Monday, 14 March 2011

A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes

When I was a kid, we went to stay at my grandparent's place in Napier every other school holiday or so. It being New Zealand, the country being small, it wasn't much of an effort to get up there from Wellington from time to time, and to be honest I used to enjoy the day-long road trips in the car, which were always punctuated by interesting diversions and treats of various sorts. I was less keen on staying at Nana and Granddad's. The house was something of a relic of the fifties, richly appointed in terms of 1950s small town New Zealand, but a little cold and eccentric by the terms of 80s teenagerdom, and they were a bit frightening for a wee kid, a little mad and alcoholics, too.

They had a pretty good selection of books, however. It's from granddad's selection of thrillers and popular adventure stories that I first read M R James, Sapper, Sherlock Holmes, John Buchan and Walter Scott. They also had an excellent selection of juvenile books from the teens and twenties, colouring and puzzle books with complex Victorian puzzles in densely printed engravings, occasionally adorned with either of my grandparent's childish copperplate.

They also owned a selection of at least half a dozen Boys Own and Greyfriars annuals, full of stories of japes and good chaps, of good being rewarded and wickedness suitably punished. There’s a courageous naiveté about Bob Cherry and his chums as they confront the world. It's an attitude of effortless confidence, heedless of the dangers of the world and ready to meet any challenge life throws you as an adventure to be enjoyed.

A similar sense of child-like pleasure in life's many curious twists and turns is one of the things that makes this book such a pleasure.

A London Child of the 1870s is the memoir of Molly Hughes, the youngest of five children, and only daughter, of a middle class family living in Islington in the 1870s. It starts with her earliest memories, and by the end she seems to be about twelve or so, describing in simple but evocative language the comings and goings of her daily life.

She lived an apparently idyllic early life. The younger boys were at day school, the older boys boarders, but she spent the day at home, helping with chores, visiting with neighbours and family and taking lessons in handwriting and French from her mother. She was clearly keen to learn, and we hear of her learning much history and geography second hand – sometimes comically confused – through her brothers, but she seems to feel no resentment or dissatisfaction with her lot, and when she's ten or eleven she does begin attending a ladies' finishing school nearby.

Her mother is born to moderately wealthy land-owning father in Cornwall, and so the family takes regular summer holidays near the Cornish coast in the bucolic ideal of Reskadinnick. Molly's reminiscences have the golden glow of a bread commercial, and it's impossible not to share her sense of longing for long warm days roaming among the apple trees, or running bare foot through the sand with the taste of picnic sandwiches and cider filling your sensorium.

Nostalgia seems a slightly decadent or self indulgent in the face of my own somewhat puritanical northern European cultural background. Through a coincidence of age and cultural milieu, I am inclined to view irony and distance as superior modes of expression than those which expect us to take strong emotions, particularly positive emotions, at face value.

We spend a lot of time denying that life is good. The essence of classical tragedy is a demonstration of how one's best qualities can lead to ruin and disaster - Oedipus is brought down by his dedication to bring a killer to justice, Antigone by her dedication to her brother; Hamlet sees his rationality curdle into indecision, while Lear's regality tips over into vanity. Aristotle said that tragedy should inspire pity and fear in the audience, as a form of catharsis. Catharsis, I suppose, allows us to change. Through catharsis we can move past difficult emotions, reassess priorities our our own commitments.

On the other hand, nostalgia is perhaps retrograde. It makes us long to go back to a simpler time when life, and especially social life, was navigable and easily comprehended. But I think it bolsters us too, in a different way from catharsis. While reading this, Molly's childhood becomes our childhood and her parents – warm, jolly and wise – become ours, and we too can find warm pleasure and comfort from it.

I suppose it's easy for me to feel this way, because I too grew up in a similar literate, liberal middle class household, with just one less sibling than Molly, although a century later. Her London days make me recall the time I lived in London as a child, while her holidays in the rambling family pile in Cornwall remind me of life at Titahi Bay.

I can remember bad times and unhappiness too, of course, but they seem trivial next to the great enjoyable adventure that was growing up. Reading this book reminded me of all that, of the sheer simple thrill of being young and enjoying the world around, moment by moment, fearless because you were surrounded by people who cared about you and were ready to catch you when you jumped off a cliff.

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