In the Shadow of Victoria: Three Childhood Memoirs

Gwen Raverat, Period Piece (1952)

Angela Thirkell, Three Houses (1931)

Diana Holman-Hunt, My Grandmothers and I (1960)


What do these three authors have in common? As well as being distinguished writers, artists and critics in their own right, they share the distinction of having famous Victorian grandfathers: Charles Darwin, Edward Burne-Jones, and William Holman-Hunt, respectively.  Their memoirs of childhood give us wonderful insights into the family lives of these great men and into the domestic details of a whole era, pictured even as it’s vanishing into the modern world that we ourselves inherited from their descendants.

Title page illustration

Period Piece is the most delightful of the three, funny and sharply observed. Though Charles Darwin died before his granddaughter Gwen was born in 1885, he left a large and eccentric family behind, who provide many entertaining moments with their fads and hypochondria, as well as halcyon times at their beloved Down House (which you can visit today). Thematic chapters with titles such as “Education,” “Propriety,” “Ghosts and Horrors,” “Religion” and “Society” affectionately poke fun at the habits of our ancestors. The line drawings by Raverat herself, who became a master wood engraver, add considerably to the humor. This is a lovely book to curl up with on a rainy day or whenever you need cheering up. It’s also a priceless window into a byegone age, by an artist with a very observant eye.

Burne-Jones with his granddaughter Angela

Novelist Angela Thirkell, born in 1890, did have a few years with her grandfather, the artist Edward Burne-Jones, before his death, and her account of him in Three Houses is warm and loving. Its three sections are arranged according to the three houses of her early life, and by far the longest section is devoted to the Burne-Jones holiday retreat near Brighton, where the few weeks she spent each summer made a disproportionate impression. The brief and gently episodic narrative has many wonderful details that bring the great artist to life, such as when he is so rent by the sight of Angela with her face to the wall, “expiating some sin,” that the next day he takes his paint box and paints her “a cat, a kitten playing with its mother’s tail, and a flight of birds, so that I might never be unhappy or without company in my corner again.” Another famous relative and neighbor is Rudyard Kipling, her cousin, whom she heard tell his Just So Stories: “a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice.”

Holman-Hunt’s “The Father’s Leavetaking”

In My Grandmothers and I, writer and art critic Diana Holman-Hunt provides an acerbic contrast to these nostalgic reminiscences, as her own childhood was not so rosy. Shuttled from the house of one grandmother to the other, “like a parcel” as she says herself, she lives in a strange world of alternating luxury and neglect. Though her grandfather, painter William Holman-Hunt, is dead, his widow (known as Grand) keeps his legacy fiercely alive, while paying little attention to the needs of the living girl in her house. Her obsession gives rise to tragicomic scenes, such as Grand hectoring tourists who are trying to look at “The Light of the World” in St. Paul’s, and a tea party where each cup is factitiously labeled with a famous visitor’s name (Rossetti, Millais, and so on). Born on the eve of the Great War and well out of the Victorian age, Diana tells her discomforting story with a sharper humorous edge that keeps the reader at a distance. When there’s laughter here, it’s very close to despair.

Period Piece and My Grandmothers and I were recently reprinted by the marvelous Slightly Foxed Editions. The hardcover editions are unfortunately sold out, but paperbacks may be available. Three Houses is newly available from Allison and Busby. For anyone with an interest in the period, its art, and its people, all three are a must.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Nonfiction

A Visit to Barsetshire: The Brandons

Angela Thirkell, The Brandons (1939)

Angela Thirkell Barsetshire

After reading Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers, I was curious to read some of the novels that Angela Thirkell set in the same (imaginary) county of Barsetshire. Starting in 1933 and extending through World War II and into the 1950s, she chronicled the lives and loves of several interlinked circles of characters in provincial England. I wondered how these much-loved comedies would compare to Trollope’s acerbic satire, which I appreciated but couldn’t fully warm to.

Strangely, my library only had one of the multitudinous books in the series, The Brandons, so it was there that I began. In this early, pre-war novel (though published in 1939, it contains not a hint of Hitler), the rich and cantankerous Miss Brandon’s last bequest brings excitement and some surprises into the placid life of a Barsetshire village. Meanwhile, the lovely widow Mrs. Brandon continues to inadvertently attract the adoration of men of various ages, and becomes interested in the plight of her elderly relative’s poor companion, who is harboring a romantic secret of her own. Eventually everybody ends up with the right person, in a spirit somewhat reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Mrs. Brandon as a gracious and happily Oberon-less Titania ruling over them all.

