Tuesday 17 December 2013

Gwen Raverat's Cambridge

I happened to be in Cambridge again last week, in the soft blue-grey mists of winter that blur the present into the past. Down Silver Street and over the bridge, the river scene is little changed not only from my memory of it, but from the way it is depicted in Gwen Raverat's illustrated book, Period Piece.
It first came my way when I was thirteen, at school in London - an English class text. First published in 1952, it's a charming memoir of Raverat's childhood in Cambridge as part of the influential Darwin family: Charles Darwin was her grandfather. When I first read it, all the interest seemed to lie in the often hilarious depictions of Victorian life, the odd proprieties that had to be observed, especially in love and courtship. The characters are larger than life: Gwen's American mother Maud du Puy of Philadelphia, who arrived in Cambridge to stay with an aunt in the summer of 1883 and accepted the proposal of Darwin's second son, George, a fellow of Trinity College; eccentric hypochondriac Aunt Etty invents her own anti-cold mask that gives her a beak like a cross bird. Young Gwen never forgets seeing a party of undergraduates running up from the river and into The Anchor pub carrying what looks like the dead body of a young woman.
It's a warm, enticing read, full of dry humour and acerbic wit and wisdom as the Gwen who is now in her sixties recalls the child's world she once inhabited. Throughout the book are Raverat's own line drawings, giving vivid impressions, full of detail, of both people and her surroundings. At the time I first read it, I don't remember being particularly interested in the lovely setting. I had never visited Cambridge at that stage so it didn't mean a great deal. It was only later, as so often, that I read it again as a student there and took pleasure in placing events in their true context.
The family house, Newnham Grange, with its exciting-looking granary on the river, is now part of Darwin College. Here's her illustration, with the present-day view below:
What I find really interesting is that the illustration is not architecturally accurate, and it differs in a way that is unlikely to be due to renovation of the building. This is a place Gwen Raverat knew well all her life. It was her last home, as well as her first. It seems more likely that she drew the granary from memory, and that memory focused on the set pieces like the Romeo and Juliet window and the door onto the river. In a way, it's also an illustration of how we remember places and events: imperfectly and individually.
When I was about nine the granary became so dilapidated that something had to be done about it; so my mother had the idea of turning it into a flat, or upstairs house, and letting it. Then for a long time, we had glorious fun with scaffolding rising up out of the river, and ladders, and mortar, and workmen, and mess. (...) The house is most ingeniously full of my mother's beloved gadgets: tricks for opening the front door without going downstairs, and for drawing up the bread in a basket; though, of course, the architect insisted on following the well-known Victorian principles of making the dining-room as far as possible from the kitchen, and the bathroom as far as possible from the hot-water boiler. This particular architect was quite explicit about it: he wrote a book on house design, in which he said: "The coal store should be placed as far as possible from the kitchen, in order to induce economy in the use of fuel."      
                                                                 from Period Piece  
The book ends with Gwen a young woman in London, studying art at the Slade School; she went on to become a renowned wood engraver and illustrator. She was a great friend of the poet Rupert Brooke and married French painter Jacques Raverat in 1911. Both part of the Bloomsbury group, they lived in the South of France, in Vence, until Jacques' death from multiple sclerosis in 1925. The couple had two daughters. Gwen returned to Cambridge, moving into The Old Granary in 1946 and remaining there until her death in1957.
Gwen Raverat, self-portrait


Gill Edwards said...

what a fascinating lady, i am fond of anything to do with the Bloomsbury set and Darwin too so i think this is a book i would love to read, assuming its still in print anyway. Thanks for letting us know about it.

Gill xx

Karen Wojcik Berner said...

I very much enjoy seeing the actual places that inspire writers to include them in their books. It's very magical to me.

Susan Price said...

Hi Deborah - I picked up your comment on my own Gwen Raverat post, over at
I hopped over at once, of course - and thank you! I enjoyed your post, especially the point about how Raverat drew the granary from memory, not observation. What a talented woman! - It's a disgrace that she is, in general, so little known.

bright star said...

Hi Deborah,
I loved this book too! Really interesting post. Looking forward to reading your new noevel next year too.
all the best for Christmas and the New year.love Angela

Middletown Furniture Assembly said...

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