a neo-pagan Darwin
a talk I gave at the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute
My grandmother Gwen Raverat, nee Gwendolen Mary Darwin, was born August 26th, 1895, just 3½ years after the death of her grandfather, Charles Darwin. I was born on January 29th, 1945, just 12 years before Gwen’s death. I knew her as a child as she nearly knew him.
On the night of the 1911 census, April 2nd, 10 people were recorded as living in the house next to the River Cam in Cambridge that George Howard Darwin had named Newnham Grange. Charles Darwin’s 5th child (though one died aged 10 and the other in childbirth), he was 65 and had been married to his 49 yr old American wife, Maud du Puy, for 26 years. He would die of cancer the very next year. Their two daughters, Gwendolen Mary, 25, and Margaret Elizabeth, 21 were in the house with one Jacques Pierre Raverat, 26. Their sons, Billy and Charles, were away. The family had five women servants: cook, parlour maid, housemaid, under-housemaid and kitchen maid. Margaret would marry Geoffrey Keynes, Blake aficionado, surgeon and brother of Maynard. Charles would become a physicist, managing the British end of the Manhattan Project that developed the nuclear bomb. In retirement he championed the pseudo-science his uncle Leonard lauded as chairman and then president of the British Eugenics Society. He would also allow me, aged 5, to run up his capacious belly.
Eight weeks and two days after the census, on 31st May, a strange fancy-dress party took place in the garden of Newnham Grange. “The handsomest young man in England,” as Yeats described the poet Rupert Brooke, three members of the Keynes family and Lytton Strachey, dressed as a bishop, romped in improper jubilation. With its overtones of Alice in Wonderland, this celebration of what Virginia Woolf rather patronisingly called “Neo-Pagan” values, involved a gold loving cup, some dancing on the grass and a lot of Chinese lanterns, though it was actually a nuptial festivity for Gwen, about to marry Jacques.
Darwin has been the “elephant in the room” in my life as it was, differently, in Gwen’s. His presence in our histories has loomed; loomed like an enormous, bearded badge of honour as well as an undue shadow of expectation. Are we more than Darwins? As he has become more and more THE god of science, the religion de nos jours, so being the descendants of a god has its effects. As Gwen wrote in Period Piece: Of course, we always felt embarrassed if our grandfather were mentioned, just as we did if God were spoken of. In fact, he was obviously in the same category as God and Father Christmas. Only, with our grandfather, we also felt, modestly, that we ought to disclaim any virtue in having produced him. Of course it was very much to our credit, really, to own such a grandfather; but one mustn’t be proud, or show off about it; so we blushed and were embarrassed and changed the subject…
I cannot hope to give you more than a memetic glimpse of my grandmother’s full and creative life, an impression, a sketch of how she affected and inspired me and thus maybe some clue as to what it is, and was, to be a Darwin. This sketch must also include the myth, the fiction, the romance that she constructed of her childhood and I have modelled of how I might have known her had she lived longer than my 11th year. If you want the biography you must read Frances Spalding’s sympathetic, fastidious and beautifully produced biography or indeed Virginia Woolf and the Raverats, the collection of letters between Gwen, Jacques and Virginia that I edited and published in 2003.
The headlines of Gwen’s life can be summarised thus:
- Born 1895, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin;
- One of the first women to insist on and achieve professional training as an artist;
- Friend of Rupert Brooke, Stanley Spencer, her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams, André Gide, Eric Gill, Paul Valéry Vanessa and Virginia Stephen (soon to be Bell and Woolf);
- Married French painter Jacques Raverat, son of a vegetarian silk merchant from Le Havre;
- Jacques diagnosed with “disseminated sclerosis” or MS in 1913;
- They moved to Vence for his health in 1920;
- They strike up rich correspondence with Virginia Woolf;
- Jacques died in 1925 when my mother was 5yrs old (she’s now 89);
- Gwen moved back to England and reinvents herself first as art critic and professional wood engraver and book illustrator;
- In 1929 designed the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing for Vaughan Williams and Geoffrey Keynes;
- Moved back to Cambridge before the war;
- Draws maps for the Admiralty as her War Effort;
- Moved into the Old Granary part of Newnham Grange in 1946 and wrote Period Piece in 1949;
- Died in 1957, a Cambridge institution.
