Raverat, Gwen. Period Piece.

NY: Norton, 1952.

The short of it is, the author was born in England in 1885 and these are her memories of growing up there. But the long of it is, the corner of England she grew up in was Cambridge, one of the world’s great intellectual centers, and the family she grew up in was the Darwins.

Her grandfather was Charles, author of On the Origin of Species, and her father, George, was an astronomer and mathematician of note in his own right who was made a Knight of the Bath for his work. Though she makes light of her own artistic abilities throughout the book, the author became a renowned wood-cut artist and book illustrator. (She later married a French painter and was part of the Bloomsbury Group and a friend of Virginia Woolf.) Moreover, her same-age cousin, Frances Darwin, became Frances Cornford, the poet, while her little sister, Margaret, married the brother of John Maynard Keynes, and her little brother, Charles, became a physicist who worked under Rutherford and later ran Britain’s National Physical Laboratory and was part of the Manhattan Project. And, just to touch all the bases, her second cousin was Ralph Vaughn Williams. That’s quite a family!

The author’s mother was from Philadelphia and was accounted a beauty and loved the social whirl, while Gwen knew she wasn’t, and never would be, a beauty and even when young she had no use for fashion or appearances. She wasn’t especially social, did not enjoy parties, couldn’t dance, and hated going away to school. But she loved her large, extended family, saw most of them nearly every day because her five surviving uncles and aunts all lived nearby, and spent much of each summer of her childhood with her crew of cousins at Down, her grandfather’s country house. She never knew her famous grandfather, who had died three years before her birth, but she tells many stories of Grandmama, Emma Wedgwood Darwin — who was something of an intellectual, too, but Gwen remembers the licorice she kept in her sewing basket for her grandchildren. And while she describes the life she led as a child of the time, and the things she saw and the games she played and the famous people she occasionally met, she saves her most affecting and insightful writing for a long, discursive chapter on all her uncles and aunts, every one of whom comes across as an entirely human and entirely fascinating figure, and not nearly as distinguished in Gwen’s young view as they were in the grown-up world. And the chapter in which she recounts her developing views on religion is both very funny and quite pointedly serious. It’s a very successful book, almost a group biography, and it’s no wonder it has remained in print for sixty years. A truly engaging and beautifully written — and wittily illustrated — piece of work.

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Published in: on 5 March 2012 at 8:27 am  Leave a Comment  
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