I stumbled across this in the Woodstock Book Shop – a beautiful place which has sent me into a mania of bookish acquisition on both occasions that I have visited. It’s probably good that it’s a solid half hour drive away. Strangely though, when I started reading, there were snippets that I recognised, and I realised that this book, just like Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece, was quoted extensively in Judith Flanders’ spectacular The Victorian House, one of my all-time favourite pieces of non-fiction. Thus, encountering Molly was like running into an old acquaintance – a wonderful rediscovery and a delight to know better. And it turns out that this is but the first in a trilogy – it seems I have found a book to treasure. The title may rather give away the subject matter of this memoir, but what is a surprise is quite how vividly the author’s voice comes across. I felt as if I heard her as clearly as if she were speaking on the radio – she did not seem like a being from another time, another century, Molly Hughes feels more like a woman sitting down in an armchair for a natter. Her recollections are crisp and clear, full of detail and yet unstained by nostalgia. A London Child of the 1870s is a glorious historical artefact, a summoning forth of the Victorian childhood experience free of the general nauseating Victorian tendency to sentimentalise childhood – Molly and her brothers are closer kin to the young people of Edith Nesbit’s adventures, but more than anything, they are simply themselves and it seemed impossible that they really lived quite so long ago.
Molly Hughes was the youngest of five children and the only girl – meaning that, as she herself observes, unlike so many, she was never ‘a female disappointment’ to her parents. Yet still, it’s obvious that as a girl, Molly was expected to know her place and from early on was expected to wait on her brothers; Tom, Charles, Dym and Barnholt. It is clear from the beginning that Mrs Hughes has little in the way of a feminist agenda, indeed she is grateful to her parents for the early lesson in helping others. She describes all of the fine outings that her father took her brothers on, noting almost as an aside that ‘of course’ she was not allowed to go. Not to the theatre, not for a country walk – her father’s maxim was that ‘a boy should see the world and know everything while a girl should stay at home and know nothing’. The twenty-first century woman in me baulks at such an opinion but Molly Hughes barely bats an eyelid and it is apparent that she adored her father and he her. Indeed, there is a cosiness to Molly’s afternoons in with her mother and it hardly even feels as if she is missing out.
The striking aspect of this differing treatment comes in the attitudes towards punishment. Molly recalls two separate incidences when each of her parents had cause to be strict with her; on one occasion, Molly told her mother that the cook had refused to give her drink, to which her mother calmly ordered Molly to write in her diary ‘I told a lie today’. Sixty years later, the punishment was still deemed harsh. In the other anecdote, Molly cried in order to get her brother into trouble, because she wanted the book he was reading and her father took her upstairs and whipped her because, he explained, it was as bad for a girl to try to get what she wanted by crying as it was for a boy to do the same by hitting. While I really disagree with corporal punishment and was inclined to disapprove of Molly’s Father’s misogynism, upon reflection, I agreed with his sentiment. Although it’s true that I am a bit of a sniveller myself, I have never done so for effect and I know myself what kind of a view of it my own Dad would take if I were to try it.
While the boys head off to school, to varying degrees of academic success, Molly is home-schooled by her mother but again, I was really surprised and impressed by the breadth of her curriculum. With a mother fluent in French and with a high level of Latin, Molly’s education is certainly at a higher level than mine was at a similar age – the only drawback is her mother’s aversion to arithmetic which means that Molly never learns subtraction. There is a gentle self-mockery to a great deal of her recollections, it gives them an incredibly warm and personal feel – even when she is poking fun at her brothers, her affection for them all is what comes through first and foremost. However, there is also the flavour of regret overlying her memories – like the spectre at the feast, one early on gets the suspicion that tough times lie ahead for the family and that Hughes is recalling a simpler time, and indeed with the final pages, this proves correct.
I was reminded of Mariana in certain aspects, with the extended accounts of childhood summer holidays in Cornwall – there is something about school summer holidays that take on something of a legendary status when one is beyond them. Yet, Molly is easily old enough to be grandmother to Mariana – Hughes frequently makes reference to how times have moved on, how little traffic there was, how long it took to travel anywhere by train – in short how the world has revolutionised within her lifetime. Here she reminded me of a very dear family friend Edrey, a woman born into a British Empire family in the 1920s, a woman who also shared that same keen sense of wonder at how the world had changed around her. I wish she was still here so I could talk to her about this book.
The preface to A London Child describes it as an account of Victorian England as seen by the Micawbers and indeed, it is clear that the Thomas family are not wealthy, with Hughes’ father gravely telling her mother that they will weather whatever storms come together but there is none of the disdain or angry caricature that Dickens normally uses to portray genteel poverty. They are of the crumbling middle-classes, some years they have servants, in leaner years they do not. Rather than the chaotic Dickensian families with an uncountable number of children, the Thomas family are rather more in the Streatfeild model, with family theatricals and collaboration between the children to make the most of what they have. It feels almost like time travel, to hear so clearly from someone from so long ago. Although I am attempting to forswear further Persephone purchases, this may have to fall by the wayside should they prove the only avenue by which to get my hands on the rest of Molly Hughes’ memoir trilogy.
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Published by Persephone Books Genres: 19th Century, Biography & Autobiography, Family, General, Literary, Victorian
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