Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections by Frances Spalding - review by Jessica Mann

Jessica Mann

Dry, Witty and Direct

Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections


Harvill Press 448pp £30 order from our bookshop

In Period Piece subtitled A Cambridge Childhood, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter portrayed her family and early years with irresistible wit and her own enchanting drawings. It has been one of my favourite books ever since I first read it as an undergraduate. Almost every day I walked or biked past the home Gwen Raverat described so vividly, which had recently become Cambridge’s third college for women. Raverat took the story no further than her late teens, but I always wanted to know what happened to her after that. In the early 1970s I approached her daughters through one of their Cornford cousins to ask if they would authorise me to write about her. They responded that it was too soon after their mother’s death and her life had been too sad to be the subject of a biography. Now I am glad they refused, because Frances Spalding, an art historian and experienced biographer, has done it far better than I could ever have managed. This is an exemplary study of an interesting woman.
Gwen Raverat described an idyllic childhood in Period Piece, but the Cornford cousin told me the book was ‘a triumph of forgiveness’, particularly of Gwen’s mother, Lady Darwin, for Gwen omitted discordant sorrows and resentments from her book. As Spalding shows, her life was indeed rather sad. She was born

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