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All happy families are not alike, even in play. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
All happy families are not alike, even in play.

I return to a matter I’ve dealt with before: how to construct a plausible English family.


The first point is that any plausible English family is necessarily a British family.  The second is that any realistic British family is not by any means exclusively British.


Look here, damn it, people do travel.  I do quite understand that the general image of Great Britain is of a country that is paradoxically at once small enough to cover in a day at a fast walk and yet so hidebound that everyone in the village is his own cousin and no one even travels so far as to the next market town, but do let’s be serious.  Even before turnpikes, canals, and railways, people travelled.  In fact, there’s a literary work you may have heard of, by a civil servant who wrote as a hobby, concerning just that, a group of trippers going to Canterbury.  I believe the fellow’s name was Chaucer. 


No, seriously.  Ignore the ‘right little, tight little island’ tosh, the picture-postcard notion of the village behind its hedges and a parish church that seats twenty comfortably but is crowded if thirty attend: these clichés are in some sense true, but they are irrelevant.  People travelled, and families moved about.  In the 1620s or 1630s, the daughter of a quite happily undistinguished County family in Wilts and Berks could and did quite easily marry a knight from the East Riding of Yorks.  That’s a goodish distance between two points.  In the 1300s, a whole family could up stakes in Salop and move to Wilts, and within a century be providing sheriffs and MPs to their new county.  Good Lord, people were changing counties and swapping feudal manors in the 1190s.


So this notion of families stagnating in one district since time immemorial is rubbish.


My own people – after all, they’re the one lot who cannot complain when I use them as an Awful Example, this isn’t boasting – my own people on my father’s side cannot be called anything other than a Southern and indeed a South-western family.  Yet my father and I in turn were the both of us born in a very different ‘Southwest’ to the Southwest of England: we were both born at Houston.  My father’s mother was born at Overton, and no, not the one near Aberdeen, yet there was a Scots strain in her that has much to do with my having Summertide memories of Montrose and Elgin and Dallas and (old) Livingston (indeed, my grandmother’s spinster sister lived much of her later life in Dallas, where she had inherited a place from her spinster aunt, and so on) – and, especially, of Turriff.  Two Saturdays ago [this was written in October, 2006], I found myself being chivvied about the countryside to attend one – one – of Cousin David’s memorials.  God rest the man, but that’s the problem with cremation, it means that you’re liable to have more damned funerals than a member of the Royal Family (mind you, my family, like the House of Black, have rather a high opinion of our quality, so…).  The point being that the man lived and died in the law (and ate and drank and slept the law, his only other interests being bridge and Bach.  Well, perhaps not quite: when he first suffered the first of the series of strokes that soon felled him, I assumed, as I think we all did assume, that his sister, my very bossiest cousin, would take charge of his life as she was eventually to take charge of his multiple funerals, but it was casually announced in passing that he would be looked after by his Devoted – male – Friend of Many Years, a redbrick don of some sort whom I’d never met nor heard of.  Well, we knew David was a bachelor, but of course we’d never discussed the conclusions we’d all long since drawn from that…) – the point, as I was saying, being that he’d lived his life wholly within the narrow bounds of his profession in our much-detested (by me, at least) capital city.  I expected that his funeral – his one funeral – would be there, and was merely relieved that we could give a miss to … well, I personally, having my share of Jewish friends and relations, always find it amusing to talk of ‘Temple services’ for Anglicans.  (Yes, relations: I did mention that ‘any realistic British family is not by any means exclusively British’, did I not?) 


At any rate, the point remains, one service had been sufficient, but, no.  Cousin David’s father – David being in fact my father’s first cousin and of my father’s generation – Cousin David’s father was one of my grandmother’s brothers.  Accordingly, it was, apparently, necessary to have a supernumerary and supererogatory service at Overton.  Apparently, it will further be necessary – and they can stand in the bloody rain themselves this time, without me and my little brolly – to have services at old Livingston for the sake of another set of relations, and at Houston for yet another.  This for a man who lived for forty years a mole-like and unsociable existence in chambers, mind you. 


You see the pattern emerging?


