‘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.
Frances Spalding sees the problem. She is perceptive on Period Piece’s sometimes artful, sometimes awkwardly contrived faux-naivety, and on its self-serving censorship and selectivity. She points out, for example, that the death of Raverat’s nanny from cancer is not allowed to disrupt the litany of more trivial domestic disasters in which the book delights. Striking, too, is the fact that her youngest brother, Leonard, who died in infancy, much to Gwen’s distress when she was 14, is simply omitted from her narrative and from the family tree included in her book. But Spalding is too loyal to her subject to face the likelihood that now at least (the nostalgic 1950s may be another matter) the book is more bought than read, more recommended than enjoyed. It is hard to imagine that, for all its promised glimpse of mythical Cambridge, many modern readers persevere for more than a few pages before being overwhelmed by its complex cast of late Victorian characters, who – like Richard Jebb – have long since ceased to be household names, if indeed they ever were; and by what now comes across as its cloyingly sentimental perspective on the sun and strawberries of late Victorian privilege, unmitigated (as Raven observed) by much interest in social justice.
Raverat was born Gwen Darwin in Cambridge (in a house that is now Darwin College) in 1885, the granddaughter of Charles. The Darwins were a vast dynasty: seven of Charles’s ten children survived to adulthood and between them produced ten grandchildren and almost thirty great-grandchildren. The sons understandably found their father’s achievement a hard act to follow. One retreated to the Army (and a brief spell in Parliament), another to banking. A couple fell into comfortable niches within the academic aristocracy: Frank became a Cambridge botanist and Gwen’s father, George, though he twice failed to win a scholarship to Cambridge, eventually went on to be Plumian Professor of Astronomy there. None of them was short of money, thanks in part to their family connections with the Wedgwoods and in part to the substantial royalties that soon flowed from Charles’s books. All of them, it seems, were devoted to the history and cult of their family, and endowed with the sense of superiority that it gave them. For a committed and partisan biographer, Spalding is commendably dispassionate on this. She coolly explains how the family finessed the first official biography of Charles (three volumes of Life and Letters edited by Frank). And she quotes some telling anecdotes of their superb, and irritating, self-confidence. On one occasion in the 1890s George wrote to the Times to complain, angrily, that a telegram addressed simply ‘Darwin, Cambridge’ had not been delivered to him by the Post Office. After all, his mother sympathised, ‘if Darwins are not known at Cambridge where are they to be heard of?’
There was plenty of time and money for the male members of the family to cultivate their eccentricities. Uncle William, the banker, for example, is supposed to have felt so chilly in Westminster Abbey at the funeral of his father, with the draught around his bald head, that he balanced his pair of black gloves on his pate ‘and sat like that all through the service with the eyes of the nation upon him’. And Uncle Richard (though a Darwin only by marriage) must have annoyed fellow concert-goers with his habit of reading out appropriate passages from Greek plays while he was listening to the music. As Raverat, once again, notes, ‘a triumph of timing occurred once, when he was listening to the thunderstorm in the Pastoral Symphony, and reading the thunderstorm in Oedipus at Colonus, and a real thunderstorm took place.’ Some of the women of the family also seem to have invested in this kind of idiosyncrasy. Aunt Etty, for example, Richard’s wife, a bona fide Darwin and a very strange person indeed, used a homemade gas mask, consisting of a kitchen strainer stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool, whenever there were colds or other nasty infections about. By and large, however, eccentricity was the privilege of Darwin men. One gets the impression that the women’s role was rather to broadcast, glamorise and no doubt exaggerate the oddities of the male family members, past and present. It can hardly be a coincidence that most of the classic stories of the men’s peculiar habits come directly from Period Piece.
The biggest problem for the women seems to have been finding something to do, between the dinner parties, at-homes, shopping trips to London and tricky worries about Cambridge rank and precedence (where should you seat the wife of the Regius Professor of Physic?). No doubt more lay beneath the surface; and, no doubt, all the rules and conventions of Victorian Cambridge life were never quite so pointless as we generally choose to paint them. Nevertheless, Spalding’s deadpan style devastatingly conveys the emptiness and triviality of much of the women’s day to day lives, in contrast to their husbands’. ‘Maud returned’ – after a holiday at Down House, Charles’s family home – ‘with the intention of painting hollyhocks on gold Japanese leather-paper to be put in the arch above the fire-place in the hall’ sums up Gwen’s mother’s aspirations for the autumn of 1885. And even Rose Macaulay’s admiration for Period Piece was punctured by the thought that Gwen herself had not really had enough to do, and that she would have been much happier if she had been sent to the local Perse School for Girls, rather than being inefficiently educated by a series of unreliable governesses and, for a couple of years, at a private boarding school in Wimbledon.
