Monday, 3 October 2011

Who do you think you are? by Eve Edwards

 Eve Edwards
One of my favourite programmes is the BBC series shares the title of this blog post: Who do you think you are?  What can be more intriguing than to find out that Boris Johnson is related to a Georgian king (now I know who he reminds me of with his generous chins!) or that J K Rowling's waiter grandfather won a French military cross for bravery in World War I?  No wonder she writes about courage against the odds.  Other History Girls have already mentioned the influence their own family history has on the themes they include in their books.  The past, especially that of our own kindred, feels so much ours almost as if they had left it to us in their wills. 

Frederik Noel - who may (or may not)
have helped build the Eiffel Tower!
For me, it has always been the story of my great-grandmother and her Parisian upbringing that has been the inheritance. Rumours of family wealth squandered at the Moulin Rouge and my great-great-great grandfather's involvement in building the Eiffel tower have long circulated with very little fact to uphold their foundations.  My mother has repeatedly hinted there is a book in it.  Then there is, on the other side, the rogue who defrauded the Bank of England and got transported to Tasmania, abandoning wife and family behind to set up shop there with new spouse as a doctor of some dubious sort.  I gaze at the family photos of these strangers and trace my brother's eyes in the face of a forgotten great-great-uncle or my own rather pointy chin on another.  What role do their genes play in me?  I can sketch a connection between the Walter Mitty world of that fraudster and my career making things up (!) but that is not really who I am any more than I am my piano-playing great-grandmother or my sailor grandfather.  And I find myself holding back. To try and expose their inner lives by intelligent guess work feels a little like revealing my own secrets.  I also fear to offend the living for whose these faces still have meaning.  Could I actually bring myself to write the truth if I attempted it?

It can, of course, be done by braver souls than me.  The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal takes his family inheritance and brilliantly uses it to step across the generations following the fortunes of a collection of Japanese netsuke.  Someone in my book club actually compared the book to an upmarket version of 'Who do you think you are?' prompting this post).  De Waal is blessed with a particularly interesting and notable family to follow, ones who had the good fortune (and misfortune) to rub shoulders with many of the leading figures of the late Victorian period and 20th century.  I don't suppose many of us can make that claim.  Yet my ancestors continue to sit there, staring out of albums and intriguing me with their silence.  The novelist, as much as nature, abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps I should just free myself of any notion that my family history is mine to write and just get on with telling stories?  In truth, we can't own our ancestors' personal histories anymore than we can hold a handful of the sea.  It is common land rather than our own enclosed estate.  Another favourite BBC programme, QI, brought this home to me with the question, who on the panel of four was a direct descendent of Charlemagne?  Jo Brand was the answer, but then it was explained that anyone with a European heritage is statistically related to everyone in Charlemagne's generation (8th century if you are interested).  That means you (if you have this parentage) can claim alliance to all the greats - Alfred is yours, but so is Merlin, King Arthur, Eric Bloodaxe and anyone involved in the construction of stonehenge.

Who do I think I am?  No idea but I think I'll happily own a little of Merlin if it is all the same to you.

The Other Countess (Random House) out now in the US.
The Rogue's Princess (Razorbill) out now in the UK.
Visit for details.


The Virtual Victorian said...

Fascinating, Eve. I do think that to record these things is wonderful - imagine two or three generations on discovering these facts which might otherwise be lost. My sister has just found some old photographs and letters in an attic relating to our Victorian family - and I am so excited to see them.

PS I love Who Do You Think You Are!

catdownunder said...

Yes, fascinating. I have a cousin (eldest son of the eldest son...) who has taken on the responsibility for the clan history in Australia. I have helped with some of it and it has been fascinating. Are there books in it? Almost certainly!

H.M. Castor said...

I love this post, Eve. I too have a fascination with Who Do You Think You Are? and yet a frustration with it too... expressed perfectly by Boris Johnson who - when told he was descended from a Georgian king - remarked that by that point (in the family tree) he was descended from at least a thousand other people too (which was a breath of fresh air after some guests on the programme who have seemed almost visibly to puff out their chests on the discovery that they were descended from ancient royalty!). So your point about Merlin and Charlemagne is very well made. The rate at which the ancestor-spread multiplies when you look at the whole tree - as opposed to following one line - can feel quite surprising. I once worked out roughly how many people of 1520s/30s I was directly descended from and it was well over 200,000... in a way this is less romantic than imagining just a few people who were 'mine' walking around at that time... yet in another way I find it wondrous!

H.M. Castor said...

P.S. I feel especially strongly about the 'spread' of the family tree because the spread is so often the women... in the sense that people often trace their surname, which usually comes exclusively through the male line, and even if they trace their mother's family tree, it often becomes that of their mother's male ancestors. Reclaiming the 'spread' means reclaiming the women!

adele said...

Very interesting, Eve! I will be writing about how I used my family photos when I was writing my first full-length children's novel on November 7th.

Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds as if you have some very interesting family stories to explore - how can you resist? Whether or not you use them - or little bits of them - in your writing!