Monday, February 10, 2014

Gwen Raverat and the Fears of Childhood (!)

Gwen Raverat's memoir of growing up in late-Victorian and early Edwardian Cambridge, Period Piece (1952), is full of the detailed, charming memories of childhood that are the hallmark of the books that Slightly Foxed Editions republishes. What struck me today as I was reading it, however, wasn't the passages about childhood pleasures. It was the ones about childhood fears.

Here, for example, Raverat presents a catalog of unimpeachable childhood knowledge, much of it relating to fears:
Of course, we children had a few theories of our own. One was that the gum of cherry or plum trees was delicious, and must be eaten as a great treat. This is a mistake, as it is quite incredibly nasty; and so is snow with jam, which we also believed to be nice. Another theory was that if you swallowed the smallest speck of cork, it would swell and swell inside, till it filled you right up and you died. There was also the now-disproved idea that bulls were infuriated by red rags; for this reason I used to bite in my supposedly red lips if ever I met the oldest and mildest cow; and I remember carefully concealing the red halfpenny stamps on any letters I might be taking to the post, for the same reason. And of course we believed, as I think all nurses and children do, that if you cut, or even scratched, the fold of skin which joins your thumb and first finger, you got lockjaw at once, and died in agonies.
If a grade school classmate of mine were to pop up now (on Facebook, which seems to have been designed for that purpose) and tell me that all these beliefs were current at Lincoln Elementary School circa 1983, I wouldn't be particularly surprised.

But it's when Raverat gets to the describes the deliciously scary thrill of bicycling along the Backs (a road that runs along the rear of several Cambridge colleges) after dark that she starts to really bring to mind my own childhood:
I was afraid: but, of course, I never spoke of my fear; for it was above all things necessary to me to see my cousins, and I was more afraid of having my freedom curtailed than of all the terrors of darkness and solitude.
Ah, yes--this is familiar: a variation on the feeling of being out in the woods after dark, pleasantly chilled despite the knowledge that home was but a shout away. Freedom was de facto frightening just as it was de facto desirable.

Raverat's fear of the Backs, however, was more than a fear of the dark:
The Backs were a frightening place, even by daylight, because it was there, more than anywhere else, that Mad Dogs were liable to occur; or so my cousin Frances said, and she knew. For she had seen there a very mysterious figure, who was connected with mad dogs: a girl with red-flannel soles to her shoes. (I cannot imagine who she was, unless she was the Goddess of Hydrophobia?) The possibility, the probability, of Mad Dogs was very much in our minds; slinking about, with their red tongues hanging out, slobbering and whining; like Caldecott's picture of the dog it was that died. Of course there were real mad dogs in those days; and sometimes our dogs had to be muzzled for a time; so we had some excuse for our fears.
Are there any American kids born in the 1960s or 1970s who, thanks to Ol' Yeller and To Kill a Mockingbird, didn't harbor the same fear? Didn't we all assume that at some point we would be called upon to put down a menacing Mad Dog?

That passage, combined with an entry on the Bermuda Triangle (inactive, it seems, since the 1970s) that I read this weekend to my nieces and nephews from a book of Mysterious Phenomena leads me to assemble this list:
Frightening Things That, When I Was a Kid, I Assumed Would Play a Significant Role in Life That, Thus Far, As I Approach Forty, Have Not

1. Quicksand

2. Mad Dogs/Rabies

3. The Bermuda Triangle

4. Space aliens

5. The ghost of Anne Boleyn

6. Kidnappers

7. Ninjas
Your list, I realize, may vary. Details, please?


  1. Anonymous11:05 PM

    Thanks; I love "Period Piece." Now I have to check out Slightly Foxed Editions, and I am still trying to recover from Faber Finds.

    I think The Backs refers more to the adjacent grounds (mainly lawns) of six or seven Cambridge colleges that slope down to the River Cam, rather than a specific road. But there might be a road that does connect them all.

  2. Great piece. Indeed poor Ol' Yeller's hydrophobia led me to harbor a vastly disproportionate fear of rabid dogs during my childhood. I can also recall a patch of soft sand on the shore of North Carolina's Lake Norman; I was absolutely convinced this was quicksand that would suck me under in a matter of seconds. Alien abduction, the woods at night, headless horsemen - those also loomed extra-large.

  3. I was convinced that the "turn of the century" was a cataclysmic event no one survived.

  4. Larkspur2:01 PM

    Quicksand, leprosy, tidal waves, getting lead poisoning if you accidentally poked your arm with your pencil, mad dogs (I thought you'd get cornucopia and then die), swallowing apple seeds and dying of having an apple tree burst out of your stomach, and blasting caps. There were PSAs about how if you saw a blasting cap lying around in a field somewhere, you mustn't touch it, but run home and sound the alarm. I did not know what blasting caps were. No one warns about them any more, so I guess they all died off. And nuclear war, of course: don't look directly at the light.