Recent lockdowns have led many people to turn against the present to find relief in the past.
Our personal pasts, that is.
Knowledge of grandparents is usually sound, but trawling back further can be fascinating – for acquiring a bit of family history as well as learning a little about domestic and social history. What kinds of houses did people live in? What jobs were common? What were the conditions that governed their lives?
Even before the greater expanse of time that dreaded lockdowns supposedly offered us, I’ve done a bit of trawling back into family history although have not traced things further than mid 19th century. And it is intriguing – or at least I have found it so – having reached back as far as my Great Great Grandparents – and made discoveries through census reports of who was living where and with whom. My paternal Great Grandmother, Rachel Hayland, whose name I adopted as my pseudonym, spent her childhood living about the family hatter’s shop at 53, Tottenham Court Road, moving to Almeida Street, Islington on marriage. On the maternal side my Great Grandfather appears to have grown up with a widowed mother in buildings created in central London by one of the victorian philanthropists determined to improve the domestic conditions of the working classes. He became a postman and one of his sisters is listed in a mid century census as a photographer – surely photography in its earliest of days. I would like to know more about her.
When starting to write a novel it’s always quite a puzzle to decide how much back story about a character’s family is required. And I supppose the answer is as much as is required to make those characters seem real and authentic. I know I sometimes get muddled when writers go back several generations to build up a picture of a protagonist’s background, but it can be important and crucial in explaining actions and domestic situations.
D.H.Lawrence’s THE RAINBOW makes things clear with the opening chapter entitled How Tom Brangwen Married a Polish Lady and the first sentence establishes The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, and several pages are devoted to to the social history of the times and the impact of this on the Brangwens before we are getting anywhere near Tom, let alone his daughter, Anna and, eventually, Ursula. I don’t think contemporary readers would have a lot of patience for such details of family ancestry and generational details if I tried to attempt this in a novel!
Yet I find it important to have some sense of a character’s past – and in the novel I am currently writing, THE ODYSSEY OF LILY PAGE, I have found myself digging back into the life of her father (deceased yet crucial in many ways to Lily’s response to the events of the story) and even a little further back than that. Set in London in 1983, it is easy enough for me to remember and recall the flavour and mood of the times, but I also need to try and feel what it was like for her father and the young child, Lily, living in the years that the novel does not cover.
In particular, the war time years.
And then there’s Lily’s mother, again a figure absent from the events of the story yet essential to the woman Lily has become and the life she has led.
Getting time lines straight for characters is crucial even if those years are not part of the story. And just as it is easy to waste hours and hours on the computer, digging out one’s own family history from census returns, so it becomes compelling and time consuming creating a family tree of sorts for invented characters.
So it provides an excuse to find out what one’s own ancestors were doing in London from 1850 to 1920 and thereabouts. I have discovered among mine hatters, milliners, postmen, groundsmen, clerks, shop assisants, cloth traders and an undertaker – the last no doubt the most financially secure of the lot of them!
I might not write historical novels – but a little digging down into the reality of people’s lives in the past is still needed in order to give my protagonists authentic backgrounds.
At least that’s my excuse for my near obsession with census returns of the 19th and early 20th centuries!