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Review: A London Child of the 1870s, by Molly Hughes

Pages: 173

Original date of publication: 1934

My edition: 2008 (Persephone)

Why I decided to read: browsing on the Persephone website

How I acquired my copy: from the Lamb’s Conduit Street shop, September 2009

A London Child of the 1870s is a collection of remembrances of the author’s life, living in suburban London in the 1870s. Molly Hughes, nee Thomas, was born in 1866 and grew up in the company of four older brothers.

The whole tone of the book is very nostalgic, a kind of “what had been” about Hughes’s early life, looking back on it fifty years on, sometimes comparing “then with “now.” And the book is very sentimental in many places, the author fudging a bit at the end the circumstances of her father's death. And yet it’s a very, very funny collection of remembrances, covering everything from trips to Cornwall to visit relatives to what was read on Sundays when no “fun” books were allowed (“Again and again I turned to something entitled The Dark Journey, only to find that it was an account of one’s digestion. You may wonder why I did this more than once, but I always hoped that I had been mistaken, and that such a splendid title must mean a good story. No, there was still that forbidding picture of one’s insides cut through the middle” (p. 86)). Hughes’s book isn’t exactly told from the point of view of herself as a child, but I think this is a very readable account of a middle-class family of the period. However, as a side note, I didn't much care for Adam Gopnik's Preface--I've always found his writing to be rather self-centered and pretentious. Somehow he manages to make this Preface all about himself and his experience living on the Upper East Side of New York City in the '80s, an area of the city which he manages to make sound like a third-world country.

After Molly Hughes’s father died in 1879, her life became very difficult indeed; her family was left with very little money and so the five children of the family were forced to go to work (Molly went to the Cambridge Training College—later called Hughes Hall and incorporated into Cambridge University—and became a teacher). Later, both her husband and young daughter died and so there was always a sense of sadness about her life. And yet Hughes managed to live to the age of ninety, so one has to think that she must have been a very strong, resilient woman indeed.

A London Child of the 1870s (previously published as A London Child of the Seventies) is the first book in a trilogy that continues with A London Girl of the 1880s and A London Family in the 1890s (though this of course is the only one of the three that Persephone has published. Despite my reservations about this book, I do wish that Persephone will someday publish the other two, as A London Child… is nonetheless an interesting read about “just an ordinary, suburban, Victorian family, undistinguished [themselves] and unacquainted with distinguished people.”

This is Persephone No. 61. Endpaper below:


Anonymous said…
Oh hurrah, I'm so glad someone reviewed this one as it's a favourite of mine. There's a fourth book in the series which isn't so easy to find - the title is the name of the house in Cornwall if I remember correctly. I was very shocked in fact when I realised there was more of a story behind her father's death. Like you, I'm not a huge fan of Adam Gopnik! It's a relief to know I'm not the only one!
Danielle said…
I've got this one on my pile and am looking forward to it. For some reason it seems like it could be a fun Christmas/holiday book. Wouldn't it be nice if Persephone Books published the sequels.
Teddy Rose said…
Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I just added it to my TBR and my library actually has it.

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