The family historical novel

Have you ever considered, while assembling the dry collection of documents that outline your family’s history, that you are perhaps writing your ancestors’ stories, that you have a saga with a cast of thousands and sub plots galore? I’ve always remembered a remark by the novelist Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret and of many, many novels. He said he heard a dozen plots every day, just from the stories people told him.

It’s a problem though, isn’t it, that you often don’t have enough details about ancestors to write a story. What I’d like to suggest is that you do, though, have quite a lot of details about the period of each person’s life, and it is easily available through the internet.


Why investigate all that, you might well ask? Because it often explains why an ancestor has done certain things. Immigration, for instance, tells you that there was political persecution at home, or that employment opportunities were limited for men with large families (most of them).

One of my great great grandfathers was a miner from Newbridge (Avoca) in county Wicklow Ireland. The town’s two chief mines, I discovered, were copper mines, so the probability was that was what he was. At about the middle of the 19th century there was a flood of copper into Britain, I found out, from newly opened mines in America and Australia, and many local mines closed or decreased their production, and put off staff, because they could no longer sell their product at a profitable rate. As a result many miners emigrated. One of them was my ancestor, who came to Newcastle, NSW Australia with his young family to find work. This must have been a break with tradition, because the man’s father, and I think his father before him, had been copper miners in the district. I can now understand more both how hard the decision was to emigrate, and why the man did so. His name was Conway, and there are now many, many Conways spread around the Newcastle district who otherwise would still be in Avoca.

So I imagine John and Mary arguing it to and fro, with Mary quieting the baby Edward, and John’s parents Edward and Lucy putting in with their advice, telling stories about others in the town who had gone to Australia, and what they said it was like there. All the things that might have been in a couple of letters they wrote, had any survived. Instead I need to exercise my imagination, just like an historical novelist.

This remark gives me an excuse to mention some favourite novelists, ones who bring a specific period to life, and give readers an idea how people thought then, and under what conditions they lived. This is not an approach recommended by professors of literature, but gives you ideas to take away and remember when outlining the events of your ancestors’ lives.


Pre WWII Osaka is beautifully evoked in Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. Much is explained about life in the southern USA in William Faulkner’s books, especially The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying. Britain before WWI is brilliantly sketched by PG Wodehouse in his novels, especially the ones about Jeeves.

There’s a wealth of information about colonial Australia in Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, especially life on the Ballarat goldfields. Mining in late 19th century France is depicted unforgettably in Zola’s Germinal. And 19th century Lisbon is shown poignantly by Eça de Queirós in The Maias. London and the squalor and vitality of the Industrial Revolution is depicted in Charles Dickens’ novels such as Dombey and Son, while the rural countryside comes vividly to life in Mrs Gaskell’s charming Cranford. A somewhat eccentric but illuminating picture of the Civil War period is contained in Richard Adam’s novel about Traveller, Robert E Lee’s horse. A portrait of literary Chelsea in evoked by Thomas M Disch in Neighbouring Lives, about the Carlyles. Literary Paris in the same mid century period is depicted in The King of Paris by Guy Endore, about Alexandre Dumas. Most of 19th century British history is mentioned in the continuing adventures of Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser’s cad and scoundrel. And Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession draws a vivid picture of China during the infamous Opium Wars.

The 18th century seems more contemporary than today’s headlines in the novels of Jane Austen, such as Emma. One supposes she will always be contemporary. But if you want to know how life was lived then, Austen is the one to ask. Slightly earlier, and less sedately, the century is evoked by Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. A non fiction account fascinating in all the detail it gives of everyday life is contained in the Journals of James Boswell, such as the London Journal.

Not many people will get further than the start of the 18th century when tracing their family. Some do go back to the start of the 17th century, but this period and before is very likely not to have reliable records. I know some people claim to have gone further, but the ones I’m aware of claim a connection with a noble house, and the nobility were not interested in tracing their roots so much as highlighting honourable and prestigious connections, and can’t be trusted on historical data.

To return to the 19th century, where so many people focus their family history, and where a mass of data such as BMD registrations, census forms, business directories, electoral rolls, army records and such material exists. All this source material can create a totally false picture of how ancestors lived. We can find out when they were born, what they did for a living and what houses they lived in. But are liable to miss noting how slow life was lived without trains and motor cars, without telephones, how isolated people were sometimes, how they valued community more than we do, how they coped with lack of sanitation and poor food as we would not, how they mourned relatives and children who died early in a quite different, stoical way than us. Social distinctions meant more then, how you dressed and talked. Value was placed by some on ‘civilisation’ when we think it not so civilised at all. Yet who are we to judge?

What I am saying won’t interest the people who merely collect dates and put them in a tree, a little like doing a crossword puzzle. That’s how I started too. Now I ask, why? Why did this person move from this house to that house, that county to this one, one country to another, when in the period, nobody at all moved unless they had to. We can move easily, from place to place all over the globe. Easy to forget it was only possible since 1850. Movement, like conversation (a facet of life we cannot retrieve, but which was very important to our ancestors) is a part of ancestors’ lives we tend to leave out of consideration. Social historians might alert you to ways of living now vanished. So do the novelists I have mentioned, in some cases unforgettably.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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About phillipkay

Welcome. The essays you'll find on BestQuest are my opinions, my attempt to re-evaluate their subjects. I think the ideas, books, films, music, myths and history explored here are valuable just because they continue to be discussed, so let's hear what you think.

One response to “The family historical novel”

  1. heneker52 says :

    Again a great post Phillip. I find also as I start to write a post, (and I admit I am finding it hard going as I want all the information I can about a family or family member before I publish the post, which of course is impossible!) that I am then asking questions! I realise I have been doing this anyway as I research the family, but by writing down some basic facts, I then start to ask, to question, to research and wonder. Why did he move his family there? How did they live/survive? at that early stage of colonisation. How hot were their summers how cold their winters? And that has me checking out early weather reports, where the river began and ended, how many people were living in that area at that time in history? And yes, so often I have thought, wow, I could write a novel about their adventures. I am pleased that I am not just a fact finder. This of course is interesting, but once the fact is found and verified, where to from there? Of course, as you have said, the times they lived in, why they may have moved, did others in the family also emigrate for instance, and if not, why not?

    Your posts always leave me with more questions and more to think about, and thank your for that!

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