Anthony Quinn on Molly Hughes, A London Child of the 1870s

Accentuating the Positive

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According to my journal I first read Molly Hughes’s memoir A London Child of the 1870s in October 2005, ‘a record of Islington life so charming and droll I’m puzzled as to why I’d not come across it before’. I might not have come across it then either had my wife not given me a copy, just reissued by Persephone Books in its appealing dove-grey livery with William Morris endpapers. It was a perfect choice for someone obsessed by Victorian London in general and Victorian Islington in particular. To my delight the author and her family had lived at No. 1 Canonbury Park North, an address about five minutes’ walk from where I write this. Their house is no longer standing, though the references to Upper Street, Essex Road and Highbury New Park sound a welcoming refrain, and such is the peculiar immediacy of the writing that it takes no very great leap of imagination to see an organ-grinder on the pavement, or a child bowling a hoop, or a tram upon the Holloway Road.

‘We were just an ordinary, suburban, Victorian family, undistinguished ourselves and unacquainted with distinguished people,’ writes Molly in her preface. ‘Ordinary’ the Thomas family were, perhaps, in social and economic terms, with a father who did something in the City, a pious but fun-loving mother and five children, resident in a large (rented) house with a cook and servants.
Up close, however, people become extraordinary, none more so than Molly, the youngest child (b. 1866) and devoted to – nearly besotted by – her four older brothers, Tom, Dym (Vivian), Charles and Barnholt.

I had forgotten from my first reading what a circumscribed life she had compared with the boys, who seem to be constantly engaged in pranks and high jinks. Whether on account of her age or her sex Molly was excluded from all trips and entertainments, never taken to ‘anything more exciting than a picture gallery, not even to a pantomime at Christmas’ – nor to the Tower, the Crysta

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According to my journal I first read Molly Hughes’s memoir A London Child of the 1870s in October 2005, ‘a record of Islington life so charming and droll I’m puzzled as to why I’d not come across it before’. I might not have come across it then either had my wife not given me a copy, just reissued by Persephone Books in its appealing dove-grey livery with William Morris endpapers. It was a perfect choice for someone obsessed by Victorian London in general and Victorian Islington in particular. To my delight the author and her family had lived at No. 1 Canonbury Park North, an address about five minutes’ walk from where I write this. Their house is no longer standing, though the references to Upper Street, Essex Road and Highbury New Park sound a welcoming refrain, and such is the peculiar immediacy of the writing that it takes no very great leap of imagination to see an organ-grinder on the pavement, or a child bowling a hoop, or a tram upon the Holloway Road.

‘We were just an ordinary, suburban, Victorian family, undistinguished ourselves and unacquainted with distinguished people,’ writes Molly in her preface. ‘Ordinary’ the Thomas family were, perhaps, in social and economic terms, with a father who did something in the City, a pious but fun-loving mother and five children, resident in a large (rented) house with a cook and servants.
Up close, however, people become extraordinary, none more so than Molly, the youngest child (b. 1866) and devoted to – nearly besotted by – her four older brothers, Tom, Dym (Vivian), Charles and Barnholt.

I had forgotten from my first reading what a circumscribed life she had compared with the boys, who seem to be constantly engaged in pranks and high jinks. Whether on account of her age or her sex Molly was excluded from all trips and entertainments, never taken to ‘anything more exciting than a picture gallery, not even to a pantomime at Christmas’ – nor to the Tower, the Crystal Palace or Madame Tussaud’s. She supposes the boys must have felt sorry for her, because when she exclaims ‘How lovely it must be to go on the top of a bus!’ Dym and Barney whisk her off to do just that, and there follows the most vivid account of riding atop an Islington omnibus, not on the knifeboard seat but right next to the driver, ‘gently’ touching his whip to the horse.

For the first eleven years of her life Molly doesn’t even go to school but is home-taught by her mother, a resourceful woman whose arithmetic may have been ‘at the level of the White Queen’s’ but who evidently inspired in her daughter a love of reading. Indeed, so steeped in literature was the family, so often did they talk of books at table that ‘the Micawbers and Becky Sharp and Lamb appeared to my childish mind as some former friends of mother’s, whom I recognized with delight later on when I read the books for myself’.

An irrepressible sort of joy rises from these pages, even amidst the most unpromising circumstances. The strangeness of Victorian Sundays, for instance, reveals Molly at her most amused and sceptical. Her mother insists upon their all attending a service, and not at any local church but at St Paul’s itself, the family walking there ‘in detachments’ while their father, much less devout, beguiles the time with games of ‘wayside cribbage’.

