Friday, November 13, 2015

Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Gwen Raverat's Period Piece is a gently comic memoir of the Victorian era. 

Gwen Raverat (1885-1957) was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Her father, George Darwin, was the third child of the great naturalist (there were seven siblings in all). She never met her famous grandfather, but writes of how his aura seemed to hover over the Darwin’s family estate, Down. In fact, his name was rarely mentioned: family members didn’t want to appear as though they were claiming his greatness as their own.

Published in 1952 when Gwen Raverat was in her sixties, Period Piece is an affectionate, often comic memoir of her childhood. It casts a rather bemused eye over the Victorian period, picking apart its morals, customs, religious views, social rules, constricting fashions for women, whimsical fads and many mad theories. The author has a lot of fun picking apart the delusional nature of Victorian life. Raverat obviously suffered under it and Period Piece is a bit of a spirited, joyous revenge. In one passage she sums up much of the era:

“For nearly seventy years the English middle-classes were locked up in a great fortress of unreality and pretence; and no one who has not been brought up inside the fortress can guess how thick the walls were, or how little of the sky outside could be seen through the loopholes.”

Such extremes gave way to odd and seemingly contradictory behaviour. The most “queer” to Raverat was the popular sport of adolescent youths skinny dipping in the local rivers. Upstanding middle class women would hire boats and of course have to pass, at close quarters, ebullient naked youths, jumping, splashing or laying about on the river banks. The women would unfold their parasols and shield themselves from the horrid view. Raverat describes herself cleverly positioning her parasol so her fellow travelers would think she was blocking the view, but secretly making sure she got a good eyeful.

This is a charming and instructive little volume by a shrewd observer. It’s almost like someone from our own times has been dropped into this Victorian “fortress of unreality and pretence” to take notes on the natives. The results make for a very timeless memoir. One last mention must go to Gwen Raverat’s skill as a wood engraver. Her lovely illustrations work hand in glove with the text to give it a delightful aspect.

Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat. Published by Collector's Library. ISBN: 9781909621213                       RRP: $18.99 

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