- The very grass the neo-pagan nuptial party danced on, now the Darwin College croquet lawn, was in a sort of courtyard at Newnham Grange, contained by, on one side, a high wall bordering Silver St and the Backs, on another the Grange itself, on the third the Old Granary that would be Gwen’s home in the last 11 years of her life and on the fourth side an open-air gallery bordering the Cam on the other. It was under this gallery that the Canadian canoe Gwen gave me was kept, the canoe in which I would go on long explorations up to the very origins of the Cam way beyond Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester to find if there was honey still for tea.
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
In Grantchester, in Grantchester….
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? … Oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
(from Rupert Brooke’s The Old Vicarage, Grantchester)
Gwen’s early life was a confluence of several important torrents of change: the emancipation of women, particularly in the intellectual life of turn-of-the-century Cambridge, the transformation of the arts, notably through the efforts of the Neo-Pagans – “exuberant, untrammelled, [delighting] in physical existence and in nature” – and the perseverance of that Darwinian pursuit of understanding into the arts. It is no co-incidence that Ralph Vaughan Williams was Gwen’s second cousin – his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood III was married to Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline. From inside the portals of the British upper middle classes they both produced art of a transcendent, rebellious and elegiac quality.
I must confess to being owned by a Master-of-the-Universe meme peculiar to the Darwins. Let me illustrate with story from my youth. I was once commuting between Cambridge and London to do my A Levels and would ride my bike across the Cambridge shunting yards to get to the station. One day a British Rail employee stopped me.
“Ere, you, you can’t ride across here,” he said from beneath his PVC cap.
“That’s quite alright my man,” I replied, “I’m a member of the British Empire.” I must have shared Anne’s view of Cambridge’s pivotal role in world history.
“Oh, sorry sir, I didn’t realise.” He replied, tipping his forelock as he waved me on my way.
We cannot escape; the dear octopus has us by the genes. Gwen’s father, George, had it in genefulls. Frances Spalding records its manifestation: He was infuriated by the non-delivery of a telegram addressed ‘Darwin, Cambridge’, as a result of which Maud had missed seeing one of her sisters before her return to America. When the post office explained that he was not the only person named Darwin residing in Cambridge, and the lack of forename or initial had made it impossible to know for whom it was intended, George was so incensed he wrote a letter of complaint to The Times. Emma Darwin sympathised with him and wrote to Maud: ‘How vexatious it was about the telegram . . . If Darwins are not known at Cambridge where are they to be heard of?’
This same meme was strong enough that Gwen dared – indeed being a Darwin encouraged her to dare – to become a serious woman artist, studying at the Slade with Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington and David Bomberg. It was through Stanley Spencer that Gwen was to meet Jacques Raverat and Rupert Brooke. Her persistence paid off: Gwen became an accomplished wood engraver with an international reputation. Her friend, Rupert Brooke, got her in one as the “square-headed woman who cuts wood”.
She would go on to become one of the founders of the Society of Wood Engravers. As it says on their website: The Society was founded in 1920 by a group of artists that included Philip Hagreen, Robert Gibbings, Lucien Pissaro, Gwen Raverat and Eric Gill. They held an annual exhibition that attracted work from other notable artists such as David Jones, John and Paul Nash, Paul Gauguin and Clare Leighton.
In an age when women could not vote, had just been admitted to the university and were generally expected to prepare themselves for a life of familial and domestic routine, hers was the kind of independent-minded behaviour for which the Darwins were celebrated. So serious was her rebellion in insisting on doing serious, full-time art at the Slade that Gwen did not talk to her parents for two years while there.
