Thursday 24 September 2020

Period Piece: charmingly fearful of the lower classes

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood It's been difficult keeping Book Club going since March. Some members returned to their native land for lockdown, and most of our group are technologically challenged so Zoom is out. You can't imagine the relief when the rules eased and Sian invited the remaining four of us round to hers to discuss her book choice, Gwen Ravarat's Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood. Much as I love The Man, I was euphoric with the prospect of finally seeing someone other than my partner and somewhere other than the walls of our apartment.

There was me, Sian, Bernard, Marco, and Susan, white bread smeared with salted butter and topped with smoked salmon, and a glass of white wine, which always helps lubricate the discussion.

So what about the book? If you decide to read Period Piece expecting to discover something about society in late Victorian England, bear in mind that it really only covers a very privileged section of it. I probably wouldn't have read it if it hadn't been a book club choice. There are too many memoirs published by the upper- and middle-classes from that period. The "lower-classes", as Ravarat refers to them, were too busy working, surviving.

The class question is casually alluded to throughout the book. Raverat says, "I don't believe that the middle classes of those days ever had the faintest idea of the real outlook of the poor. It was true enough that there were two nations in England then." It's not clear what the adult Ravarat thinks about class, but then this is a childhood memoir. In the chapter about her grandparents' house, Down, she says how "very low-class, country-slum people used to give me the horrors.... This was a class ignored by the story-books; there might be drunken and degenerate people in the towns, but in the country there were only the Good Poor in rose-embowered cottages." She "found even the Good Poor terrifying", like many children, afraid of those whose background is different from her own. There's also a memory of "Aunt Etty's eugenic conscience", when the old woman alters the outcome of a story so "the good boy should be descended from the good parents and the bad from the bad."

It's interesting to note that some Victorian mores remain within English society over a century after Victoria's death. In the 1950s Gwen is still angered by the "thought of the discomfort, restraint and pain, which we had to endure from our clothes", but also about the lack of pockets in women's clothing: "Why mayn't we have Pockets? Who forbids it? We have got Woman's Suffrage, but why must we still always be inferior to Men?" This is something that some of us still bemoan today.

However, Period Piece is not supposed to be a treatise on Victorian values. It has a gentle humour, at its best in the chapter entitled Propriety, when Raverat explains the absurdity of chaperoning, how one should avoid catching a glimpse of male "pinkness, dancing about, quite plain" during river picnics, and the embarrassment of being in the National Gallery with a younger sibling.

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