Nicholson, Shirley. A Victorian Household: Based on the Diaries of Marion Sambourne.

London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1988.

I have a longstanding interest in Victorian and Edwardian social history and one of the best ways to satisfy that interest is to read diaries written during the period. Third-person histories and biographies are permeated with later interpretation and memoirs are often edited with a large dose of foreshadowing and second-guessing (“Little did we know,” and so on). But a daily diary knows nothing about will happen tomorrow, or what will turn out to be important to later readers. It’s about as close as you can come to time travel.

Marion Herapath was born into a thoroughly respectable middle class family in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, and in 1874 she married Linley Sambourne, an artist who became a noted cartoonist for Punch. And for the next thirty-three years, she kept a diary, writing in it nearly every day what she did, who she saw, what her husband was up to, and her reactions to local and national and world events. She kept notes on dinner parties and weekend guests, listed the household’s effects, and recorded the household accounts. She saved hundreds of letters from her husband, her children’s school reports, and all sorts of other family keepsakes. And all of it survived, largely because the house in which she and her family lived has been perfectly preserved, virtually as a family museum. The furniture, the books, the pictures on the wall — everything. You can stand in the parlor and read her description of a small statue, and look over at the end table where she decided to display it 130-odd years ago — and there it still is. Amazing. (One of the reasons all this was possible, no doubt, is that the artistic Sambourne-Herapath family included — as one of Marion’s great-grandsons — the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, who just happened to marry Princess Margaret, sister of the present monarch, and who contributed many of the photos in this volume.)

Nicholson is an architectural historian and conservationist who spent several years reading Marion’s diaries and studying the house and its contents. She does an expert job compiling a survey portrait of the family over two generations, interweaving diary excerpts with research on the times and events Marion describes. Her daughter, Maud (Lord Snowden’s grandmother) lived until 1960 and also left much documentation behind, some of which you will also find here. It’s an altogether fascinating and highly readable account of a well-to-do but not upper-class family of a century and more ago.

Published in: on 13 April 2015 at 4:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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