But it was not just the Darwin genes that gave her entry to Bloomsbury. Gwen’s father, George, was a close friend of Leslie Stephen, so it was natural that Gwen should know Virginia Woolf, as she would become. One of their first contacts was in February 1909 when 27-yr-old Virginia visited Newnham Grange. She wrote in her journal:
The Darwins’ house is a roomy house, built in the 18th century I suppose, overlooking a piece of green. The first things I saw, stepping in from the snow, were a wide hall, with a fire in the middle of it. It is altogether comfortable, and homely. The ornaments, of course, are of the kind that one associates with Dons, and university culture. In the drawing room, the parents’ room, there are prints from Holbein drawings, bad portraits of children, indiscriminate rugs, chairs, Venetian glass, Japanese embroideries: the effect is of subdued colour, and incoherence; there is no regular scheme. In short the room is dull.
After demolishing George and Maud with faint praise, Virginia casts her imperious eye over Gwen and Margaret: The children’s room revolts against the parents': they like white walls, modern posters, photographs from the old masters. If they could do away with the tradition, I imagine that they would have bare walls, and a stout table; with both ideals I find myself in opposition.
The children are naturally more interesting. For at their ages, 19 and 24, they are beginning to test their surroundings. They are anxious to get rid of Darwin traditional culture and have a notion that there is a free Bohemian world in London, where exciting people live. This is all to their credit; and indeed they have a certain spirit which one admires. Somehow, however, it applies itself to the wrong things. They aim at beauty, and that requires the surest touch. Gwen tends (this is constructive criticism) to admire vigorous, able, sincere works, which are not beautiful; she attacks the problems of life in the same spirit; and will end in 10 years time by being a strong and sensible woman, plainly clothed; with the works of deserving minor artists in her house. Margaret has not the charm which makes Gwen better than my account of her; a charm arising from the sweetness and competency of her character. She is the eldest of the family Margaret is much less formed; but has the same determination to find out the truth for herself, and the same lack of any fine power of discrimination. They enjoy things very much, and fancy that this is due to their superior taste; fancy that in riding about the streets of Cambridge they are building up a theory of life. I think I find them content with what seems to me rather obvious; I distrust such violent discontent, and the easy remedies. But I admire much also: only find the Darwin temperament altogether too definite, burly, and industrious. They exhibit the English family life at its best; its humour, tolerance, heartiness, and sound affection.
For all its biting accuracy, Virginia cannot quite get what it was to be part of the Darwin clan. Gwen does it much better. Take this account from Period Piece which could so easily be describing scenes from my youth 60 years later: It was a grey, cold, gusty day in June. The aunts sat huddled in furs in the boats, their heavy hats flapping in the wind. The uncles, in coats and cloaks and mufflers, were wretchedly uncomfortable on the hard, cramped seats, and they hardly even tried to pretend that they were not catching their deaths of cold. But it was still worse when they had to sit down to have tea on the damp, thistly grass near Grantchester Mill. There were so many miseries which we young ones had never noticed at all: nettles, ants, cow-pats. . . besides that all-penetrating wind. The tea had been put into bottles wrapped in flannels (there were no Thermos flasks then); and the climax came when it was found that it had all been sugared beforehand. This was an inexpressible calamity. They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’ This was half a joke; but at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us; and we cut our losses and made all possible haste to get them home to a good fire.
As a Darwin, Gwen Raverat was a member of a fascinating cat’s cradle of relationships centred around the dissemination of Darwinian thought by his surviving children and their families. The Cambridge Darwins, especially, were noted for their directness and their openness to the radical reconsideration of outworn habits of thought, what Woolf called a “hearty, direct, stodgy manner”.
The Edwardian Cambridge in which she grew to maturity was an extraordinary place, teeming with innovation and dominated by the complex, homoerotic and tragic figure of Rupert Brooke. For a while, young Gwen and her French fiancé were under Brooke’s spell and, but for the Great War, might never have broken free. The war, of course, killed Brooke with a mosquito bite and scattered the charmed circle of Neo-Pagans. The salad days of fancy dress and Chinese lanterns darkened still further when Jacques Raverat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an affliction barely understood in those days.
It was soon after Virginia’s visit to Newnham Grange when Gwen moved to London to attend the Slade that her somewhat diffident friendship with Virginia Woolf began, what with Gwen joining the Stephen sisters’ Friday Club, the beginnings of the Bloomsbury Group, soon becoming its secretary.
