If nothing else, this memoir of cheerful, jolly family life belies the fact that a Victorian childhood was dull and that children in starched pinafores and button boots were too repressed to be naughty. Molly's exceedingly naughty brothers got up to all kinds of pranks and, except for having to suffer a long sermon every Sunday, seem to have enjoyed rather more fun and mischief than most children today. Their father sends out for a pound of the grocer's 'worst' butter so he can make toffee with his offspring and Mother is sanguine about cricket balls and broken windows, even about the 'human sacrifice' of Molly's big wax doll. Molly has a way of describing London life that makes it comes vividly alive; when she finally gets to ride upstairs on an omnibus we feel every jolt and shake of those horse-drawn buses that you can still see in London's Transport Museum today; how much better than riding in the stuffy, velvet-lined interior where Mother sat. And try to imagine the despair of Mother when a little brother gets lost in the park ... in those days before telephones and efficient police communication, it was days before the missing child was reunited with his parents. How wonderfully, too, Molly describes food so that you can taste it with her ... a Cornish farmhouse tea (not forgetting how to make apple cake) and Christmas punch with brandy and rum (even for children!) Molly's family is perhaps not quite as suburban and ordinary as she makes out; her mother, as a girl, had travelled quite adventurously off the beaten track. However, as the preface points out, Victorian middle-class life was often built on precarious finances. (When the gas is cut off, they hope that visitors leave before dusk.) Molly's father was a stockdabbler, his income unsettled. Her cheerful, sunny memoir ends on a sad note ... but she has censored the real tragedy of her childhood's end. The truth was that Father committed suicide, having lost his money in one of those great Victorian scandals beloved of Trollope (and Dickens and Mrs Gaskell). I suppose it is very 21st century of me to wish that Molly had told the story warts and all!
This is such a satisfyingly lovely book. We know so much about the Victorians from their writings, but this book is rather different to the usual fare. Hughes does not deny that at times life was rather hard, but she recounts in this book the absolute pleasures she experienced as a child growing up in the 1870's. She takes the staid, stuffy, moralising Victorian life we know so well from fiction and puts real life into it. It is clear, as she writes about her aunts in particular, that this staid stuffiness was not invented, but she does quite a lot to redress the balance, and to remind us that not everybody could have been that miserable and sin obsessed. Her life, as she recounts it, seems quite delightful, and she has a real knack for making everything she writes about come spectacularly to life.