Sun and Strawberries

Mary Beard

  • Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections by Frances Spalding
    Harvill, 438 pp, £30.00, June 2001, ISBN 1 86046 746 6

‘The ghosts we deserve’ was the Listener’s headline for Simon Raven’s review of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece in December 1952. Most reviewers had gushed with sentimental enthusiasm for these memoirs of a late Victorian academic childhood in Cambridge, so helping to make them one of the most ‘unlikely bestsellers’ of the later 20th century (the book has never been out of print and in Cambridge, at least, still sells briskly to locals and tourists alike). Rose Macaulay, for example, oozed – anonymously – in the TLS: ‘an altogether delightful book … an enchanting cast of characters, all set forth with a kind of gay, insouciant wit … the humour is infectious, the figures endearingly ridiculous and admirable human beings.’ ‘A happy book that will give pleasure to thousands,’ chimed in Mervyn Horder in the Spectator, with a prediction that was, if anything, too modest (already by 1975 it had sold more than 120,000 copies in the UK alone). Against this chorus of admiration, Raven raised some sharper questions.

How is it, he asked, that the dreary, domesticated Cambridge of the late 19th century has so seized the popular imagination? ‘The monstrous whoredoms of the Middle Ages, the corruption and acrimony of the schoolmen, the magnificent intrigues of the Augustans’ are buried in mere history books. The Cambridge myth has been founded instead on the ‘smaller, smugger figures’ of the 1880s and 1890s – ‘not wholly unsympathetic, just rather tame’ – who still revisit the lawns in the depths of the long vacation. In her own terms, Raven admitted, Mrs Raverat had done rather well: full marks to her ‘minor Proustian skill’ and her gratifying refusal to be obsessed with ‘children, animals or social justice’. But the book, as a whole, was a monument to the obliteration from social memory of the ‘superb rackety figures’ of earlier Cambridge days; and the unexpected triumph of ‘marital virtue . . . caution and economy . . . croquet mallets and early bedtimes’.

Fifty years on, it is no easier to explain exactly why Cambridge mythology is so bound up with the late Victorians, though it must have something to do with the sheer foreignness of the ‘robust and rampageous spirit’ of earlier generations, and with the simple fact that most of the Cambridge institutions we now take for granted (from not walking on the grass to the two-part Tripos and May Balls) were invented by these grey, smug, ‘hen-pecked’ late 19th-century types, all tucked up in bed by 10 p.m. Nor is it much easier to explain why Period Piece scored the remarkable success that it did – and continues to do. It certainly trades on the archly self-proclaimed nostalgia of its title, and on the wry vista it offers onto a lost world, through the childhood recollections of an elderly woman (Raverat was well over sixty by the time the manuscript was finished). And it includes a handful of brilliantly told anecdotes, with some nice bon mots. The Master of Trinity’s reported joke about a future Regius Professor of Greek, for example, predictably appealed to Raven, who picked it out as the best in the book: ‘Such time as Mr Jebb can spare from the adornment of his person he devotes to the neglect of his duties.’ But these hardly seem enough to carry almost three hundred pages of memoirs that are largely devoted to the sanitised minutiae of a privileged Victorian childhood: the torture of being taken to the dressmaker, drawing the Dying Gaul by matchlight in the basement of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, messing about on the Cam.

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