Monday, 25 July 2016

From Mutiny to Music Hall

At its worst, genealogy can amount to little more than an arid exercise in collecting disconnected bits of information: the result of this drudgery is invariably an endless list of names and dates with nothing in the way of context, no colour or detail - essentially meaningless to anyone apart from the compiler. But at its best, genealogy really can illuminate and humanise important historical events and offer a rich and emotionally satisfying connection with the past to those doing the research. 

Which brings me to From Mutiny to Music Hall, a privately published illustrated family history which I had the pleasure to research and write for a client. When commissioned to do genealogical work it's not often that I get asked to settle more than the odd minor point of obscurity in a client's family history, so the chance to research and write a full-blown account of one particular branch of a family tree was too good to miss. And what was even better was that the facts as known at the outset offered so much potential - poverty in mid 19th-century London, soldiering in India during the 1857 Mutiny (with apparently some adultery on the side), Victorian music hall clowning, second-hand furniture dealing in the East End... if I couldn't make something readable out of that lot, I may as well have called it a day.

So great raw material to work with, but the research journey has not been straightforward. Far from it in fact: it not only involved the time and effort required to find widely scattered documents (worth pointing out that most were not available online) detailing something of the family’s history in the first place; it was also necessary to repeatedly analyse the surviving records in forensic detail to try and settle a conundrum caused by an old adversary – inconsistent evidence. In this case, the whole thing hinged on a small point that many genealogists will have come across: who is this person whose name appears on these bits of paper? She may be someone – so to speak – but then again, according to the records she might be someone else. Are we doomed to chase these fleeting shadows through the records, or is it possible to sort this out? And does it really matter? Well, trivial this sort of thing may certainly be, but it was fun to try and come up with a convincing explanation, and it does actually ask some profound questions about the fallibilities of the research process and the art of the historian when it comes to reconstructing a plausible version of the past (at any level) based on very imperfect sources. In the case of From Mutiny to Music Hall I did reach a conclusion about the mysterious person, but only after hours spent sketching possible scenarios and tortuous explanations, discussing them, changing my mind and then going through the whole process again. A tentative conclusion I admit, but I managed to convince my client, and I can happily see it in print without blushing.