For more than a year now I have been working on transcribing the journals of my great-grandfather. Before I got my hands on his journals - the record he kept of his life, his work and his family for more than half a century - I knew a little about him, mostly from my father’s memories of his grandfather, and my grandmother’s memories of her father, although those, heard in childhood, had become unclear, leaving me with a rather fantastic image of a mythical being.
Now, deciphering the words written by his own hand and walking with him and his family, living his life in Victorian England, I feel I know him as I have known none of the other kindred who have been subject of my family books.
I believed from these family stories that his wife Lydia died – of ruptured appendix – when her youngest child, my grandmother, was six, and that her father had employed a neighbor lady with a young son to look after his home and the children still at home. I believed that he had adopted his housekeeper’s son when he married her, and that they had had two sons together both of whom died in their teens.
I knew, I knew. This was the myth. I had thought, as in my transcribing I approached the year I had understood to be Lydia’s death, that I would learn the reality.
It didn’t happen. The diary ceases months before the time I had understood to be Lydia’s death, and resumes, only sporadically, years AFTER her death, until much later when it is resumed more regularly. There is a brief passage regarding his dear Lydia’s funeral, with a drawing of her coffin and the placement and names of the pall bearers. There is, written undated, a brief passage quoting Lydia’s words as she lay dying.
From the scant information my great-grandfather leaves during the years after Lydia’s death, I can only infer the heartbreak. From the date of Lydia’s funeral I know that the myth of the year she died - when her youngest child was 6 - is out by two years. She – my grandmother – was said in the family stories, which I will now call myths, to be six when her mother died, and eight when her father remarried. The scraps of journal indicate that little girl was almost 8 when her mother died, and eleven when her father remarried.
What can we trust of the family myths? My brother has words for this, which are often quoted in the family to help understand this recurring puzzle. I believe I have quoted him before in this blog.
I started to write this three months ago, and then, delving further into the thousands of pages of my great-grandfather’s diary yet to transcribe, I discovered that although he had put a few isolated entries into the earlier diary, he had continued unbroken from the regular entries of that one into a new one, which now, in the middle of March 2011, I have just finished transcribing. This diary covered the period from August 1877 to June 1881, during which time the details of his wife’s death, and three years later his remarriage and his first child with his new wife, are all recorded. This later journal combines entries about his family and his daily life with his business dealings. In consultation with my sister Mary, my constant companion in this process of uncovering family history, I decided to transcribe only those entries which related to his personal life, his family, friends and fellow Quakers, and omit transcription of his daily multitude of business dealings, and also omit such items as the weekly purchase of milk and the seasonal purchase of coal.
There is a gain in taking this approach – the transcription reads much more like a story and less like an account book. There is also a loss in that the account book entries describe the items passing though his hands in the course of his business dealings. He was an antiquarian – would he today be called an antique dealer? Perhaps. The items include ancient books; footnoting those has been a study of history in itself. I had not known, for example, that there were MANY translations of the Bible, between the invention of moveable type and the King James Version. I had known little about Roman Britain. I had known little about the coinage of all ages of Britain, although I had inherited from my great-grandfather four of his Roman coins. My great-grandfather had a particular interest in the books of the early Quakers, so in footnoting them (Google prolifically providing me with information and remarkably often, complete texts of these books) I became much more conversant with the time of the Reformation.
In the early diaries I transcribed everything, and everything was footnoted. Now in 1881 his life story is the focus, his work being referred to only glancingly in what I choose to transcribe. But I have not discarded the printouts of the full diaries; they can be re-examined at any time, and I have also, naturally, kept the disks on which they came to me from the firm in London, England, which photographed and digitized the diaries for me.
Today I am contemplating making a worksheet of the tasks remaining to be done to make my great-grandfather’s life accessible to his descendants. I am feeling qualms. Is it best just to putter along, and NOT be clear about the mountain of hours still required? Or should I face the reality squarely?
Perhaps a hot chocolate and a half-hour of watching birds at the feeders will produce an answer.