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How tactful do you have to be in family history?

Posted by on October 26, 2012

I recently heard a talk on ‘tact’ by Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and author of the best-selling and prizewinning family history The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

De Waal pointed out that the word ‘tact’ comes from the Latin tactus, touch (hence tactile) – a connection I had never made before. According to the OED, tact did indeed have this meaning in seventeenth-century English and but by the mid-nineteenth had developed its commonly understood meaning of ‘a ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence or to win good will.’

The Hare with the Amber Eyes, E. De Waal

De Waal was trained to make ‘tactful’ pottery that fitted in without drawing great attention to itself. However, he found himself limited by this – frustrated by ‘not being able to raise one’s voice’ – and therefore developed his own distinctive style of pottery that has presence whilst also being unobtrusive.

De Waal defined tactlessness as crossing a boundary in the wrong way – intruding or crashing in on someone’s personal space. We have probably all been offended at some point by the tactlessness of others.

Writing a family history does of course involve intruding on the lives of others, some of them long dead, with no right of reply. De Waal raised these questions in relation to the writing of The Hare with the Amber Eyes. How do you respect the complexity of the lives of others? How do you avoid falling into the trap of nostalgia and skating over difficult areas on the one hand, while still being ‘tactful’?

There are no easy answers, and De Waal himself pointed out that some of the best family memoirs, such as Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood are in fact deeply ‘tactless’ books!

It’s something that everyone writing a family history must wrestle with. What are your experiences?



4 Responses to How tactful do you have to be in family history?

  1. Clare Travers

    I don’t know how I tackle that particular problem, Tracey, but I do know that the three pieces of Edmund de Waal’s ceramics I own are, rather like his netsuke, among my most treasured possessions. I bought two in the early days when he was affordable and my mother gave me a bowl (a reject, I think, but not in my eyes) from his studio as she knows his mother -as does Diana – for the first birthday I had after Amelia died, which gives it even more precious qualities.

    • Tracey Messenger

      How wonderful to own three de Waal pieces, Clare, and to have one with such significant meaning for you. Mere material things can be invested with such emotional significance – which I suppose is what de Waal is exploring by using his inherited collection of netsuke as a starting point.

  2. Margaret McAlpine

    ‘History is not after all what really happened (no-one can know; it’s gone) but only what we believe happened’ – another quote from David Mitchell. So, apart from a framework of basic facts and events, the rest is a version of the truth. But of course, we all want things to be simple and unambiguous, right or wrong, and not to shame us publicly for personal or family weaknesses. I would not be too worried about traducing the dead, provided I had tried to be fair, but exposing the living’s follies, meanness, nastiness short of criminality to public scrutiny would have to answer a stern question of exactly why I was doing it. Revenge is not pretty.

    • Tracey Messenger

      Thanks, Margaret. The David Mitchell quote is very apt. I suppose we must bring the same fairness and even-handedness to portrayals of both living and dead. But even with the best intentions our interpretations of the lives of others will always be partial.

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