18 October 2011

Whispers from the past

I’ve been spending a lot of time (a LOT of time) in the past year researching my Dad’s side of the family tree. It’s quite addictive. Even when I’ve decided to do something else, I’ll sit down and start looking through the online records of births deaths and marriages, or census transcripts, trying to trace a particular person. Two hours later I’m still at it.

I’ve now moved from the main ‘trunk’ of the tree to some of the twiggier side branches, looking for information about people who are so distantly related that they’re really of no personal interest. Yet still I want to answer the questions that keep coming up - why did this person move from A to B, why do they appear in one census but not in the previous one, how did they ever meet and marry someone from another county when neither family seems to have left their own village?

At times I ask myself “why am I doing this?” Part of the addictiveness is that it's totally absorbing. It takes my mind off other things. It’s intellectually challenging - if the information I need isn’t available in the obvious places, it takes imagination and ingenuity to work out another way of finding it. It seems more creative and constructive than, say, doing sudoku or crossword puzzles. It also meets all the criteria for reinforcing behaviour. Like a rat pressing a bar, the rewards come just often enough, just irregularly enough, to keep me from giving up in frustration or getting bored with success.

And it can be frustrating. My grandfather’s family were predominantly workers in the cotton mills of Lancashire. Most of my grandmother’s family were farm labourers in Essex. They had names like John and Mary Ann, Thomas and Fanny, along with thousands of others. They didn’t leave much record of themselves, apart from the scant details recorded in the parish registers of baptisms and marriages. They didn’t do anything newsworthy or noble or notorious.

It’s difficult to imagine their lives really. They went to work in the mill or on the farm at the age of eleven or twelve, and continued working there until they died, if they were male, or until they married, if they were female. They often had eight or more children, half of who died in infancy. They lived in overcrowded conditions, had little education, and few opportunities to express whatever gifts they might have had. None of them had a profession, or held an office, or published a book or led a revolt (as far as I’m aware.)

I was thinking about this as I was reading a biography of someone who came from a long line of artists and musicians on his mother’s side of the family, political leaders and professionals on his fathers side. He went on to achieve great things of lasting worth. He had many gifts and a fine character. But how much, I wonder, do the collective memories of a family influence a child’s expectations of life and of what they can achieve in the world?

Obviously there are people who come from very impoverished backgrounds who still do remarkable things, either good or bad. But more often it seems that biographers can point to links between a person’s family history and that person's own life story.

In my generation we’ve had educational opportunities that the Mary Ann’s and Thomas’s of the past could not have imagined as they signed the parish register with an X. My own parents worked hard to help me grasp those opportunities. We’ve been told by the world repeatedly that we can achieve anything we want to achieve. Sometimes I believe it.

But when I set out to do something, then find a lack of confidence seeping in to my thinking, is it just a matter of personality? When I see a need for change, but don’t have a clue about how to initiate it or how to influence others, is it just a lack of imagination and will on my part? Or does the effect of generations of constricted life expectations take more than one generation to pass?

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