Once in the cathedral the service bores them to sobs (‘sermons were seldom less than three-quarters of an hour’) but what helps them endure is the ‘inspiriting’ music, no dreary hymns either but the majestic stuff of ‘Te Deums, Psalms, Creeds, Introits, and Kyries’. She and the boys knew all the chants and back at home would happily converse to their tunes. Nor were they above guffawing at Charles’s impersonations of the vicar. It was hard, nonetheless, when their mother’s pious observance put the kibosh on all work and play and even the reading of novels. Sunday afternoons hung heavy, but by evening their father, chafing at his wife’s ‘superstitious restrictions’, decided that reading aloud was permissible and lifted the mood with choice bits of Shakespeare and The Pickwick Papers which, by some odd dispensation of her mother’s conscience, did not count as a novel (‘They were “papers”’).

Dickens, who had died in 1870, is a strong but mostly unspoken influence here, whether in the staging of home theatricals, the starting up of their own magazine (The Bee) or the natural overflow of gaiety. Molly’s taste for the comical and grotesque is one that the Inimitable would have admired. She makes great play of the frequent ‘callers’ at Canonbury Park, in particular the never-ending visits of unloved aunts, of whom ‘Aunt Polly was the worst’, always calling just before a meal with avowals that she ‘couldn’t stop’ and then allowing herself to be persuaded to dine, and even to stay the night. In the general exasperation with their kinfolk one can hear Molly’s private relish, honing an anecdote to a point that she will use to entertain the rest of the family after this or that caller has departed.

The exception to this disobliging company of relatives is Molly’s beloved aunt Tony, whose farm in Cornwall is the site of Arcadian family holidays, though the twelve-hour journey from Paddington in a dirty, comfortless train carriage is a trial that exhausts even the Thomases’ appetite for jollity. Here Molly and her swarm of cousins gambol around Tony’s ancient manor-house, play on the beach and engage in more historical drama. Determined to avoid another dull visitor she and her cousin Mina perch in a tree, pretending to be Charles II and his faithful Penderel hiding from Cromwell’s soldiers (‘“Hark, your Majesty!” whispered Mina. “They approach!”’).

One of the most remarkable aspects of this remarkable book is the distance from which its author recalls these events. A London Child of the 1870s was published in 1934, by which time Molly was living in retirement at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, following a career as teacher, inspector of schools and author of guidebooks and histories. Three more volumes of reminiscence – A London Girl of the 1880s, A London Home of the 1890s and A London Family Between the Wars – chronicled her life as a wife and mother. This long lapse of time taps into another Dickensian undercurrent, one of pathos, whose full meaning only came to my notice on reading Adam Gopnik’s fine preface to the Persephone edition. The family idyll of A London Child ends, abruptly, in November 1879 with the news of her father’s death in a road accident. In fact he had been embroiled in a financial scandal and had killed himself at a railway station – a grim echo of the disgraced schemer Ferdinand Lopez, blown to ‘bloody atoms’ at the Tenway Junction in Trollope’s The Prime Minister (1876). The surface of genteel respectability on which families like the Thomases moved was thinner than we, and perhaps they, knew.

How Gopnik discovered this I’m not sure, but the revelation may prompt us to wonder at how much else Molly suppressed or transformed when she came to compose her memoirs. She had had her share of personal tragedy. Two of her brothers died young, and her daughter Bronwen, born in 1898, died a year later. Her lawyer husband, Arthur Hughes, was knocked over and killed by a tram in February 1918, a loss that sent her ‘crazy with grief’. It is curious then that she recast her father’s demise in the image of her husband’s nearly forty years later. Was the shame of a suicide still too much to confess? Gopnik imaginatively ascribes it to Molly’s search for a ‘pattern’, and salutes her courage in making what cannot be borne bearable: ‘People who look at Molly’s work as narrowly nostalgic, or imagine that she provides a view in some way “comfortable” miss the desperation of her subjects, or their real grace in the face of it.’ That desperation centred largely upon money, and it is only through her passing references to the family’s circumstances that we understand just how hard-pressed they were.

If Molly Hughes to some extent soft-pedalled the reality of a middle-class Victorian existence it is still much to her credit that the tone she strikes in A London Child is so cheerful, and so charming. She has given the age through which she lived a kindlier, friendlier aspect than it maybe deserved. It is an age that seems impossibly distant, and then suddenly very near, in particular when she remarks upon the eerie silence that reigned on Islington streets back then:
Sometimes everything had been so quiet for so long that the sound of a passer-by or of a butcher’s pony would take on a distant, unreal tone, as if it were mocking me.
Writing this on the last day of March 2020, with London inconceivably under lockdown and the roads almost empty of people and traffic, I am nearer to understanding why the quiet of a great city unnerved her.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Anthony Quinn 2020

About the contributor

Anthony Quinn’s next novel, London, Burning, will be published in March 2021.

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