Let’s take my family, again, just the immediate family, to exemplify this pattern: see chart http://pics.livejournal.com/wemyss/pic/0007a8pe.  My grandfather on my father’s side was born near Bentley, largely so as to be near his mother, who happened to be there at the time, but soon came back to the fold, and his father’s people are very much a South-western family (suffice it to say that amongst my own earliest memories are quite a few of the Market Square in Westbury.  I remember particularly being allowed to buy for myself, for my very own, at a very young age, a hand-carved and hand-painted wooden apple that opened to reveal a sort of roulette wheel and ball, all of wood, all done by hand, that represented a flat race with notional horses rather than roulette numbers to bet upon) … and yet, his mother was from Derby (well, more or less.  Near to Derby.  Do not mention the Peverels) and he spent part of his youth, after university and before he met and married my grandmother (at Overton, you will recall), learning to his family’s satisfaction the mysteries of property management, practical farming, and money matters in one of the Beltons (I shan’t say which, there’s a limit to just how personal and identifiable I want to make this): I may have mentioned the family trait, generations old, of buying up property from Pennington to Yell…. 


Of course, that is another of the ways in which, in many families, people met (and sometimes married) or moved outwith their counties.  Landowning and land management of scattered holdings goes back a good long while, and extractive industries predate what we call the ‘Industrial Revolution’, and landowners, even the most aristocratic, have never been shy about quarrying or mining their holdings if there was mun in it (and in seeing that their sons at least knew enough about what the toiling lower classes were doing to carry on forcing the toiling classes to do it): my grandfather’s father being a case in point as a man who’d some idea of why they were digging rocks out of his acres and selling them, and as a man determined that his son should have a similar overarching knowledge.  It’s no wonder really that they got let in on the ground floor when oil and refined petrol became a means of screwing out a few quid.


And of course, in addition to this ‘mere Englishry’ of blood, my grandfather was part Scots – of the Clan Gunn, at that, bloody Vikings freezing their arses off in Sutherland and Caithness – which may explain the mad idea of buying property in Yell during the great crash of the 1930s.  It is moreover through his people that we ended up with that Northern strain that meant that I shared names with a Notts-born, pompous and port-fed old Erastian who was successively headmaster of WinCo, dean of the House (Christ Church, Oxon), and Archbishop of York, and that uncles and cousins and great-uncles and so on included in their baptismal names ‘Clinton’ and ‘Clifton’ and ‘Wilbourne’. 


His wife, my father’s mother, was, as I have noted, adamantly Scots when she wished to be (despite her being in fact mostly English), part Anglo-Irish and imperious with it, and, of course, predominantly County.  Still, there is a sense in which the Scots strain had its innings: she and her siblings were remarkable in their way, and it was a rather Scots way at that. 


She, obviously, married my grandfather: a match between, on the one hand, a woman who strikingly resembled Somerville & Ross’s ‘Old Mrs Knox of Aussolas’, a sportswoman and fierce advocate of old roses, and, on the other side of the aisle (and quaking in his boots if he’d any sense at all) a man who was, simply, a landowner, wartime civil servant, whilom banker, explorer in the ’30s, annoyance to his tenants, and breeder of spaniels.  My grandfather was a bit over six feet in height.  My grandmother was a trifle under five feet in height.  There was no question who was in command, and it wasn’t my grandfather. 


My grandmother’s sister was a spinster, a female don, a world traveller, a collector of chinoiserie, and quite possibly a spy.  Their brothers were, respectively, the quiet one who married the deb, and the wickedly sardonic one who married the sister of a don; both were notoriously Pillars of the Community in the serious Scots fashion.  On the other hand, bar the quiet one who married the debutante, the remaining siblings – my grandmother, great-aunt, and great-uncle – possessed a Mephistophelian humour and a hydrochloric wit, and got up to considerable ‘devilment’ even in ripe old age.  Perhaps that was the Anglo-Irish strain peeping forth.  Perhaps, on the other hand, it was the flash of a well-hidden rackety-ness in the Scots side, descending from my grandmother’s great-grandfather, an Army medico (later turned distiller) who unexpectedly found himself having to take the reins as head of the family and local lairdling, despite having neither the training nor the inclination for the task: such are the chances of the death of older siblings who inconsiderately die without issue.  In either event, it was certainly bred in the bone, this tendency towards mischief: there is a photograph of them all as the merest infant, from, now, a century ago, and my grandmother, at the age of perhaps nine years, is giving the camera the same ‘Malfoy smirk’ – I cannot better describe it – that remained in her arsenal until she died.


