Writer Rachel Cude has begun a fascinating new project to fill in the gaps in her unconventional grandmother's mysterious life...
|How much do we really know about |
our female ancestors?
When I was little, my mother tried to explain to me that I had a half brother. “Where’s the other half?” I enquired. And there began my love of the giant puzzle that is family history. As the child of my father’s old age (he was born in 1899) I have a fairly unusual family tree, which makes it easy to ‘go back’ over 100 years.
One of the earliest trails I followed was that of my paternal grandmother. On the surface, she was a respectable teacher and mother of four. She was born in the slums of Nottingham in the 1870s, yet she somehow went to art college. Her husband lived apart from her, so how did she gain her job and social status? And what secret strength kept her going?
Family history documents like birth, marriage and death certificates or census records can provide rich data about a person. However, I'm lucky enough to be able to supplement this with childhood memories of people who knew my grandmother. A hard working local village history group transcribed oral histories from people my grandmother taught, including memories about her and her school.
One of her pupils recalled: “When she warn’t banging ower yeds together she were larnin’ us to knit!” (my attempt at reproducing a Derbyshire accent!). This snippet, together with the other facts and tales demonstrate the tough discipline she dished out to keep a large, probably unenthusiastic, class in order, plus the emphasis she placed on practical skills, to help give her pupils a solid and realistic start in life.
I’m also increasingly aware that my own memories aren’t much use locked up in my head, as the generations of my family move along. I have facts: the ‘what’ and ‘when’ as displayed in official documents, and a little of the ‘who’ afforded by the memories pulsing in my head and transcribed onto a page. There comes a point for every family history researcher when you have uncovered all the facts available about an individual. Then it is time to spread out all the information in front of you, like a patchwork counterpane. Your female ancestors have a story – what are you going to do with it? For me, the answer was to write it down.
But there will always be some holes that remain: the ‘how?’ and the ‘why?’. This is especially true of women’s lives, because they were traditionally less visible than men: less well educated and able to record their experiences and also literally invisible. Upon marriage in the late Victorian era and well into the early 20th century, women often gave up working outside the home, and so disappeared from society's view.
There will always be some conjecture about how a woman made her life choices, for example how she chose the man she did to marry – and in my grandmother’s case, why she later chose to leave him. This is where the coloured thread of historical fiction can come in useful, to embroider your account of a life.
I’ve begun to write a book called Invisible Women, to try to shed some light on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of my grandmother’s amazing life story. The book also compares her life choices with those of a fictional modern day woman, in order to celebrate my Victorian ancestor’s inspiring independent spirit. It’s a journey of discovery and I’m learning along the way. Hopefully my grandmother’s story will entertain others one day and, just maybe, help them think about their own lives too.
Follow Rachel’s progress and keep up to date with her blog posts at www.rachelcude.co.uk