News leaked out last week that Gwen Raverat will be the first woman in Cambridge to be honoured with a blue plaque. It is to be placed on Newnham Grange, which is now part of Darwin College but was originally the home of Gwen's father and mother, Sir George and Lady Darwin. Here she grew up in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Towards the end of her life she returned to live in the nearby Old Granary, once part of the Grange estate, and there, in a room overlooking the river, wrote her childhood memoir Period Piece which has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1952.
"Does it sound like a book?" she asked, after trying out a chapter on a friend. Her diffidence is surprising, for she had spent some 10 years writing regular journalism for Time and Tide. But to her publisher she admitted: "I simply hate writing, and I simply can't be bothered to write, unless it's good enough to publish. I am afraid what I have written may be too flippant and rather odious, and I would like to know what some outside Literary Person feels about it." She need not have worried. Rose Macaulay, in The Times Literary Supplement, declared it "practically perfect - funny, witty, beautifully written, more than beautifully illustrated, everything such a book can be." It turned up repeatedly in the critics' list of Christmas books and, when published in America, entered The New York Times bestseller list, taking seventh place between the Kinsey Report on the Male and a new version of the Holy Bible.
Some three years ago, when I began writing Gwen Raverat's biography, I as-sumed that the appeal of Period Piece had faded. Very quickly I discovered that I had misjudged the strength of affection it arouses. It is still bought, given, recommended or found by chance, and has not lost its ability to transfix the reader with its seemingly natural, artlessly persuasive conversational voice.
Gwen Raverat grew up intensely aware of the grandfather she never knew, for Charles Darwin died in 1882, three years before she was born. As a child, she felt embarrassed when his name was mentioned, for he seemed to her in the same category as God and Father Christmas. She liked to think of him as "a kind of synopsis of his five sons", her uncles, who all looked, to a short-sighted child, remarkably similar in appearance. She adored these uncles and wrote about them, with gentle humour, in Period Piece. We encounter Uncle William at Charles Darwin's funeral in Westminster Abbey, sitting in the front seat as eldest son and chief mourner. Feeling a draught on his bald head, he balanced his black gloves on the dome of his skull, oblivious of the fact that the eyes of the nation were upon him.
Equally unforgettable is her Aunt Etty. In her the Darwin obsession with ill health led to eccentric practices. When colds were about, she wore a mask made out of an ordinary wire kitchen strainer, stuffed with antiseptic cotton-wool. It was tied on like a snout, with elastic over the ears. "In this," Raverat writes, "she would receive her visitors and discuss politics in a hollow voice out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion, oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter."
One of the challenges I faced, as Raverat's biographer, was the need to go behind and beyond Period Piece. The Darwin nexus proved particularly fascinating, for in the wake of Charles Darwin's death, the family was united by its desire to protect and uphold his achievement. …