Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes

The Hughes' London home
"A girl with four brothers older than herself is born under a lucky star. To be brought up in London, in the eighteen-seventies, by parents who knew how to laugh at both jokes and disasters, was to be under the influence of Jupiter himself."

Currently, I'm in the middle of two massive classic books for online readalongs -- Villette and The Three Musketeers.  Last weekend I really needed a break, something shorter that I could finish quickly. I settled on A London Child in the 1870s by Molly Hughes, which is a nonfiction memoir about her childhood in Victorian London.  It was both delightful and charming -- I loved it. Molly grew up with four older brothers and it sounds like she had a lovely and idyllic childhood.

I have really been on a roll with the Persephones lately -- since Persephone Reading Weekend, I've been so inspired by all the great book reviews. After finishing A Woman's Place, I had to make a special trip to the Coates Library at Trinity University here in town (one of the nicest college libraries I've ever seen, by the way) and after making my return, I naturally had to browse through the Persephones in the collection. And I couldn't help checking out two more! I worry sometimes that books are neglected and unloved on the shelves, and that if nobody checks them out the library will just decide to chuck them. I'm sure academic libraries aren't as ruthless as public libraries need to be, but it is still my duty to keep them circulating.

But, back to A London Child. I think my favorite parts of the book were her descriptions of the summer vacations at her grandfather's farm in Cornwall. There's a chapter devoted to the railway journey -- it sounds like her mother had to manage alone with the five children! The farm sounds like a lovely place to spend a summer. Here's one of my favorite passages in the book -- as a dog lover, I found this particularly amusing.

Only one dog do I remember. I think he was so dear to everyone that when he died the family could never bear to have another. Theo was a great shaggy Newfoundland, who joined in all our childish games as well as he ever could, being treated as a member of the family. The old cook was heard to say one day, as she stooped to pick up his dish, 'Have you finished, please, Master Theo?' Barnholt [Molly's nearest brother in age] once offered him a bite of his bun, but Theo did not understand the limits implied in the word 'bite', and the whole bun disappeared.

It was quite a short book, only 173 pages, plus my edition included photos of Molly's family which I just loved. What made reading this particular copy even more special was that it was a first edition from 1934!  I felt honored just being allowed to check it out -- I feel like I should wear gloves while I read it.

This book was the first of three volumes written by Molly Hughes, and I'll have to track down the other two so I can find out what happened to her and her family. It was just a great read.

The endpapers from the Persephone edition, a reproduction of William Morris wallpaper from the 1860s
Before I forget, I must include a spoiler warning. Since I didn't read the Persephone edition, I didn't have the introduction by Adam Gopnik, but I believe it is an adaptation of an article he wrote about her books for The Guardian in 2005. No disrespect to Mr. Gopnik, but if you hate spoilers, don't read this until after you've finished the book! It includes a huge spoiler from the very last page of the book. If you are the sort of person who reads the last page first, by all means, go ahead and read it. But I started reading the article and I am very sorry that I didn't wait because it did change my experience of reading the book somewhat. I'll say no more.


  1. oh, this is one I really want to read! how wonderful sounding. I really need to read me some more Persephones!

  2. I planned to read this for Persephone Reading Week, but I was distracted by other books.But I must pick it up soon. It sounds so lovely, and I've done that same journey from Cornwall to London so many times.

  3. Rebecca -- this was one of my favorites so far. I hope you can track it down -- I've been having some luck at the college libraries in town.

    Fleur -- I keep reading about how wonderful Cornwall is. You would probably love all the Cornish parts. It's a charming, fast read.

  4. Sounded like a book that you needed. I have loads of heavy going readalong stuff at the moment and I am looking forward to reading something easy going and light when they are done.

  5. Ooohhh, this is one of my very favourite books, and I think the second volume, London girl is even better. My Dad introduced me to these as a child and I just love them.

  6. This sounds like a really interesting book. I much prefer to read about a happy childhood than a miserable one.

  7. Another one to track down. I love being able to get the original books too. Love Cornwall, it's as west as you can get! I've given up reading introductions until I've finished the book because I got so fed up reading all the important bits in the story in them.

  8. Jessica -- it was perfect. Three Musketeers isn't exactly a heavy book but it's almost 700 pages! I think I always need at least one short book to go along with the long ones so I feel like I'm finishing something.

    Verity -- I think another library in town has the second volume, but I might have to go online for the third. I know there are editions with all three so I might just break down and buy one online.

    Seagreen reader -- It was great. It reminded me a bit of the Little House on the Prairie books, just about the details of the happy childhood. If Laura had grown up in Victorian London instead of the American prairies, if you can imagine such a thing.

    Katrina -- I agree, I generally avoid introductions but sometimes I accidentally read stuff and it makes me crazy! Why must people spoil the endings of books? (Movies too).

  9. Hurrah! My library has some large print copies. They're not Persephones so they won't have that lovely endpaper, but I also won't have to worry about the introduction.

  10. Lovely passages that you've shared! I do need to read my Persephones, not sure why I haven't fit them into my schedule of late. Thanks for the reminder!

  11. I loved this book -- but I sooo wished I hadn't read Gopnik's introduction. What a bummer. I hope Persephone will consider moving it to the end of the book, as an Afterward, as it really spoiled the book for me.

  12. I think it is always nice to read about a happy childhood for once! Most memoirs are usually so depressing and sad and messed up. And how neat that there were photos too.

    I think it is great that your library allows you to check out books like this. I'd be so paranoid though with a small child in the house.

  13. Motheretc -- so glad you can get a copy. Is it just the first volume or do they have later volumes as well? I really want to know what happens next.

    Coffee and a Book Chick -- I'm really into the Persephones lately. This library has so many amazing old books, every time I go return one I can't help checking out more. Not good for the TBR Dare, though.

    Connolly-Ahern -- I really, really try not to read introductions any more. I went back and to read the article AFTER I'd finished the book and it had spoilers for the second volume as well!! Very irritating. I haven't read A Very Great Profession for fear of spoilers as well.

    Jenners -- it was a delightful book. It's from the college library and the books they have are amazing. My kids are old enough to leave them alone, I just have to keep them out of reach of the dog. And not read them while eating something messy!

  14. ha ha now that I've read the book, I know what spoiler you are talking about. lol I never would have thought of that as a spoiler. I'll make sure not to mention it in my post! (I was going to, actually.)

    The volume I got from my library is the whole series. I've kept reading. I think the first half of the second volume was quite fascinating. Still have more to go.


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