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Reading Cause And Effect: Family History

A photo of a number of scrolls in a bowl

This photograph was taken by Clarence.

I once bought a book I’d never seen before by an author I knew nothing about – so begins many happy stories. But this one is quite different. Having studied the cover I came to the conclusion that the author was somewhat known and, liking the story set in historic Britain, bought it. It arrived battered. I was peeved – if anyone should ruin a book it should be the owner; in that vein I’ve now flipped through it enough I’ve added to the ruin.

It was a defining moment; one day some months after I’d finished it, my mother entered the room, speaking to someone on the phone about family history. I didn’t listen in… until she said the surname of the factually-based characters in my book. She had a book in her hands, a different one, with one of the surnames in her family tree on it. I commandeered it when she put the phone down.

I’ll say now, there’s no awesome end to this story. When you’re dealing with family trees and a book that follows only one line, trying to find out whether your own ancestors are in the muddle can prove impossible – it did this time. But my subsequent research led to experiences I’ll remember for a long while. After the author of the historical novel replied to my excited questions, sadly unable to answer them as they didn’t know of the people I’d quoted, I realised it was best to abandon my initial port of call – the start of the chronology in my mother’s book – and study the last pages instead, try and see if I could find a link to my family there.

To that end I contacted a historic house. This is a daunting thing to do when your query is valid but you know you’re likely to appear a gold digger. Nevertheless I got a reply from the archivist. I got the phone number of the owner of the estate. I got an invitation to talk about a possible link and my mother’s book; whilst my mother had her misgivings about my taking it, I had to point out that we hadn’t been able to work out if it concerned our family in particular but that it most certainly concerned the estate’s.

In the end I didn’t learn anything and having found nothing since have not been in contact with the estate, but I did have a lovely day. My meeting was scheduled along with that of the staff of another house. We had wine and made conversation in the library, followed by a wonderful lunch in the dining room. I got to see areas tourists couldn’t access and gained knowledge of periods I love, as well as history about the house. Yes, the content of my day did match my worry – it was a bit touristy and made me wonder if I was indeed thought a gold digger.

Still, it’s not every day a book results in such an experience. Sometimes it’s the people you meet only fleetingly that leave an impression on you. They can create a spark that leads to further adventures as the things the owner told me led to – it was a conversation with him that got me thinking about university. And I went back to the first pages of my mother’s book, researching simply out of interest, going a few generations beyond the information in the introductory pages. I’ve made a couple of trips to visit places of interest but I also find myself in places I’ve visited for other reasons, that turn out to be connected, which can be quite fun as well as a bit too uncanny. Not so fun are the times I wanted to see a sight for unrelated reasons, couldn’t, and learned there was a potential familial connection only once I was back home, too far away to return.

And yes, I’m still reading the author of the historical novel, finding a whole new meaning in their books.

Have you ever tried (or indeed succeeded!) to trace your family history?


April Munday

September 27, 2017, 3:29 pm

We did a bit of research, but soon got lost. Each generation’s ancestor had a huge number of siblings and it became hard to tell whether they were an ancestor or a more remote relative. It became even more complicated, because both my grandmothers had the same surname and both families came from the New Forest.

Jenny @ Reading the End

September 28, 2017, 12:29 am

Oh, interesting! I haven’t ever been hugely interested in my family’s history — it sounds like a bunch of Brooklyn Irish Catholics going back to the Potato Famine — but my aunt’s gotten into it a bit. (Spoilers, it’s a bunch of Brooklyn Irish Catholics going back to the Potato Famine.) The fun thing was that she found a picture of a Progressive Era ancestor who looks e x a c t l y like my dad! GENES ARE STRONG.



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