Subtitled A Cambridge Childhood, Period Piece is the memoir of Gwen Raverat (1885-1957), an art critic wood engraver and book illustrator as well as one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers. Despite coming from a family of considerable intellectual distinction (an ancestor was Josiah Wedgwood , her grandfather was Charles Darwin, and cousins included the poet Frances Cornford and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, while her father and Darwin uncles were Cambridge dons), Raverat never alludes to this distinction except in passing. Names are dropped unselfconsciously into the narrative with no further explanation apart from the fact that they are members of the cats’ cradle of relationships that made up the Darwin clan and their friends, such as the writer EM Forster and author and critic Sir Leslie Stephen. Papa might have been Sir George Darwin, Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy, astronomer and mathematician, but to Raverat he was the father she loved with his brown beard, short legs and cold feet. She portrays the many foibles of her family with the dispassionate yet loving eyes of a child but an adult’s knowledge and delight in their idiosyncrasies. They might be famous, distinguished and talented but they are above all her family, and she depicts them and their foibles with the formidable powers of observation that in adulthood made her an accomplished artist with a worldwide reputation.
Raverat’s mother was Maud du Puy, from Philadelphia. American, but not one of the Buccaneers, Maud came to Britain in 1883 to spend the summer in Cambridge with relatives. Judging by the letters quoted in the prelude chapter, some of Gwen’s acute eye for detail must have come from her mother, who seems thoroughly to have enjoyed what Raverat calls an Utopia of tea-parties, dinner-parties, boat-races, lawn tennis, antique shops, new bonnets, charming young men, delicious food and perfect servants. Maud and George Darwin married in 1884 in Philadelphia, and in 1885 they bought Newnham Grange in Cambridge, which became the family home described in chapter 2. They had four children, and Gwen was the eldest.
What Raverat calls her mother’s ‘sturdy American belief in independence’ seems to have allowed her children to have led a more freewheeling and existence than was generally employed by children of their class and era: although as she points out our liberty was only relative; we were only just a little more free than some of our contemporaries.
The figure of her Charles Darwin looms large over Raverat’s book. To her and her family he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas… of course it was very much to our credit, really, to have owned such a grandfather, but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it. Her five Darwin uncles and her father seem to have been, despite their intellectual eminence, a group of ineffectual hypochondriacs who never emerged from the shadow of their father, and despite her affection for them Raverat seems to have regarded them with tolerant scorn.
“My grandfather said once: ‘I have five sons, and I have never had to worry about any one of them.’ Well, that is not quite right. One ought to have to worry sometimes about young people, because they ought to be growing out in new ways and experimenting for themselves. But my grandfather was so tolerant of their separate individualities, so broad-minded, that there was no need for his sons to break away from him; and they lived all their lives in his shadow.”
A review of the memoir describes Period Piece as like gorging in a literary sweetshop. Every aspect of Raverat’s late Victorian childhood has a fondant, fairy-tale texture, dusted with a sheen of sugary nostalgia. Raverat remembers the Cambridge of her childhood as a lucent world of tea-parties, lawn-tennis, new bonnets and remarkable young men. Life skips along with little vexation, though Raverat admits it might seem too perfect to be true: “There must have been some difficulties, even in those days,” she reflects. “Indeed, all the right sleeves of my mother’s dresses would keep getting too tight, from the constant tennis.” It then goes on to say that Raverat’s discreet cynicism is the worm at the heart of her paradise. Her unerring humour brings an adult perspective to bear on her childhood experience; throughout the book she mocks the things she celebrates.
I wouldn’t altogether agree about the sweetness and sugary nostalgia, but I’d certainly agree about the cynicism, and I wonder if that was there at the time or comes from hindsight. Raverat clearly recalled her childhood and her relatives (especially her mother), with a great deal of affection, but the clarity of her observation is unsparing – while she describes a privileged, enjoyable and in many ways indulged upper middle class existence, she is also aware of the attendant squalor – the River Cam flowed past her childhood home, clogged with the town’s sewage – and the stifling proprieties and expectations, even of children. In the chapter “Ghosts and Horrors” she describes the other side of Cambridge and her personal discomforts – nightmares, children being beaten, being frightened by the lame crossing sweeper with a mutilated face, and seeing a drunken woman being carried in the street by some undergraduates. That, and her description when she is a student at the Slade of hearing a man beat his wife are a much darker undercurrent to the book than some of the publicity comments would have readers believe, and there’s a slowly dawning awakening that the word she and her family inhabit is a much more complex and darker one than she had realised. On the very last page Raverat says oh dear, oh dear, how horrid it was being young. That, of course, is hindsight. She seems to have very much enjoyed her childhood, and reading her vividly drawn and in many ways charming account, you can’t blame her. Every page has a quotable and wonderfully described anecdote or story, whether she is describing her mother’s child-raising theories, Victorian courtship, women’s clothes, being a child chaperone, their dancing classes or childish escapades on the Cam, where they regularly fell in.
Raverat wrote the memoir in her sixties after the death of her mother, when she cleared out the old family house and came across letters written by her parents during their courtship: and carried on reading until she came to her own birth. She had stumbled across the source material for the first chapter of Period Piece, which she described to her editor
I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….
The book itself she describes as a circular one, it does not begin at the beginning nor go on to the end; it is all going on at the same time, sticking out like the spokes of a wheel from a hub, which is me. So it does not matter which chapter is read first or last. It is not a sentimental memoir, because Raverat was not a sentimental woman; the woman who drew a sketch of her husband while he was dying, euthanised him when his suffering with disseminated sclerosis became too much for him to endure, and committed suicide after being confined to a wheelchair by a stroke with the words “This seems the simplest plan for everyone,” could never be described as sentimental. It is however warm, humorous, affectionate and shrewd and well worth reading. It is also beautifully illustrated by the author.