For me a home without Period Piece is like a house without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element. I have loved Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s ever since I first read it twenty years ago when recuperating from a bad bout of ’flu, at that blissful moment when you are feeling better but not quite strong enough to get up and do anything. I can still recall the delicious feeling of reading and dozing, dozing and reading, snug in the gas-lit world of Victorian Cambridge, until the January afternoon outside the bedroom window gradually turned purple and faded into dark.
In fact Gwen’s family the Darwins (Gwen’s paternal grandfather was Charles Darwin) had a very particular relationship with illness, being total hypochondriacs, and ill health – or rather the lack of it – features prominently in the book. Her much loved Aunt Etty, for example, was only 13 when, after a ‘low fever’, the doctor recommended she should have breakfast in bed for a time, and she never got up for breakfast again. When there were colds about she would put on a protective mask of her own invention, made from a wire kitchen strainer stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool and tied on like a snout, from behind which she would discuss politics in a hollow voice, oblivious of the fact that visitors were struggling with fits of laughter.
Like many Victorian women, childless Aunt Etty had never even had to make a pot of tea for herself, and had very few real outlets for her abundant energy (‘she could have ruled a kingdom with success’, observes Gwen), so a great deal of it was concentrated on the health of her husband, Uncle Richard. Poor Uncle Richard, it seems, had not originally been ill, but Aunt Etty had decided that he was extremely delicate ‘and he was very obliging about it’, eating up his doses of Benger’s Food (known to the children in the family as ‘Uncle Richard’s porridge
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