Having mentioned the Anglo-Irish – mad, the lot of them – I may at once say that they’re on all sides the family.  Partly this is because of the long tradition over the centuries of ‘rotating’, as it were, family branches into and out of Ireland, which you will find in most families with Irish connexions.  Partly this is due also to another pattern we shall note: the way in which distant cousins, sometimes unknowingly, end up marrying each other before the lines drift apart yet again, only to coalesce once more in time.  My father’s mother’s father married an Anglo-Irishwoman who was a third or fourth cousin (I used to know, but I cannot be arsed to look it out just now) of my mother’s mother’s mother.  Let it not be said, however, that they rendered our heritage any the less diverse: typically of the Irish, whether native- or Anglo-, it is probable that they would have raucously disagreed about, well, anything and everything, if only to stir up a fight.  Certainly my mother’s mother’s mother should have done: she married her Anglo-Irish self to an Anglo-Irishman, and if anyone expected that this would contribute to a unity of views and domestic harmony, they were swiftly to be disabused of the notion.  My mother’s mother’s father came of a family of landowners, clerics, soldiers, and surgeons, was a Conservative in most senses, but was anything other than a Unionist, having a romantic liking for the Irish (and a powerful affection for their way of life, particularly as it regarded a wee dram now and again.  Moreover, he was the sort of man who would have agreed with the Irish that ‘“manaña” was too urgent a concept’).  His wife was a suffragette, a Liberal, a bustling sort of woman who suspected that there might be something to be said for the temperance movement – at least as to the poor and the drinking class – and a furious Unionist (because, as I suppose, she didn’t at all trust the other side to applaud Liberalism and woman’s suffrage: a gang of obscurantist, backwards-looking, Rome-ruled ninnies, I believe she called them).  Her view was precisely that of her US Republican contemporaries, that the Other Party was the party of ‘rum, Romanism, and rebellion’.


It was likely the fact that, even in the quiet years of my quietist-minded great-grandfather on that side, the family was yet discernibly a Service Family, that was the saving of my grandmother.  Certainly she possessed her mother’s crispness of view, and her father’s douce temperament, but she had also acquired, through the example of uncles and brothers, a sense of duty.  I’m sorry: of Duty. 


It was just as well.  My mother’s father’s side of the family was something of a Service Family also, alternating judicial and military accomplishment – well, place, at least – with clerical.  He himself, my reverend grandsire, hailed from – well, let me be discreet.  The place was named … something rather Woodbury-ish (guess!  But do remember, the man was Anglo-Welsh, so…).  Oh, all right, here’s another hint.  There are still a few of his connexions rambling the Clent Hills.  It’s a good thing he didn’t name any of his sons ‘Kenelm’, at that.  Or, ‘Leonard’.  Now you can guess at finding the reverend gentleman….  But the family was, as noted, Anglo-Welsh in origin, and the fatal attraction of their own eloquence did sometimes cause them to come a cropper.  (How fortunate am I, in my laconic fashion, that this is not hereditary.  Um, well.)  And of course, the æsthetic strain in them was well-marked – my mother was operatically trained. 


But mark this, also, as another part of the inwardness of these patterns.  My mother’s father’s mother came from, as it happens, Alton.  (No, no, the other one.  With the chalk horse.)  Yet her family was centred, more remotely, around, oh, the environs of Lutterworth, more or less, and to that bourn they returned.  Still, for a brief moment, that orbit intersected with that of a wholly different line of the family that would not be a family until her granddaughter, my mother, married a man whose family held land at Alton as elsewhere in the region. 


And, if you’ve looked at the chart, you’ve seen readily that this bit but barely scratches the surface of a really quite typical family, and says nothing of the other strains (Normans on the make and on the take, Huguenots fleeing Richelieu, Jewish bankers, and, in the case of Uncle George’s supremely uninteresting and horse-faced wife – I am so grateful that I preserve such anonymity as I do – incredibly dull GPs at Bremhill and, aptly, up its [Bremhill] Wick).