There was a moment, no doubt under the spell of the Stephen sisters, that Gwen thought she might just be a writer. She started a novel. It wasn’t very good, but does convey that bohemian spirit, nay meme, that has also driven much of my life. She could be writing of my teenage years of intense, dope-filled boho-ism (Hubert is clearly Rupert and George, Jacques):
We met, we found we had many ideas in common; we found that we could talk. And so we talked from morning to night and from night till morning, and for the first two years we did practically nothing else. We had been shy and diffident; we had wondered if anyone had ever had such ideas as ours before; we had wondered if they could possibly be true ideas; if there was the remotest chance that we could be worth anything. Now, when we came together many of our doubts disappeared; we were passionately convinced of the truth and splendour of our thoughts; we felt that we were quite different from our fathers; all our ways of thinking and our opinions seemed bold and new. And though each of us alone might still doubt his own powers, we each thought that never before had there met together a group of such fine and intelligent young men. I think that we each thought ourselves singularly happy in having such wonderful friends.
I remember those first two years as long days and nights of talk; talk, lying in the cow parsley under the great elms; talk in lazy punts on the river; talk round the fire in Hubert’s room; talk which seemed always to get nearer and nearer to the heart of things. It was best of all in the evenings in Hubert’s room. He used to lie in his great armchair, his legs stretched right across the floor, his fingers twisted in his hair; while George sat smoking by the fire, continually poking it; his face was round and pale; his hair was dark. We smoked and ate muffins or sweets and talked and talked while the firelight danced on the ceiling, and all the possibilities of the world seemed open to us.
For a time we were very decadent. We used to loll in armchairs and talk wearily about Art and Suicide and the Sex Problem. We used to discuss the ridiculous superstitions about God and Religion; the absurd prejudices of patriotism and decency; the grotesque encumbrances called parents. We were very, very old and we knew all about everything; but we often forgot our age and omniscience and played the fool like anyone else.
This is my inheritance, my blueprint. Virginia Woolf encapsulated this fervour to create with devastating accuracy and poignancy when she wrote to Jacques: I feel that for us writers the only chance now is to go out into the desert & peer about, like devoted scapegoats, for some sign of a path.
In 1920, Gwen and Jacques moved to Vence a few miles north of Nice for his health. It’s got creativity in the air being
a couple of miles from St Paul de Vence, the home of Matisse, Soutine, Chagall, Renoir, Signac, Modigliani, Dufy and the writers Gide, Giono, Cocteau and Prévert. Jacques’ last years were a productive though tragic time: not only had my mother been born just before they set out, but the Mediterranean air, the food and the beauty of their new home got them both painting as never before and Gwen producing some of her finest wood engravings. This all in parallel with the burgeoning of the Bloomsbury Group that was at the febrile height of the intrigue-filled and gossipy dominance it then held over British creativity. One of Virginia’s letters to Jacques at the time illustrates the atmosphere:
Clive has taken to high society. I assure you, he’s a raging success, & his bon mots are quoted by lovely but incredibly silly ladies. Really they give parties to meet Clive Bell. Maynard of course scarcely belongs to private life any more, save that he has fallen in love with Lydia Lopokhova, which is, to me, endearing. Nessa & Duncan potter along in extreme obscurity. That is all I can think of at the moment, & I am afraid that it may sound vague & dismal in your ears. The truth is you must write me a proper letter, & expose yourself as I hereby expose myself.
I feel that in the great age of the world, before this present puling generation had come along, you & I & that remarkable figure Gwen Darwin, were all congenial spirits. By the way you’ll have to give up calling Woolf, Woolf: Leonard, that is his name. I assure you, I couldn’t have married anyone else – But when Ka praises Will the sound is unpleasant in my ears. So I refrain. I have nothing whatever to say against Ka & Will. At first sight he is a mere sandhopper; but later I think he has some sort of spine – indeed, he’s a muscular little man, considering his size. Ka, of course, keeps a medicine chest & doses the village, & gets into a blue dress trimmed with fur for tea, when county motor cars arrive, & she is much in her element. Is this malicious? Slightly, perhaps, but you will understand.
