A London Family Between the Wars

Molly Hughes is the perfect traveling companion, lightening your spirits with jolly tales of life in the countryside on the outskirts of England in the 20s and 30s. It seems all of her books include a tragedy of some sort and this is no different—she becomes a widow and has to forge on by earning her keep to feed and shelter her three sons.

Beautiful language throughout, such as her description of a moonset, a term she coins, “The moon was setting among a glory of silver clouds. I stared in stupid amazement. I had seen many a fine sunset, but never before (or since) a moonset. In fact, I am coining the word, for the O.E.D. doesn’t mention it, although quite chatty about a sunset.”

She moves to the countryside and is beset by invitations to join “society” which she rebuffs by saying “I’m so sorry but I can’t join your circle. I can’t sew, or do anything useful, or play cards, or be sociable in any way; and I’m not a lady.” This gets her out of the obligatory social calls that deaden an afternoon and waste time, but she’s extremely friendly with neighbors and people who pop in to ask for things or just a brief informal chat.

She gives invaluable advice about lectures, suggesting that “unless you shock people you make little impression.” Also interesting thought about the gramophone and how she was reluctant to use it because she might put on a record once too often and thus lessen the joy of listening to it. In this age of play whatever you want, watch whatever you want whenever you want, I wonder if we have some of the same deadening.

Her tone is always funny, and she relates little tales that make you laugh, like the Irish shopkeeper who closed up shop. “What made you close down?” asked an Englishman. “Ah, we were getting too many orders.” was the reply.

A London Girl of the 1880s

Ever since sampling Hughes’ A London Child of the 1870s, I was eager to read the continuation of her tale of growing up in a jolly but poor home in London. This middle book was my favorite of the trilogy, grand adventures with her mother and detailed stories of her education. She studies at a new school for teachers at Cambridge, and names her room the Growlery after the room in Bleak House of the same name, a place where anyone could come and growl and then laugh it off.

It’s a book filled with small hilarious tales, such as the tailor who was asked to read from the Bible when he passed through town and, angry that he hadn’t been offered tea, created some impromptu verses “Cursed be the housewife that bringeth not forth tea to the tailor.”

She meets her future husband, friend of her brother Charles who unexpectedly dies (as does another of her brothers later). They traipse around Wales and Cornwall and London and have a merry old time with no money. Fun reading and a delightful peek into living conditions of over 100 years ago!

A London Home in the 1890s

Molly Hughes continues the tale, picking up where she left off in the last book with her mother’s death. She’s cheered by visits to her brothers and her aunt, and returns to her work running a teachers’ college in earnest. This volume sees her venturing to America on a steamship, participating in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to pick up tidbits on education at the lectures but learning far more through casual conversations with teachers in the hallways and tearooms. She ventures to Canada, Washington DC, and Boston before sailing home from New York.

This is the volume where she finally marries Arthur after many years of engagement, his prospects finally becoming more settled as he works the Bar. They have a daughter, Bronwen, who dies young, followed by three strapping sons.

As usual, the writing it light, instructive, and cheerful. My only nitpicks are with her overeagerness to use the word “obey” in her wedding vows despite the fuss that had been made over it recently in the papers. She was also all to ready to hand money matters over to her husband and give up working.

A London Child of the 1870s

Delightful reminiscences of a childhood in London near the dawn of the twentieth century, a daughter born with four older brothers and parents who fluctuate between having money and not. A very free and open and fun kind of childhood, lots of games got up, sneaking away to ride the “bus” (with horse) around London with her brothers, the 12 hour train ride to Cornwall where much adventure awaited them every summer. It ends abruptly with her father’s unexpected death from being hit by a carriage in the deep fogs of 1879, but apparently there are 2 more books that continue the story.