Molly Hughes’ memoirs, about her childhood in London in the 1870s give a vivid account of what it was like to be a child at that time. The youngest of five children, Molly had four older brothers to contend with. While they grew up and went off to study at various prep schools up and down the country, Molly was obliged to sit at home with her mother, and glean her education from the books which her mother leant her. Thus she had a lot of time to drink in the experience of living in London, and put all of that knowledge into the wonderful descriptions that populate this volume. Here is an example:
As I lay awake in the morning, I could see the houses opposite and a good bit of the street. I liked to hear the ‘milk’ cry of the women who carried the pails on yokes, and the cherry rat-tat of the postman, but the sweep’s long-drawn wail used to fill me with misery when he made his rare rounds. One morning as I lay idly watching the house opposite I had one of the surprises of my life. A broom suddenly shot out of a chimney. I never thought of connecting this fairy-tale event with the sweep, and though mother’s explanation very dull. I ought to have asked my father.
Born in 1866, Molly lived with her family in Canonbury Park North, which is in Islington, North London. Her memoirs start in around 1870, when she was four years old, and continue until November 1879, when she was about thirteen. At that point, the memoirs end, because what happened then ended her childhood.
At this point, I ought to give you a word of caution. The death of Molly’s adored father was so painful (he committed suicide due to money troubles) that she was not able to write about it truthfully. What she tells us is a fabrication, based partly on what happened to her husband later in life. However, I think we can allow Molly her bit of embroidery. Losing a loved one suddenly is a devastating event. Especially when the person is your father, and you are a thirteen-year-old girl. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.