by Peter Claus
There was a time when historians confident in the tools of their profession could tell big stories about the nation, about class or, for instance, about large shifts in the environmental conditions of an entire sub-continent. These grand narratives are still around, of course, but they no longer for the most part connect to a political project such as Marxism or modernisation, where history has a telos, an end or purpose. In the place of grand narratives, historians have used a more promiscuous range of sources in order to understand change and continuity.
With the decline of grand narratives has come also a more atomised sense of ourselves. We are no longer so confidently members of a social class but feel our identities are more fluid, in response to present social and political conditions that are more sensitive to gender, sexuality, ethnicity and religious backgrounds.
This shift has given enormous scope to family historians eager to place the self at the centre of ideas about the past and indeed the whole enterprise of genealogy has arguably emerged from our reduced confidence in the ability to easily reduce the past to a simple universal story.
The special nature of autobiography
In many ways in the very act of doing family history we are concerned with our own autobiography and the biographies of those that came before us. The historian, Raphael Samuel, did not distinguish between autobiography and biography believing neither was spontaneous and that each obeyed invisible rules. Ordered into paragraphed recollections, sub-divided with narrative, providing stepping-stones that help the reader to leap from one theme to another, neither represents an unplanned stream of consciousness.
Random individual and family memories, for instance, are fragments of experience that are first sliced into rough and ready gobbets and then into digestible, attractively presented chapters. Only then are they garnished with a more or less orderly chronology. Correspondingly ‘mental pictures’ may not be so much cooked up as arranged and ‘formed from information learnt, originally, at second or third hand’, as he put it.
From this angle, lived experience admixes with family tradition, community fables are retold as if personal to the witness. As notes from his archive held at the Bishopsgate Institute make clear, he concluded our memories tend to play tricks on us. In autobiography, ‘events are conflated with one another or transposed from one place of existence to another; distances are magnified; time sequences shrink’.
The triumph of nostalgia?
These problems are nowhere more likely than in the construction of family history. Family history has also been seen sceptically by professional historians for two chief reasons: firstly, it is liable to be antiquarian, and lack both a real overarching purpose and a necessary sense of detachment; secondly, it can collapse quickly into nostalgia. As Raphael Samuel put it in his Theatres of Memory (1994):
Nostalgia, or homesickness, is famously not about the past but about felt absences or ‘lack’ in the present. It can locate itself in the blue remembered hills of adolescence or childhood but, as an example of nineteenth-century medievalism (or Hellenism) may remind us, it can find its historical homeland in times that are inconceivably more remote.
This nostalgia is very apparent among those that forged their identities in the melting pot of the 1960s and 70s’ but who now find themselves washed up in a political and social era quite different from that of their formative years.
Not fitting into a pattern
Hilda Kean, who has done so much to construct a politics around family and community histories through her pioneering MA at Ruskin College, Oxford, recently wrote a history of her own East End family called London Stories (Rivers Oram Press, 2004). She found that her family were certainly, ‘hidden from history’ (a phrase in vogue with the ‘New Social History’ of the 1960s and 70s’) but in no way did they represent the subversive proletarian subjects that social historians interviewed in those years when oral histories of the working class were all the rage.
Nor, like the vast majority of the working classes in the last two hundred years, were they members of a homogenous revolutionary class for social change that was assumed when, say, E.P. Thomson wrote his magisterial Making of the English Working Class in the late 1950s or when John Foster found a revolutionary consciousness alive and well in nineteenth century Oldham. Hilda Kean professed herself disappointed that her own ancestors were not the sorts of people she had championed politically in a life of activism on the Left.
Desire for an exciting past
If family historians, collectively, have uncovered one thing in recent years it is that the uneventful and relatively risk-free atmosphere of the present has helped to nurture a need to locate a family past of humbleness, excitement or criminality. It may also be the prompt for the recent influx of the better-off into places like Spitalfields in London, the place where many of Hilda Kean’s family were located. Perhaps the most famous aspect of Spitalfields has been its settlement by successive waves of immigrants: French Huguenots, rural English, Irish, an older community of Sephardi Jews then large numbers of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, Bangladeshis and a small and self-consciously cultured avant garde. In many ways family history has allowed very many of us to make this journey back, at least in our historical imaginations.
Community history and material culture
Family history appears to have stumbled across a wholly new historical methodology, a material culture that links artefacts with social relations. As Hilda Kean noted, this ‘exists inside – and outside - the archives, in the local streets of the present, in graveyards and cemeteries, souvenirs and trinkets, photos and maps, memories and stories’. This may not be so new, however, and can be found in earlier attempts at ethnohistory, which focuses on folklore, oral tradition and story-telling; using the artefacts of material culture such as pottery, earthenware and similar objects; visual images and artwork. Ethnohistory began in the United States in the mid-twentieth century as an attempt to understand the culture and history of native-American peoples from the inside.
If the approaches used by family historians are not new, it is indeed true that in doing family history, the ‘archaeology of lives’ as Hilda Kean put it, we are as likely to use the ‘unofficial’ sources of family photographs, diaries etc, as the ‘official’ sources of the State such as census returns, probate, ecclesiastical records, and court case files.
Yet these ‘popular’ approaches may not prove to be the lasting legacy of family history.Instead, it has helped to create a vivid historical culture that has encouraged a huge number of non-professional historians to participate in a vast project of democratic scholarship. This, in turn, has changed the perception of their own identities for millions of people who can now trace themselves across both time and space. It may be, however, that this democratic scholarship provides a sense of belonging and stability in the midst of rapid change and uncertainty but as such is no more radical than Hilda Kean’s ancestry.
Hilda Kean London Stories Rivers Oram Press – one historian's search for her own family's history.
Jerry White Rothschild Buildings: Life in an East-End Tenement Block, 1887-1920 Pimlico - an evocation of the experience of living in the East End.
Who Do You Think You Are? - BBC history programme exploring the ancestry of a number of celebrities
People's War - the BBC's online (unedited) archive of wartime memories.