I was interested to note how Thirkell explored some Trollopean themes and characters in a decidedly lighter manner. Instead of the inheritance causing greed to pit family and friends against one another, the Brandons honestly don’t care what, if anything, they inherit, and an outsider coming into money actually pleases them. An expatriate Englishwoman who spouts Italian phrases and rhapsodizes about “her” Calabrian peasants comes across as ridiculous, but in an amusing rather than a repulsive way. A clerical quarrel between “high” and “low” churchmen has caused grief in the past, but peace is restored by an act of forgiveness.

Thus, though The Brandons doesn’t carry the weight of social criticism that Barchester Towers does, it goes down more pleasantly, like a refreshing sorbet after a heavy stew. Though it’s light, it’s not fluffy. Thirkell shows great skill in how she handles her characters and narrative, as when Mrs. Brandon listens — or rather, doesn’t listen — to her scholarly admirer reading her his manuscript on John Donne, a scene that reminded me of the best of P. G. Wodehouse. Full of witty phrases and sly allusions, Thirkell’s writing bubbles with the comedy of life. We laugh at her characters, but we love to be with them; “charming” is a more accurate description than usual with that over-used adjective.

And so, charmed by Angela Thirkell’s version of Barsetshire, I’ll surely be back, and I’ll be reading more Trollope too. These two very different writers balance and complement each other to create a marvelously full picture of an imaginary place.

Classics Club List #45


Victoriana, Early and Late: Coronation Summer and Drawn from Memory

Angela Thirkell, Coronation Summer (1937)

Ernest Shepard, Drawn from Memory (1957)

Angela Thirkell comedyBy chance, I recently picked up two books that happened to be set at the beginning and near the end of Victoria’s reign. One was fiction, one non, but both were entertaining glimpses of that endlessly fascinating era.

It all started because my library didn’t have any of the Barsetshire novels by Angela Thirkell that I wanted, but they did have Coronation Summer, her early novel of the weeks surrounding Victoria’s coronation, which sounded delicious. The somewhat elaborate conceit is that when the pseudonymous Ingoldsby Legends come out, a young woman who thinks they are by a real acquaintance of hers reads a satirical poem about the coronation, and takes it at face value. This inspires her to remember how she and her best friend went to London for the event, which had proved to be a turning point in their personal lives as well as that of the nation.

The period pastiche was well done and often very amusing. I was impressed by Thirkell’s ability to imitate Victorian diction, while smiling at her sly references to other authors (and I’m sure there are many others that I missed). This is a very literate book, unlike many of the neo-Victorian and Regency novels that are being churned out today. However, I had a hard time warming up to the narrator, who is an empty-headed girl, thoughtlessly cruel to her servants, with nothing on her mind but suitors and the social whirl. As a side character to poke fun at she would have been perfect, but as the main character she was lacking in sympathetic qualities. Her romance was dull, not only because it was a foregone conclusion — the main story is told as a reminiscence after her marriage — but because the young man in question had almost no personality; his rival, a ridiculous dandy, was more interesting though no more likeable. One could perhaps detect some subtle social commentary in there, but mainly the book seemed a waste of good writing on such (to me) unworthy characters.

(By the way, if you pick up Coronation Summer hoping to have a ringside view of the actual coronation itself, you’ll be disappointed — only the men of the story attend and our female narrator is just waiting outside while the event takes place.)

Shepard drawing sketch
A sketch by Shepard

I then turned to a book from the other end of Victoria’s reign, Drawn from Memory, which I was pleased to discover was in my library after I read a highly laudatory post over at The Captive Reader. This is a memoir by the artist most famous for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, though his main work was as a political cartoonist for Punch. Here are his amazingly detailed reminiscences, from seventy years later, of an upper-middle-class London boyhood. Shepard was seven years old in the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and gives a memorable account of the festivities from the point of view of a small boy. Other episodes include a holiday at a farm, family theatrics, and a first visit to a pantomime. Scenes involving a household of eminently Victorian aunts provide comic highlights.

The drawings plentifully scattered throughout are of course delightful, and a few samples of work done at this early age are astoundingly accomplished, fully justifying Shepard’s father’s opinion that his son should be an artist (although he himself wanted to be something a bit more exciting). There’s no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.

Knowledge of the sorrow and death to come later in life does not overshadow the childish joys recorded in these pages, but a few indications of what is to come give Shepard’s sunny memories increased poignancy. For anyone interested in the period, or simply in revisiting the lost world of childhood, Drawn from Memory is an unqualified pleasure.

Review of Drawn from Memory at The Captive Reader