Saturday, December 24, 2016


Hancox: a house and a family

by Charlotte Moore

Charlotte Moore was widely known in autism circles back in the 00s, when she wrote a regular Guardian column called Mind the Gap on her family life and bringing up two boys with autism and one without. This led to a memoir George and Sam about her autistic sons, which I also read and enjoyed, so I took notice when in 2010 she published another book about her family, this time focusing on the house she lives in and the Victorian ancestors from whom she inherited it.

I picked up a copy from Oxfam at some point, but somehow it never got to the top of my wobbly reading pile. Until we started renovating our own crumbling old house, and I wrote a blog entry about it. The clever “link within” widget that cross references my entries dug up an earlier mention of Moore’s book, which I took as a hint and actually read it.

The house as such takes up a slightly smaller role than I might have expected, but it is a suitable foundation to construct a family history narrative on, and as it happens it is also an archive that appears to hold immense treasures of written materials from love letters to furniture bills. It appears to be a family trait that no piece of paper with written information was ever thrown away. This, like many other details, made me think that the autism genes in her family may be similar to those in mine.

At the centre of the family story (although slightly aloof as he had a very busy professional life) stands the physician Sir Norman Moore (1847-1922), only child of a single mother, who twice married women from the vast Leigh Smith clan (descendants of the abolitionist William Smith, MP), which provides most of the surrounding cast, including famous Victorians such as the Arctic explorer Ben Leigh Smith, the women’s rights pioneer and co-founder of Girton College Cambridge Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, and, more remotely, Florence Nightingale.

Most members of the extended family are unusual for their time and social environment. We find a lifelong lesbian couple benefiting from Queen Victoria’s disbelief, a man with three parallel families in different social strata, allegedly trying to undermine the class system, several very early feminists, and lots of fraternising with the servants and volunteer work to help the poor. Although at the end of the day, when it comes to serious business like marriage, there is just as much disapproval of aspiring in-laws as in more conventional circles.

What surprised me is that in the early 20th century much of the family’s daring to be different funnels into converting to Catholicism, which strikes me as slightly at odds with the social radicalism of the earlier times. And as the “Great War” strikes, the family is at one with the zeitgeist, and nobody questions the sense of the great slaughter in the trenches, although the family lost a son in the first year of the war.

In any case, the whole, extremely well documented family history and associated social history makes for an interesting read, all the more so if you reflect how the various extents of eccentricity on display here may have funneled into the author’s autistic offspring.

As I have shown the book cover before and it is sure to resurface among the cross references below, here's a portrait of Sir Norman Moore, from Wikipedia.

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