Saturday, 13 April 2013

PERIOD PIECE by Gwen Raverat

          I've been sorting out my book-shelves recently and - horror -
'Period Piece, Gwen Raverat
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.'

Gwen Raverat
            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 the 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.

Gwen Raverat: self-portrait
           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.'
Illustration: Gwen Raverat

            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.

Another example of Gwen Raverat's work. She was one of the first women to be trained at the Slade. 

          I thought 'Period Piece' would be available on Kindle, but it isn't. However, here is the copy that I own, and here is a newer edition, with many rave reviews.


Anonymous said...

I recently visited a friend who had just redecorated. She was sitting on the floor in tears, surrounded by an overspill of books that would not go back in the crammed bookcases. The logical answer of 'charity shop' was not an option. Moments later we were both on the floor among the teetering piles, comparing notes on the hold that our books have over us. They contain more than the print within the covers. They represent every stage of our lives, from childhood on, and hold precious memories of the givers, friends and family long gone. Personally, when my own collection has filled the house, I shall simply 'roll up my sleeping mat' and decamp to the garden shed...

Judith Key

madwippitt said...

Books as friends - oh yes, I can go with that. And as nostalgic reminders of other days ...
This one sounds like a gem!

PS Is Blott still in hiding?

Joan Lennon said...

I will look for this book - a gem indeed!

Susan Price said...

Judith, you never fail to make me laugh! My garden shed is damp - wet, rather - filled with saturated junk and soggy spiders, so I don't think it's an option - but I am facing similar problems. I go through my shelves looking for just one or two books I can throw away - there must be just one or two, surely?
Maybe, instead of moving into the shed, I can weave me a willow cabin by the gate?
Madwippet and Joan - Period Piece is a gem indeed: it's very funny, keenly observant, bracingly honest. Can't recommend it enough.

As for Blott - I've just been told that's he's gone for good. Has found some other writer who provides fish more often - or maybe he came to grief on the Information Super-Highway. That's cats for you.

Joan Lennon said...

But ... but ... maybe just gone walkabout for a bit? A cat sabbatical? Surely not FOREVER?!

madwippitt said...

Nooooo! shurely shome mishtake? We must start a Bring Back Blot petition immediately!

Anonymous said...


Since Blot's disasterous attempt at setting up a 'speak rat' academy, he has decided to skip over to the Alps and join us in the 'functional grammar' e-learning programming centre. Housed in a disused Swiss Army bunker high in the Graubunden peaks he is slaving away at the keyboard. That has given me a chance to browse through all the old books I too can't bear to part with. Sorry Sue for stealing your muse, but all's fair in love, war and computational linguistics.

BTW: Blott is impressed with the Swiss love of roast chicken!!


Susan Price said...

Aaargh! How can I finish Sterkarm 3 when my muse has run away to the land of melted cheese?! The Sterkarms can't yodel!

madwippitt said...

Come back Blot! We have roast turkey ... much better than chicken and fondue!

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, yes, it's a lovely book. I think I found it in a house we rented in Herne Bay when I was a teenager and we were between houses. And doesn't it tell about the horrors of childhood corseting?

Susan Price said...

Hi Leslie - I remember mentioning Period Piece at Charney once, and there was a great outcry from its many fans! It does indeed go into the horrors of corsets, and of ucomfortable Edwardian clothing in general.

Oh, and Blott is being coy, from hiding, and says: Get them to sign that petition. I wouldn't encourage him, myself.

madwippitt said...

Bring back Blott: the petition

Archie (but you're not having our turkey)
Angel (yeah, you'll just have to drag some cheese back with you from Switzerland. We heard they're big on avocado out there too, so you'd be better off here, with or without roast turkey ...)

come on everyone else ...

Anonymous said...

Blott is wavering. Although he finds the standard of livinh and all those the little feline perks which are part of normal life good, the Swiss rigidness in daily life is causing him some problems. Of course, his talents in theoretical stuff win him considerable adoration here, but he is not happy at heart. Against my better judgement, I suggest we start a 'Bring back Blott' campaign. Maybe it is futile, but his adoptive father (you know who I mean Sue) might be motivated to hop over here and fetch him. If not we could arrange a neutral 'handover' on the Isle of Man.


Carole said...

Susan,this looks like a good book. Please drop me a line on if you are ok with me linking to it on my blog (Carole's Chatter). Cheers

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Hello - I found your blog when I was looking for Gwen Raverat pictures, and really enjoyed reading this. Period Piece is a quiet favourite of mine, too. In case you're interested, I've just done a blog post about the granary at Newnham Grange and what it looks like now.

All the best,