On the 9th Feb, 1925, Jacques was very near the end. He wrote a note to Gwen: “My dearest, I know I love you and I
think you love me. Anyhow your love has been the best thing in my life. I send you this for you to keep and remember if you get morbid. I love you, Jacques. Keep well and remember to varnish my pictures.” In the end, Darwinian logic took over and, as Frances Spalding tactfully puts it, she “seized a pillow and terminated his sufferings”.
Soon afterwards Virginia wrote to Gwen: Your & Jacques’ letter came yesterday, & I go about thinking of you both, in starts, & almost constantly underneath everything, & I don’t know what to say. One thing that comes over & over is the strange wish I have to go on telling Jacques things. This is for Jacques, I say to myself; I want to write to him about happiness, & about Rupert, & love. It had become to me a sort of private life, & I believe I told him more than anyone, except Leonard: I become mystical as I grow older & feel an alliance with you & Jacques which is eternal, not interrupted, or hurt by never meeting. Then, of course, I have now for you – how can I put it? – I mean the feeling that one must reverence? – is that the word – feel shy of, so tremendous an experience; for I cannot conceive what you have suffered. It seems to me that if we met, one would have to chatter about every sort of little trifle, because there is nothing to be said.
And then, being, as you know, so fundamentally an optimist, I want to make you enjoy life. Forgive me, for writing what comes into my head. I think I feel that I would give a great deal to share with you the daily happinesses. But you know that if there is anything I could ever give you, I would give it, but perhaps the only thing to give is to be oneself with people. One could say anything to Jacques. And that will always be the same with you & me. But oh, dearest Gwen, to think of you is making me cry – Why should you & Jacques have had to go through this? As I told him, it is your love that has forever been love to me – all those years ago, when you used to come to Fitzroy Square, & I was so angry: & you were so furious, & Jacques wrote me a sensible manly letter, which I answered, sitting at my table in the window. Perhaps I was frightfully jealous of you both, being at war with the whole world at the moment. Still, the vision has become to me a source of wonder – the vision of your face; which, if I were painting, I should cover with flames & put you on a hill top. Then, I don’t think you would believe how it moves me that you & Jacques should have been reading Mrs Dalloway, & liking it. I’m awfully vain I know; & I was on pins & needles about sending it to Jacques; & now I feel exquisitely relieved; not flattered; but one does want that side of one to be acceptable – I was going to have written to Jacques about his children, & about my having none – I mean, these efforts of mine to communicate with people are partly childlessness, & the horror that
sometimes overcomes me.
There’s very little use in writing this. One feels so ignorant, so trivial, & like a child, just teasing you. But it is only that one keeps thinking of you, with a sort of reverence, & of that adorable man, whom I loved.
Yrs V. W.
Gwen had once confessed that she felt “so lonely and strange… I don’t know about people – they don’t know about me”. Now a widow, she was truly alone in the world, with the added responsibility of two young children. Once again, her awkward, disconcerting courage came to her rescue and, though Virginia Woolf could brilliantly characterise her as “frozen, like an old log dried out of all sensation”, she poured her instinctive and formidable powers of observation into her work as an engraver, becoming one of the foremost miniaturists of her generation, a far greater artist than many in the overhyped Bloomsbury set she had grown up with.
Based on the same format as the New Statesman, Time and Tide promoted an independence of thought, was concerned with all the major issues of the day, and had been owned and managed entirely by women since it began in 1920. Virginia Woolf introduced Gwen to its founder-editor, Lady Rhondda in 1927. She had for many years been a spokesperson for militant suffrage and equality and had fought for the full enfranchisement of women in 1928. In offering her wood-engraving and pen-and-ink illustration services to this magazine, Gwen joined forces with some of the most radical women writers of the day, among them Rebecca West, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Naomi Mitchison, for the review was openly feminist and sometimes sharply critical of the establishment. Gwen came to be regarded as the magazine’s resident artist and in 1929 she began writing art criticism and book reviews for the journal.
