My brother Barry says “The instant after we live an event, we start re-writing it in our minds, and we keep re-writing it until it suits us, until it feels right. We rewrite it to make us look funnier, or smarter, or more dramatic. We have very little awareness that this is what is happening. Everybody does it.
My purpose (relating this to family history) in “making books” is making our forebears accessible to our younger generation. I have to recognize that it is very difficult even in the best circumstances to get at a dependable picture of the lives of these forebears. Earlier I wrote of a great-aunt, a Niebuhr descendant, of whom I had five photographs, a few letters and a quantity of the memories people had of her. Then there was my grand-father-in-law, of whom there are records, many of them official ones, but so contradictory as to date and name and place that the truth of the matter is elusive. There have been many other sources of material for others of my family in my history-writing efforts, and I find it is possible to rank the probability of their revealing the character of the subject in the following ways:
- Family legends. Memories. These are probably the least dependable; legends even more than everyday memories evolve in the telling and with the passage of time. The legends that make a forebear larger than life are sometimes borne out by subsequent evidence, but especially in detail, that’s not the way to bet. I have mentioned in an earlier blog the family legend of the naming of my Aunt Daisie not holding up to documented fact. This of course assumes that the “fact” will hold up better to the standard of “truth” than the preferred legend.
- Letters. Only rarely are both sides of a correspondence preserved. I made a book of the only such set of letters that has come to my hands. One sided letters by their nature tell only half the story, but are valuable if that’s what is available. I have both sides of the correspondence of my mother’s younger sister and her fiancée, covering a couple of years before they were married. Transcribing these letters emphasized for me how much of the meaning of the relationship would be lost if only one side of the correspondence were available.
- Account books. I have the account books of several forebears. They don’t make very interesting reading without a vast effort in researching the context, and I have yet to try that. My sense is that they become the more interesting the older they are. My great-grandfather wrote his journal in the unused pages of his father’s record of his work as estate bailiff at a wealthy banker’s country home. These entries, dating to the early nineteenth century, reflect the life and times, but only in outline. The entry, “Toll for hay wain tuppence,” carries a mass of information but calls for decoding.
- Documents of all kinds. The Internet provides this list, and details each form of documentation. Burial Records, Criminal Records, Directories, Education Records, Electoral Records, Manorial Records, Migration Records, Military Records, Newspapers, Non Parochial Registers, Occupational Records, Taxation Records . The genealogy sites on the Internet are careful to point out that the accuracy of the information found in these sources is good but definitely not perfect. I can attest to that with the military records of my husband’s maternal grandfather. Facts like name as well as date and place of birth seemed to be matters of indifference to him. Grave markers should be included here and are also subject to error; my genealogical efforts have revealed several such.
- Diaries – that is, of the limited-space five year kind – are likely to record only the minutiae of daily life, especially so if they are used as a record by more than just the writer. My best example is found in my Aunt Elsie’s diary. She recorded my birth as follows: “Baby came before doctor. Boys hauling wood.”
Journals. I distinguish these from diaries by the length of the entries, and by the entries being less dependably daily. Five year diaries strictly limit the amount of content that can be recorded. For journals there is no such limitation to entries, which can be from a line to a page to nothing. Journals are much more likely to contain intimations of the writer’s mental landscape.
It is my observation from examining a great many family materials dated over the course of two centuries that of all sources, journals have the best shot at conveying the mind of the writer. Letters (when both sides of a correspondence are available) may come close, but there seems always to be a part of the writer’s mental processes held back, edited, monitored. With a journal such as my great-grandfather’s, both the details of his daily life and his thoughts about the details and the wider physical and mental landscape he inhabited are available. It becomes possible, through transcribing and footnoting his journals, to develop a sense of the realities of his life and the lives of the people of his time and station in life.
And how odd it is, the significance a century and a half ago, of that “station in life.” Class structure, while not as rigid as in earlier centuries, was nevertheless still rigid. Through education and striving, working class children could break into the middle class. Odd too that through Britain’s possession of a vast and mostly empty land, it called to its citizens to populate that land. And so it was that many of the children of Henry Thomas Wake became owners of land for ten dollars and three years’ labour, through the Canadian Homestead Act, and found themselves in a nominally classless society.