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.
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.
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.”
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.