I cannot stress this enough.  There are descendants of Billy the Conk potting out at the garden centre, or on the dole.  There are the descendants of serfs in the peerage.  But so too are there Scots – or persons with at least some Scots blood – in Cornwall, there are the long-descended sons of 9th Century Tuscans in Kent, there are unrecognised and long-forgotten Poles and Mongols in Lerwick.  If you truly wish to create British families even in rather retrospective fandoms or even in historical or costume pieces, please don’t fall for the falsehood that pigeonholes everyone as autochthonous scions of single patches of soil.  That’s not asking too much, surely?

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12 comments or Leave a comment
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: December 4th, 2006 10:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
Every person on this earth whose native language is English has some Irish blood. And the fact that I just made that up doesn't make it any less true.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 4th, 2006 11:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

That's an incredibly Irish comment.

... the fact that I just made that up doesn't make it any less true.

I love it.
clanwilliam From: clanwilliam Date: December 5th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC) (Link)
What about those of us whose first language is English but whose native language is something different and who can guarantee to a certain extent (considering that we are from a state whose national archives were burned down in the 1920s) that we are definitely majority Irish (in the sense of neolithic settlers, combined with whatever weird dark-haired bastards subsequently got labelled as Celts, followed by the odd random raping Dane (hey, we have to explain the Ma's blonde hair *somehow*) and yet can keep track of our parentheses?)

After all, it's one of the pleasures of my life - pointing out that while I am a first-language speaker of English, it's not actually my native (or indeed, mother) tongue. And I have family to prove the case.

*wanders off giggling*
nineveh_uk From: nineveh_uk Date: December 5th, 2006 04:26 pm (UTC) (Link)
whatever weird dark-haired bastards subsequently got labelled as Celts
Celts got everywhere. I get a certain amusement out of pointing out that the weird dark-haired bastards who gave me my curly hair, and eyebrows best described as determined, were the ones who lurked around in the west Midlands, whilst the representatives of the Irish side from whom my surname derives, and after whom my sister visibly takes, look like pink-and-white English roses.
easleyweasley From: easleyweasley Date: December 4th, 2006 11:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was surprised you said 'born at Houston' rather than 'born in ..' Just curious as to why you phrased it that way.

And congrats - you must have done something to your site - the text is much more readable. (Oh, and I notice LJ now has a built in spell checker for its comments section - a good idea, considering my lysdexic typing).
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 4th, 2006 11:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Hmm. No idea.

It seemed to flow.

Perhaps an unconscious Scoticism?

I foresee an open thread at britpickery out of this....
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: December 5th, 2006 01:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Hmm. No idea.

Were you born in Houston (Hyew-st'n, named for Sam) at Texas (the Lone Star State)? Because our ancestral housing project (high-rise council-estate sort of thing) was bordered by Houston (House-ton, named for an English landowner) Street, on which I grew up.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 9th, 2006 04:07 pm (UTC) (Link)


I'm no tellin' yae agin, it's ca'ed 'Hooos-toun', hen, 'Hooos-toun'.
themolesmother From: themolesmother Date: December 5th, 2006 04:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well said, sir.

Hubby and I between us give several good examples of what you're talking about.

Me - Belfast-born father and Home-Counties mother with cockney roots and (so I was once mysteriously informed) a touch of the "tar brush" somewhere along the line. Him - Father-in-Law was in the Army, so they'd travelled all over the world by the time he was twelve. Every bleedin' conversation in their family tends to start with, "When we were in Hong Kong (or Aden or Hamel or Gibralter ...). Then they retired to Cleethorpes. You couldn't get more British than that.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 9th, 2006 04:08 pm (UTC) (Link)


Ah, Service families. Nothing like 'em.
ellie_nor From: ellie_nor Date: December 5th, 2006 05:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
please don’t fall for the falsehood that pigeonholes everyone as autochthonous scions of single patches of soil.

Unless the single patches of soil are in Norfolk.

::runs away::
wemyss From: wemyss Date: December 9th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC) (Link)


... At least you're not their MP, saying that.
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