In the end, Gwen did find something to do. By the time she was 20, she had become close friends in Cambridge with a number of those who were later to be dubbed ‘Neo-Pagans’ by Virginia Woolf – notably Rupert Brooke and Jacques Raverat (a wealthy French boy who went to school at Bedales). This group of rich and self-regarding undergraduates, with their literary pretensions and amateur dramatics, are a rather less palatable aspect of the Cambridge myth than Raven’s late Victorian domestic dons; but they did at least offer Gwen a partial escape from the Darwin clan. Their 1908 production of Comus – featuring Brooke as the Attendant Spirit in a deliciously revealing ‘spangled sky-blue tunic’ and starring Francis Cornford (then a young fellow of Trinity) in the title role – must count as the most overrated and over-discussed student production of all time. The truth was that they were a hopelessly amateur crew, who looked lovely (especially Brooke) and were largely inaudible (especially Cornford). But, as Spalding makes clear, it kept Gwen busy, ‘working flat out’ designing and making costumes, painting the backdrops and damping down the histrionics of the student starlets. By the autumn term of 1908, she really had escaped, enrolling at the Slade School in London. It was there that she developed her trademark style in wood-engraving and illustration that was to give her a professional identity and part-time career for the rest of her life.
Hypochondria was another way the female and (especially) male members of the Darwin family found to fill their time. Aunt Etty’s homemade prophylactic gas mask was only the tip of the iceberg. Charles himself seems to have convinced them all that they had a ‘hereditary weakness’, which obviously took many forms. Charles’s brother, Erasmus, would have to retire to bed if he ate green peas (easy enough to avoid, one would have thought). Gwen’s father, George, and his brother Horace were always collapsing with stomach ache. Uncle Richard was believed (by Etty, at least) to be peculiarly susceptible to draughts. By the time she wrote Period Piece, Gwen seems to have seen through much of this, noting ‘the sympathetic gloating in the Darwin voices, when they said to one of us children: “And have you got a bad sore throat, my poor cat?”’ There was nothing this family enjoyed more than a sore throat.
The sad irony is that by the time Gwen married Jacques Raverat, middle-ranking artist and one of her Neo-Pagan friends, in 1911, he was already showing the first symptoms of the multiple sclerosis that would kill him in 1925, at the age of 40. Spalding carefully charts the course of this marriage, as it gradually merges into the course of Jacques’s illness, with all the bleakness that it deserves. There is the predictable round of doctors, diagnoses and treatments (injections of lymph one minute; psychoanalysis the next). And the predictable search for a gentler climate that might mitigate the worst effects of the disease (eventually, for the last years of his life, they settled in his native France). Of course, nothing halted his steady degeneration and paralysis. Even with all the domestic help that Darwin money could buy (chauffeur, cook and nanny), the strains on the marriage were enormous. The impotence caused by Jacques’s illness seems to have meant that both their daughters were artificially conceived. Piecing together hints in various letters, Spalding concludes that they found a doctor – that he was Jewish was itself the cause of some embarrassment – who took Jacques’s sperm and impregnated Gwen. Even as he approached death, they were discussing divorce.
Spalding has plenty of material with which to reconstruct Gwen’s alternating attempts to deny and accommodate Jacques’s worsening illness; rather less from his point of view. Partly to compensate, she directs her readers to what she calls, even now, ‘the most outstanding piece of writing on multiple sclerosis’ – W.N.P. Barbellion’s Journal of a Disappointed Man. Barbellion was the pseudonym of Bruce Frederick Cummings, journalist and scientist, who died of multiple sclerosis, aged 30, a few years before Jacques (the W.N.P. were said, significantly, to stand for ‘Wilhelm Nero Pilate’, the three greatest failures of history). Decades before the recent, more famous, examples of ‘mortuary journalism’, this diary, published in 1919, was a brilliant record of its author’s dying – with all its awesome combination of self-pity, loneliness, generosity, self-loathing and false hopes.
There was an unexpected, and poignant, twist in the story of Jacques’s death: for it was not, finally, the multiple sclerosis that brought his end, but Gwen. After ‘a four-day nightmare, during which Jacques found it difficult to talk and to swallow’, and when even the doctor could hardly bear to look and ran away as quickly as he could, Gwen took up a pillow and smothered him. Or so she later told her sister. Long before our own obsession with policing the last days of the terminally ill, it was, presumably, what many – or most – people did.
Spalding deals more briskly with the second half of Gwen Raverat’s life: her brief affair with the same doctor who had run away from the dying Jacques, her return to England, her growing career as an illustrator and the unexpected success of Period Piece. Shortly after its publication, she had a series of strokes, which left her increasingly frail and dependent. Not trusting, we imagine, that any of her children would render the service that she had rendered for Jacques, she carefully stored up her daily aspirin ration and killed herself in the old family home just after her 70th birthday. It was, as she wrote in the suicide note, ‘the simplest plan for everyone’. And it was, as Spalding emphasises without too much sentiment, a fitting end for an old lady who may not be most fairly remembered for her part in the mythology of Cambridge croquet mallets, dreary domesticity and early bedtimes. She had, for a while at least, managed to escape the Darwins.