Now we come to an episode in Gwen’s life that resonates deep in my boho, proto-mystic soul, or rather the music that resulted does. In 1929, when Gwen had established a home with my mother and aunt in the old vicarage at Harlton, a village some ten miles from Cambridge, she was commissioned by her brother-in-law Geoffrey Keynes to create the sets and costume designs for Job: A Masque for Dancing, a new ballet. Keynes’s interest in Blake began when he discovered two engravings from Blake’s The Book of Job in a Cambridge shop window in 1907. The ballet was another of his passions, and his fondness for the ballerina Lydia Lopokova, whom his brother Maynard married in 1925, despite opposition from Bloomsbury, did much to improve relations between the two brothers who had until then never been close.
Geoffrey wondered if the Job engravings, which he regarded as one of Blake’s masterpieces, could be put in motion: translated from the page on to the stage, in time for the centenary of Blake’s death in 1927. He turned to Gwen for help and together they extracted a feasible scenario from Blake’s images. They tried to get Diaghilev involved, but to no avail. Gwen had made designs for backdrops and miniature figures in cardboard to inhabit each scene. These were shown to her cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams who was intrigued by the project and agreed to compose the music.
Keynes felt that Vaughan Williams was rather pleased when the Ballets Russes rejection came through. He immediately began turning the music he had composed into a concert suite for a large orchestra, incorporating suggestions from Gustav Holst. Gwen and Geoffrey attended its first performance at the Norwich Festival on 23 October 1930. But the idea for a ballet was saved by Gwen’s cardboard theatre. Keynes invited Lilian Baylis and the 32-year-old Ninette de Valois from the Vic-Wells Ballet to come and see it. He and Gwen moved the figures around and talked them through each scene. In the end it was the newly founded Camargo Society that produced Job, choreographed by Ninette de Valois with financial assistance from Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes and Sir Thomas Dunhill.
But the point for me is the sublime music Vaughan Williams wrote – it has a raw and mystic passion that both Gwen and Vaughan Williams could express in their art, if not their lives, so well. It transports me and speaks of a timeless romanticism and yearning that also comes through so many of Gwen’s elegiac wood engravings. Especially of swans – the symbolism of which she was to play with in several beautiful wood engravings.
So strong is this iconic version of my grandmother in my sensibility that she has become an almost bohemian wise woman in the semi-fictional screenplay I’ve adapted from my own memoir of my Cambridge childhood, The Survival of the Coolest. Without giving anything away and without you needing to know the plot, I hope, let me read you a short scene that centers around her and featuring a fictional 10yr old boy who happens to be called William Pryor and his doppelganger Atma.
EXT. CAMBRIDGE/LAMMAS LAND
Mist lifting from the river. Wrapped against the cold, Gwen sketching under a willow tree on the river bank opposite her home, the Old Granary. William ENTERS on his bike, jumps off, drops it and sits next to Gwen on her rug on the grass.
Hello old thing! What brings you here so early?
Gwen takes a book from her satchel. She hands it to William.
William, my poem-maker, I brought you this. My friend Rupert Brooke’s poems; look, he signed it!
She shows William the title page.
He was a limpid, wounded romantic of a poet; and, from your eyes, William, you might be too. The world doesn’t know that it needs artists and poets or what for, but it does. Maybe as periscopes?
As Gwen speaks, we SEE a couple of swans swim into the edge of the frame. As they get closer we SEE, through a VFX, that there is a child riding on the back of one of them, apparently telling his mount where to go. The swans come close enough to the bank for the child to jump ashore.
What’s a periscope?
As he approaches, we SEE that the swan child is Atma. He stands in front of Gwen.
Can you see me?
Oh yes, I think we know each other well, don’t we?
Gwen signals Atma to sit. He does, at her feet.
A periscope lets you see things as if you were very tall.
Like my swans’ necks.
So they can see where they’re going, what’s going on around them?
They stare at the swans for a few beats.
Swans are called hansas in India, pure spirits. They eat pearls.
Must be one of those, one of those metaphor thingamejigs.
