The world as seen through the eyes of a child is always an interesting one, and memoirs written from that perspective even if written from the vantage point of adulthood are amongst my favorites. A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes is as delightful as you might imagine. It never wanders into the realm of either sentimentality or bleakness and the memoir is not an exercise in naval gazing. Somehow she manages to get it all just right which is an accomplishment indeed.
"None of the characters in this book are fictitious. The incidents, if not dramatic, are at least genuine memories. Expressions of jollity and enjoyment of life are understatements rather than overstatements. We were just an ordinary, suburban, Victorian family, undistinguished in ourselves and unacquainted with distinguished people."
Molly's world may have been of the ordinary variety, but it was never lacking in love or familial adventure. Maybe it was due to having very grounded and optimistic parents, or maybe because she was the youngest of five children and the only girl. Having my idea of what it means to be of the Victorian era formed by literature, I was almost surprised that it was so ordinary, though certainly her stories are of a very insular nature. They are memories and stories of a childhood surely typical of the time, but she goes beyond the clichés of Victorian literature to present the colorful reality. Her family life was not without its share of sadness, though neither was this a household where the children were only seen and not heard.
Her memoirs begin with an introduction to her family, and from her perspective having four elder brothers and parents who "knew how to laugh at both jokes and disasters" was to be born under a lucky star. One of the things that struck me most was how close her family was and the fact that her parents took so much of the children's, shall we call it, youthful effervescence, in stride. Not only the hijnks but the disasters, too. The book is made up of a series of what seem like vignettes and covers a period of 1870-1879, which then come to an abrupt end, and if you read the book you'll understand why.
But those years, when the family moved into a "big house in Canonbury" (the book comes complete with photo of the home and I wish there had also been photos of the family, too) were mostly happy ones, and as Molly says, not dull in the least. I think she moves about through time without ever explicitly telling when events occurred as each chapter is presented around a theme or activity. The memoirs, at least as they made an impression on my, were bookended by happy scenes of Christmas, and maybe I will save those bits for later in the year to come back to. All the other moments were just as colorful and pleasing to read about.
Nearly a century and a half later, life in the contemporary world at times seems to bear few similarities to the world as Molly knew it, which makes for fascinating reading. Unlike her brothers she was not educated outside the home, at least not until she was older. When she did finally get to go to school it was a disappointment being a girls' education and not much like what her brother received. She was educated mostly by her mother, which was not such a bad thing as she "had had a richly varied and adventurous life".
Mostly she had to make do with what was at hand for educational and entertainment purposes. Imagine such a world now. She had few toys but never felt lacking. I had to laugh when she said, "when young ladies were invited out to tea they were set down to a meal of thick bread and butter before starting, in order that their appetites should appear elegant. They were commanded to leave something on their plate, however pleasing the dish." She was lucky in her mother, who taught her so well and shared her own stories with Molly, as she rarely seemed in a foul mood or especially critical even over less than proper behavior.
My favorite parts of the book were about her travels to Cornwall from which her mother came and where she loved to visit and about the "family club" they devised. If you think women did not have independent lives, Molly's aunt Tony certainly broke the mold. She managed a household and its inhabitants and took on the role of many in her daily tasks. Child through she was and seeing life and the lives around her through those naive eyes, she also has many moments of clarity of what it means, too, to be a woman in a time like the Victorian era where everything had to be so properly done or your good name might be ruined.
Especially heartening for readers, and as it comes at the end of the book so on a happy note, is reading about the "family club" they created, which was essentially a library. The funds for buying books came from fines from breaking rules. Broken rules meant barred entry into the "family club" which was agony for the children as that is where most of the family life took place. Fines were paid and entrance gained once again, but to not have the funds to pay the fines . . . excruciating. The money was put to good use, however, as books were added, and happy day when a "new" book could be bought. (And thinking of my own book spending habits, that was a very different world indeed).
Apparently Molly wrote two further books of memoirs which I am curious about. I have heard this is the best of the bunch and it is a eminently readable book, perfect for dipping into and enjoying. It actually works well with my February prompt, too. A book I can easily press into another reader's hands and one I plan on revisiting once again at holidaytime.