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Family History And Historical Novels, by Mary Nichols

Anyone who has ever embarked on researching their family history will tell you that it is like an itch you can’t leave alone. It is time consuming but fascinating. You discover all manner of things you didn’t know about your forebears. Many – more than you might think – had children before they were married. Sometimes it was even encouraged. Aristocrats might like to be sure the line would be preserved with healthy sons, but the poorer end of the social scale wanted to be sure they would have grandchildren to look after them in old age, at a time when the horror of the workhouse loomed.

You might discover, as I did, that Great Aunt Sarah was the mother of three boys and yet had never married. You find yourself wondering if they all had the same father and if they did why their parents didn’t marry. Was the man already married? You send for the birth certificates in the hope they might reveal the truth, but all they tell you is ‘father unknown’. On the other hand the lady might have been promiscuous and the boys had different fathers. You may not have solved the family riddle, but you might have found the germ of an idea.

Some ancestors might be criminals, usually discovered when the census returns put them in prison, which might lead you to try and find out why they were in prison and for how long. You want to know what crime had they committed and if there were extenuating circumstances. Poaching was harshly punished and that could have been committed by a poor man needing to feed his family. Or they might have stolen a loaf of bread, or snatched a purse. They might even have killed. Was it premeditated or manslaughter? How had it come about? Newspaper records can often reveal the answer, and the records of the Old Bailey, now on line, are a mine of information. You can get so wrapped up in what you are reading, you forget what you were looking for in the first place. This can happen with any sort of research; you need to stay focused.

You often turn up the sad fact that many children died in infancy. This may have been caused by poverty or some genetic fault, or it might indicate that there had been an epidemic at the time. In last year of the Great War and the year following more people died of influenza than on the battlefield. There was a small pox epidemic 1870-72 and in 1871, of 821,856 children born, 80,000 died before they could be vaccinated. In one branch of my family seven out of ten siblings died. In 1905 my mother caught scarlet fever when there was an epidemic in the village and only survived by the skin of her teeth. My grandmother told me the doctor arrived on horseback and refused to dismount. He insisted the sick three-week-old infant be brought out to the gate. Grandma and her mother-in-law carried the baby out to the doctor on a blanket. He hooked the baby’s shawl aside with his riding crop before giving his verdict, one that was painfully obvious. Grandma was told to hang a curtain soaked in disinfectant over her door and not let anyone but family in. No medicine was prescribed while they waited for the end. My grandmother would not accept that; she nursed her tiny infant and she survived or I would not be here to tell the tale. But for an episode in a story it would take some beating.

You might even turn up a bigamous marriage, as I did. My aunt did not know her husband had a living wife when they were married. She only found out afterwards when her husband contacted his brother and asked what he ought to do. He told his brother my aunt had told him to put on his best suit, they were going somewhere special and he found himself in church and he ‘didn’t like to spoil her day’. It is highly unlikely this explanation is true because they would have had to have the banns read and there are family photographs of the wedding in which she is dressed in a traditional wedding dress with bridesmaids and flowers and my grandparents present. They would never have condoned bigamy. It was his brother who said he must tell his new wife straight away. From then on she was part of the deception. The bridegroom’s first wife died seventeen years later and they ‘remarried’ secretly. I wonder how often that happened given the expense and difficulty obtaining a divorce, especially for poorer people.

Family stories like this are all grist to the mill when writing novels and have that added flavour of authenticity.


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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. There is also the inverse; family stories that come down by word of mouth, often spectacularly. When checked (if possible) against the actual records, they frequently don’t live up. And yet the more mundane story itself is often interesting – and the fact that they ‘grew in the telling’ (to borrow from Tolkien) itself often tells us about the level of impact that event had on the family at the time – and later. All of it, irrespective, is definitely grist to the mill – both for historians, and for historical novellists.

    September 21, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Whispers in the Wind.

    September 21, 2013

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  1. Month In Review (September 2013) | Writing Historical Novels

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