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Cambridge Canvas

For almost a decade there’s been one particular book we’ve been longing to reissue.  Now at last, as we reach our tenth anniversary, we’ve got the opportunity to do so. When I wrote about it in one of our very early issues, I said that for me a home without a copy of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece (1952) was like a home without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element – and for me that still holds true.

In fact I’ve got several copies – the original dignified, well-produced pink Faber paperback, the infinitely inferior paperback they replaced it with, and now the lovely little Slightly Foxed hardback edition. It’s the kind of book that cries out to be read in a nice edition. Gwen Raverat was an artist after all, very particular about the look of things and about the placing of her illustrations, which provide a delicious counterpoint to the text. Looking at our edition I think she would have been pleased.

She was also, on the showing of Period Piece, a brilliant writer, with that well-tuned ear and perfect judgement that makes an anecdote funny, and the affectionate observation that brings her characters alive. It’s true that the book can be quite an irritation for other people because one is tempted to interrupt them all the time by reading bits aloud, but as far as I’m concerned that is its only defect.

Period Piece is Gwen’s account of growing up in academic Cambridge in the last years of the nineteenth century. ‘This is a circular book,’ she writes in a preface. ‘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.’ There is no ‘storyline’, but the individual chapters gradually build into a complete picture, like a mosaic. Open the book at any point and you are plunged straight into the atmosphere of Victorian Cambridge and some new and probably highly entertaining aspect of Gwen’s childhood.

It was a safe, warm, gas-lit world bounded by the limits of Gwen’s large and eccentric extended family, the Darwins – her paternal grandfather was Charles Darwin and her father, George Darwin, was a Fellow of Trinity College and eventually the University’s Plumian Professor of Astronomy. The family contained numerous Fellows of the Royal Society as well as a good sprinkling of artists, poets and musicians, including George’s cousin, the composer Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

Two of George’s four brothers – Frank and Horace – had built family houses in the spacious meadows next to a house called The Grove in Huntingdon Road where their mother, Charles Darwin’s widow, and her unmarried daughter Aunt Bessy spent their winters. So Gwen and her brothers and sister grew up with a ready supply of entertaining and affectionate aunts, uncles and cousins, including Gwen’s special friend Frances, who would become known as a poet under her married name of Cornford.

Two mortals could hardly have been more different than Gwen’s lively, sociable American mother Maud and her quiet intellectual father, but fortunately they seem to have complemented rather than irritated one another. They had fallen in love when Maud was visiting her glamorous Aunt Cara, wife of the future Professor of Greek at the university, Richard Jebb, and the two had married in 1884. They settled at Newnham Grange, an old mill house on the Backs, which was romantic though damp, and in the early days, when all Cambridge’s sewage still drained into the river, distinctly smelly. (It’s said that when Queen Victoria was being shown over Trinity College by the Master, Dr Whewell, she was curious to know what all the pieces of paper floating down the river were, to which, with great presence of mind, he replied, ‘Those, ma’am, are notices that bathing is forbidden.’)

Like all the Darwins George was a terrific hypochondriac, but fortunately marriage to Maud had a soothing effect. ‘My mother’s calmness, good spirits and unshakeable courage were very soothing to my father’s over-strung nerves,’ observes Gwen. ‘She was always kind and sympathetic to him when he was ill, and took his ailments perfectly seriously; but unlike a Darwin she did not positively enjoy his ill-health . . . and as a consequence he did get very much better.’

This was in sharp contrast to Gwen’s much-loved Aunt Etty who, after having a ‘low fever’ at the age of 13, had been recommended by the doctor to have breakfast in bed for a time and 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.

Childless Aunt Etty, like many Victorian women, had few outlets for her abundant energy, 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’) like a man. And ‘if a window had to be opened to air the room in cold weather, Aunt Etty covered him up entirely with a dust sheet for fear of draughts; and he sat there as patient as a statue, till he could be unveiled.’

Gwen’s mother Maud may have been calm, but she was also somewhat happy-go-lucky and inclined to leave the finer points of organization to others. There is a description of her preparing to leave for a day’s shopping in London, or even for the boat train to New York, still in her nightdress but perfectly composed as the horse-drawn cab with ‘red-faced old Ellis’ on the box waits outside to take her to the station, and the three maids rush hither and thither. ‘Of course she had not attempted breakfast,’ writes Gwen, ‘and I used to put slices of buttered toast on the seat of the cab for her.’

When the family went on holiday to a rented house Yorkshire, it was Gwen’s father who organized the ‘awful journey’, with changes at Ely and York and a caravan of luggage and maids and dogs, and Nana and the pram and the parrot and the cot and the bath for the children. Maud would arrive comfortably a few days later to find them nicely settled in. ‘We enjoyed doing it, and we did it perfectly well, so all was for the best. But most mothers would have thought it their duty to do more of the fussing themselves.’

Maud’s views on the upbringing of children were refreshingly modern for she had a sturdy American belief in independence. They were encouraged to do things for themselves, unlike the well-brought-up English children of their class, ‘some of whom simply did not know that you could make a bed yourself’. Gwen was only once spanked – when she amused herself during an enforced afternoon rest on her mother’s bed by drawing on the white wallpaper with a red lip-salve. ‘Now resting is a foolish theory, from which many parents suffer,’ she writes.

It is far too exhausting for children, it is really only suitable for the old. I used to get absolutely worn out inventing games to play during the ages when I was condemned to ‘rest’; so that by the time the rest was over, I really did need a rest.

As well as being one of the funniest memoirs I’ve read, Period Piece is also one of the most magical, especially in its descriptions of the summers the family spent at Down House in Kent, home of Gwen’s paternal grandmother, a Wedgwood by birth (Darwins had married Wedgwoods in two successive generations) and widow of Charles who had died in 1882, three years before Gwen was born.

To Gwen and the rest of the family Down was paradise and perfection. George and his brothers had all grown up there and would never hear a word against the place. Uncle Horace was once heard to say in a surprised voice; ‘No, I don’t like salvias very much, though they did grow at Down.’ ‘Of course,’ writes Gwen, ‘all the flowers that grew at Down were beautiful; and different from all other flowers. Everything there was different. And better.’

Perhaps, she hazards, life there had in some ways been a little too perfect. The whole family was known for its love of children and  animals – Gwen’s great-grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood II (1769 –1843) had had some quite startlingly liberal views on the upbringing of children, and Charles Darwin himself was such a tolerant and broadminded father that his sons had never had to rebel. The result was that they ‘seemed never quite to get away from that early Elysium, or quite to belong to the ordinary horrid world’.

Gwen’s own feelings about Down were quite literally ones of adoration:

It was adoration I felt for the foxgloves at Down . . . and for the beautiful white paint on the nursery floor. This kind of feeling hits you in the stomach, and in the ends of your fingers, and it is probably the most important thing in life. Long after I have forgotten all my human loves, I shall remember the smell of a gooseberry leaf, or the feel of the wet grass on my bare feet; or the pebbles in the path. In the long run it is this feeling that makes life worth living, this which is the driving force behind the artist’s need to create.

Gwen did of course become an artist, and her wood engravings (which Simon Brett discussed in Slightly Foxed, No. 9) communicate just this feeling of joy and ecstatic connection with the natural world. They are wonderful things, but in Period Piece she created a different and equally lasting kind of small masterpiece, which reads as freshly now as it did when I first opened it more than forty years ago.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 40 © Hazel Wood 2013
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 24: Gwen Raverat, Period Piece

About the contributor

Hazel Wood has always worked with words, but sometimes wishes she could have been an artist.

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