an older woman–she was in her sixties when she wrote it–the book centers on her childhood and her memories of same, interleaved with her mature perspective on a bygone time. It’s particularly interesting to read a child’s perspective on people whom I’d guess were fairly well known at the time. Knowing what I do now of what Raverat went on to do, I can only wish she’d written of her adult life; these days, the Bloomsbury set is as much a “period piece” as Raverat’s childhood was at the time she wrote of it.

This isn’t a chronological autobiography, and it’s not an aridly neutral description of her childhood. As Raverat says in her Preface: “This is a circular book. It does not begin at the beginning and go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from the hub, which is me. So it does not matter which chapter is read first or last.” It’s a fast pleasant read, unless you stop to compare Then with Now. Who might like this? Oddly, I’m reminded of the Mary Poppins books, although they were written a couple of generations after Raverat’s childhood, and in an urban rather than small town setting, fantastic fiction rather than reasonably realistic memoir. For readers with more factual adult tastes, there’s a biography of Raverat, Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family & Affections, by Frances Spaulding. Having unearthed my copy of Period Piece some years after I last read it, I’m glad to know that though Newnham Grange may be now part of Darwin College, Raverat did receive some recognition.

1I think in his book, At Home, though I can’t now lay my hands on our copy of same; not being allowed sugar on one’ porridge or jam on one’s tea scones is hardly strict!
2not touching how much truth is in the stereotype!


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