We were rich too in another way, so far as I can observe, than the average children of today Our parents had accumulated a large number of books, which we were allowed to browse in as much as we liked. Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Lamb, George Eliot, Tennyson, Byron, Coleridge, Disraeli, these were not 'taught' at school, or set as holiday tasks, but became part of our lives. The elder ones discussed them at table, and quoted from them, till the Micawbers and Becky Sharp and Lamb appeared to my childish mind as some some former friends of mother's,whom I recognized with delight later on when I read the books for myself. ...
Occasionally the discussions became acrimonious. My eldest brother was one day making disparaging remarks about Tennyson, and my mother, all agitated in defence of her idol, fetched his poems from the shelf, and with a 'Listen now, children' began to declaim Locksley Hall. When she reached 'I to herd with narrow foreheads' she burst out, flinging down the book, 'What awful rubbish this is!'
I finally made a list of the Persephones that I could find at the library, and I started to make a more concerted effort to borrow them. The trouble is that the library that offers them lets me keep books for up to four months if no one else wants them (and no one else ever seems to!) and so they tend to sit at the bottom of the reading pile until it's too late. I rescued this one just in time. :)
Molly Hughes was the youngest child, with four older brothers, in the Thomas family; her father was a London stockbroker whose fortunes rose and fell, and an imaginative man who created adventures for his children (especially his sons; Molly often describes them adding that she wasn't allowed to go with them}, her mother adopted a policy of 'Boys First,' so that her young daughter wouldn't be spoiled, but took Molly with her on long walks, and shopping trips, and calls to relatives and neighbors. Molly insists that 'We were just an ordinary. suburban Victorian family, undistinguished ourselves and unacquainted with distinguished people,' but she paints a picture of a close-knit, unusual family, describing their love of books and paintings, their childhood mischief, her brothers' experiences at school, visits to Kew Gardens and long walks to St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday mornings, and at the end, a long summer visit to relatives in Cornwall. Molly and her brothers had a room to themselves, one that their parents never entered, called 'the study' and later, their 'library,' where they displayed their collections, wrote rules for themselves, and fined each other for infractions, using the money to buy books and magazines.
In itself, I found this book charming, entertaining, and maybe not extraordinary ...but I definitely enjoyed it all the more because of Adam Gopnik's introduction. He tells a sweet story about how much he and his wife loved this book and the two that followed ...
I read Molly Hughes' life for the first time when my wife and I came to New York in the early 1980s. We moved into a studio on East Eighty-Seventh Street -- a single, nine-by-eleven room. Not an apartment, really, but a room out of a popular song of the twenties or out of Trollope's The Three Clerks: a blue room, lodgings.... but he also tells us how Molly Hughes, writing almost 50 years later, 'resolutely shook off despair,' changing a very important element of the story, at the very end. Knowing this, I'm glad the library has the next two volumes too.
In part because we had no choice -- our room was in one of those upper-East Side canyons that are as shut off from broadcast television as Lhasa, and we couldn't afford cable -- reading aloud became our favorite, our only diversion, and our favorite books the talky reminiscences and eccentric fictions of nineteenth-century London.
A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes
Persephone Books, 2005 (originally published in 1934)
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum