I am a lazy reader. Left to myself, I would subsist on a diet of My Favorite Fifteen Books from College. Fortunately, I have the best kind of friend a book-lover can hope for: one who supplies me every Christmas with interesting volumes you won’t find in a good library, let alone a Barnes & Noble. This year, her gift to me was Molly Hughes’s trilogy of memoirs, A London Family, 1870-1900 (1946).
The granddaughter of a Cornish gentleman who had made his fortune mining tin (this will sound familiar if you’ve been watching Poldark), Mary Vivian Thomas Hughes grew up in London, where her family’s financial condition swung between fortune and failure, depending on her father’s luck as a stockbroker. With bankruptcy sometimes crouching at the door, Tom and Mary Thomas managed to give their children a care-free life—at least with their youngest child, who describes a mostly happy Victorian home with loving parents and four very agreeable older brothers: Thomas, the future schoolmaster; Dym, the mathematician; Charles, the painter; and the universally adored Barnholt, who at the age of four frightens everyone by wandering away alone in the city, only to appear three days later hand-in-hand with a policeman. This episode, along with other early disasters, Hughes describes almost as a lark.
The shared humor among the children is the great charm of the trilogy’s first volume (A London Child of the Seventies). Hughes’s fond, almost worshipful portrait of the Thomas boys is a testament to the patronage that good brothers can offer a younger sister in a man’s world—though their support may come at price. When little Molly declares that she longs to ride atop a horse-drawn bus (something usually forbidden to girls), the boys are happy to arrange it. The trip ends with a tumble in the mud and a vague explanation to their mother. Other edifying experiences involve a druidical ceremony requiring the sacrifice of a wax doll, and a stroll around London with Molly dressed as Guy Fawkes. The boys prove their interest in women’s education when they invite a local girls’ school mistress to tea; they mean to convince her to make a place at her school for their little sister—who is already on the third declension in Latin! Their materfamilias shuts this scheme down, however, and Molly happily avoids formal schooling until age eleven.
In volume 2, the author finds herself at North London Collegiate, an institution created by the legendary women’s educational reformer Frances Buss. Like many of the people who show up in this entertaining book, Miss Buss has a funny side. She is a proponent of the “multiply the results” principle of behavior, as in: “One girl running downstairs might not be dangerous, but what if five hundred did?” Undesirable action, no matter how minor, results in the posting of new rules, such as: “Broken needles must not be thrown on the floor!”
Eventually, Hughes studies teaching methods at Cambridge (she mentions that her brother Tom, on his way to being a schoolmaster, doesn’t have to do a day’s preparation). After some interesting early posts, she accepts a role in the development of women’s higher education at Bedford College. Later, she tours America and Canada, providing readers with a fascinating glimpse of comparative education and culture at the end of the nineteenth century.
Even more than her brothers, Hughes’s mother was her inspiration and influence. Mary Thomas is portrayed as a sympathetic, intelligent woman who teaches her children to see the amusing side of everything and everyone, including their frequent houseguests: fat and affectionate Aunt Polly, who always claims she can “only pop in” but never fails to stay for dinner; the vicar’s wife, in severest black; and gloomy Aunt Lizzie, who once leaves behind a book of prayers that include a petition for “a family of four boys and one girl, that they may be led to give up their frivolous way of life.” Mary’s family in Cornwall shapes the memories of her daughter at least as much as dirty, noisy London. It takes the family two days to reach Reskadinnick on a packed and rickety train. Once there, the Thomas children enjoy all the dangers and delights of a rural childhood: visiting new calves and chickens; running from the turkey cock; engaging in mock sea battles on the pond; exploring wave-battered cliffs with picnic lunches. If Cornish farm life was a suburban child’s paradise in the late nineteenth century, how much more it sounds like one now.
So strong was Molly Hughes’s connection to Cornwall that she eventually dedicated a whole volume (Vivians, 1935) to this side of the family, before rounding out her chronicles with an account of her life as a widow and mother (A London Family Between the Wars, 1940). By the time Hughes completed her writings, her parents and two of her brothers were long dead. She had lost her first child and only girl to a sudden illness. Her husband Arthur had been killed in a tragic road accident. And at some point she had learned that her father’s mysterious death in 1879 was actually a suicide, perhaps brought on by despair over his financial situation.
Such tragedy—any one of these tragedies—would demand pages of reflection from a modern memoirist. But children of the Victorian age tended to value courage over emotional openness. Though early death was more common then, and the power of it more formally acknowledged in social customs, spontaneous emotional expression was usually a private act. This is understandable, I think, since one way to cope with heartbreak is to contain and manage it, as if it were an unruly child. We (contemporary Americans) encounter personal tragedy much less often than the Victorians did, and we talk about it all the time.
Personally, I admire those restrained Victorians, and I love to turn up my nose at all contemporary tissue-wringers (though I myself once published a moderately teary memoir). But I must admit that I close Molly Hughes’s book with a twinge of disappointment. I enjoy her funny descriptions of characters and places, and I admire the emotional fortitude that allows her to describe her husband’s death in one sentence near the end of the second volume: “After twenty years of married life, Arthur was run over at the foot of Chancery Lane and taken into Barts to die.” But it’s hard for the reader to move from that sentence to accounts of Arthur’s ordinary doings (pre-accident) in the book’s next chapter. What does Molly Hughes not say about her own feelings after his death—about her grief for the man she had waited ten long years to marry? Why does she not say it? Is her restraint a sign of strength, or was the pain just too much to describe?
I like Hughes’s writing best when she is willing to let her deeper, truer self shine through all the brave and funny parts. One of those moments occurs in a passage describing how she and Arthur drew together in grief following their daughter’s death. Arthur was emotionally broken, and it was a terrible thing to see; yet Hughes finds majesty in the memory of their closeness. “The supreme phases of our life here,” she writes, “—love and birth and death—each has the power of breaking down the barrier between us. We glory in the first two, in spite of the attendant pain. Why don’t we acknowledge the majestic strength of the last?”
A wonderful insight, and not just for Victorians.
Betty Smartt Carter is the author of two novels and a memoir, Home Is Always the Place You Just Left.