Oh no, I prefer the possibility of real holy swans feeding on real pearls – starving without them. Real ones. Can’t be doing with metaphorical pearls!
I’ll bring you some.
Gwen, Atma and William giggle conspiratorially. They watch awestruck as the swans launch noisily and clumsily into the air and fly out of sight, soon to return low over the river, their wings making that siren sound. Through an SFX we HEAR the swans’ wing sounds become a heavenly aural hallucination.
For all her association with France, her landscapes, as Spalding puts it, are “quintessentially English”, with echoes of Blake and Samuel Palmer. In old age, she was back in Cambridge, returning to her Darwinian origins.
Her grandfather had been a botanist of genius, a god, no the god of science, who was also a master of English prose. In 1947, Gwen’s mother died and she had to clear out the Grange, parts of which had not been disturbed for 62 years. Gwen came across a box of letters covering the years of her mother’s courtship and marriage and continued reading until she reached a description of her own birth. “it makes a queer picture of an age,” she wrote to her cousin Eily, “all demure flirtations and gaieties.” She had inadvertently stumbled upon the material for the first chapter of Period Piece, the memoir she was soon to start work on, that captured the imagination of a new generation who knew little of her work as a wood engraver.
In October 1949 she wrote to Richard de la Mare (Walter’s son) at Faber & Faber: I have long been playing with the idea of writing a sort of autobiography as a peg to hang illustrations on; and I am now taking the liberty of sending you a scrap out of it (not the beginning nor yet the end) to see if you would think it would do to publish some day, with lots of pictures. I simply hate writing, and I can’t be bothered to write it, unless it’s good enough to publish. I am afraid that 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. The idea of the book is not a continuous autobiography, but a series of separate chapters called Sport, Religion, Art, Relations, etc. etc….
De La Mare’s response was immediate and positive: he and his wife had much enjoyed her “preliminary skirmish with propriety” and were entranced by the idea of the autobiography. And Geoffrey Faber shared their opinion.
Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, written when she was in her late sixties, became one of the surprise literary hits of the Fifties and is still in print. It’s a book that powerfully brings back those eminent Edwardians racing to and fro up Sidgwick Avenue on that forgotten summer evening long ago.
Whether Period Piece was a minor literary masterpiece or wood engraving is an ‘irredeemably minor medium’, as one reviewer of Frances Spalding’s biography would have it, is not the question. No, what matters about Gwen Raverat is that she transcended her pedigree of being the grand-daughter of the god of science in so many ways. Her truth was her art, whether wood engraving, painting or writing, and that truth has always a stark, elegiac but affectionate story to tell about the human condition and its evolution.
Gwen wrote so simply and with no need for pomposity. Take this from Time & Tide in 1934: Painting is the product of the thing seen (whether with the inner eye or the outer eye makes no matter) and the passion felt about it. Representational art is on the whole greater than abstract art, partly because it is difficult to have so primitive and passionate a feeling about a cube as about a cow; but also because the eye turned outwards constantly replenishes and enlarges the symbolic imagery of the mind; while the abstractist, his eye turned inwards, allows his images to grow poorer and fewer by inbreeding.
But it does depend how you see. Gwen describes her perception as a young woman thus: Of course, there were things to worship everywhere. I can remember feeling quite desperate with love for the blisters in the dark red paint on the nursery window-sills at Cambridge, but at Down there were more things to worship than anywhere else in the world.
I think she would have agreed with Frank Zappa when he said that art is making something out of nothing and selling it. More or less without wishing it, the older she got, the more commercial success she got.
Oscar Wilde said that most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. Gwen was Gwen. If many of her opinions were those of the Darwin mind set, her passions were nothing if not hers.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has this from Period Piece: Ladies were ladies in those days; they did not do things themselves. And that is the point: Gwen most definitely did do things for herself.
In 1951 Gwen suffered a stroke and became confined to a wheelchair. Unsentimental to the last, in 1957 she terminated her own life with the words: “This seems the simplest plan for everyone.” However, before she died, she had the satisfaction of knowing that her “strangeness” had found an audience.