A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes

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I am not normally a reader of memoirs, but I’ve been finding some that work for me. The books listed in the Peresphone Books catalog have been calling me lately, and Karen’s recent review of A London Child of the 1870s prompted me to look for it in my local library system. As you know, I’m a fan of Victorian literature, and I hoped that Molly Hughes’ account of growing up in Victorian England might provide entertainment and insight into the life of children in those ages.

As with the other Persephone’s I’ve read, I was not disappointed. A London Child is not my favorite of the five Persephones I’ve read, but I enjoyed Molly’s unique descriptions of childhood. She appears to be no one out of the ordinary (although as subsequent books reveal, I think she is quite extraordinary!) In her autobiography/memoir, she describes her childhood memories by subject, not by chronology, and this gave it a child-like feel: everything good that happened blends together into an overall image of a happy childhood. It is a wonderfully written account of memories, and reminded me strongly of my grandmother’s book. It reminds me that we all should record our memories for future posterity, because even the ordinary can be extraordinary. Molly Hughes ends A London Child at a time when life becomes more regulated and challenging: it’s a perfect frame for the end of an idealic childhood.

I did wonder how common Molly’s life was. Though it was rather “ordinary” from my perspective, I wonder how many other girls in the 1870s were nurtured with learning as much as she was. She was the youngest of five children, and the only girl. She watched her brothers all go to school, and she remained home with her mother to be home schooled, until she reached the age of 12, at least. She and her brothers got in plenty of scrapes, but overall, they were a family of readers: “literature was almost part of the family furniture,” she says (page 126).

I loved her discussion of Sunday evenings, when the family gathered and their father read them portions of Pickwick Papers or Shakespeare. It reminds me that my son, as he grows, doesn’t necessarily need “child” editions of great literature: make reading a special family event, and he’ll treasure the literature for life.

Sunday days, however, were a special time for the family, as they traveled to St. Paul’s for a special service. Molly’s reflection on the experience reveals that their family’s piety was not the motive, but rather the services were cultural events that all of them enjoyed.

I have wondered since those days why we all took those long walks through dull streets, and endured those long services. Not from pious or educative motives. It must have been simply for the inspiriting music that burst from that organ and that choir. It was worth all the endurance… (page 69-70)

For the most part, though, I loved the memories of childhood discussion, such as this discussion of the sermons:

After [a sermon] on Solomon’s vision, I asked Barnhold on the way home wheather he would have chosen wisdom if he had been Solomon. “Oh, no,” said he, “I’ve got enough of that. I should have asked for a new cricket-bat.” (page 71)

And I loved best Molly’s visits to Cornwall, her mother’s home. What an excellent summer vacation for children, as they were left to roam the (what appeared to me dangerous) countryside, walking to the beach, playing on the rivers, and otherwise being wild and free.

Given the brief length of this book (140 pages), I was not worried about adding it to my reading for the month. The copy I received, though, tricked me. It has the complete trilogy of Molly’s Hughes’ growing up years. I finished the last page of A London Child and could not stop myself: I wanted to know what happens in Molly’s teenage years too. I’m now well into A London Girl of the 1880s, which I’m also enjoying very much. I have a few books I need to read in the coming weeks for book club and for the Classics Circuit, though, so I may have to take a break from the A London Family trilogy to finish those. I will finish reading Molly’s life story, though. She was a remarkable person, and I cannot wait to tell you about her progression beyond the happy childhood she describes in A London Child.

Also, given my success in finding this book, I’ve since researched all the other Persephone titles and found about 14 that I can request from neighboring libraries! Most of these are the original prints of the books. Nevertheless, I’m excited to add Persephones to my regular reading in the foreseeable future. There are also a few I’m excited to read that I may have to order from England. At any rate, my progress will be tracked on my Persephone Books page.

Endpaper image and “grey cover” image from peresphonebooks.co.uk; A London Family cover image from Oxford University Press 1992 edition. I read the Oxford University Press edition.

Reviewed on March 23, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I’m so glad you liked this one!! I also fell in love with the family and was able to get a copy of the second book from one of the college libraries; sadly, none of them around here have the third book so I may have to try and get it via ILL. I am tempted to just buy the trilogy online, there seem to be an abundance of inexpensive copies. There’s also a fourth book about her life during wartime with her own children which looks interesting.

      • I just finished the second book and really enjoyed it, though I found some parts sad. I really want to read her other two books but I’d have to get it via interlibrary loan and I’m already up to 10 requests — looking for all the Persephones I can get! I may have to just buy it online.

        • Karen K. » I’ve started the second book but may not get it finished before the ILL is up (I have a few HUGE books to finish SOON). I really enjoyed the stories of her education, but not sure I’m as engaged in it now that she’s graduated.

  • Oh this sounds like fun! I would be hesitant to read such an old memoir fearing it would be sickly sweet, but this one doesn’t sound that way. Love the quote about the sermon on Solomon and Barnhold’s anwer.

    • Stefanie » no, I don’t think it was “sweet”. It’s really quite well done, both in writing, structure, and attitude. Her goal is to show that Victorian children ddidn’t have such a boring life as may be supposed, and I agree. It’s just a childhood, and it was a fun one. I laugh out loud a lot as I’m reading.

  • I was ordering from Persephone at Christmas, and this one almost made it onto the list. I got two to try, and really, the catalogue half-filled with circled books I want! I’m so glad you reviewed this one. I will definitely be looking see if my library has it. Having been to St Paul’s, I can imagine the walks through the streets they took, too. Lovely review, Rebecca!

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