One small reference in Richard Holmes’ Footsteps set me thinking about my family archive. He mentions Virginibus Puerisque, a collection of four essays by Robert Louis Stevenson. When I read that title, a clear memory came to me of a set of dark volumes of Stevenson’s works that sat on the bookshelves at Cedar Cottage, the house in Kent my grandparents owned in the 1950s. I never read them; I never even picked them up; I wonder who in the family has them now. The items that have come into my possession are haphazard and disconnected.
Cedar Cottage was a downsizing from Bron y Garth, my grandfather’s house in Portmadoc, North Wales, where I was born. When he sold it, he sent my aunt to go through everything, decide what was to be kept, and arrange an auction to sell off the rest. One thing she kept back was a glass paperweight she gave me as my own memento of the house; it sits on my desk now. What I would give to go back in time with her! How did she choose? What did she discard that I should love to have now?
In the bottom of the welsh dresser at Cedar Cottage there were fascinating papers which my best friend and I loved foraging through during our half-term holidays. An album that held between two of its pages a folded scrap of paper marked ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’s hair’, and sure enough there were a couple of stray hairs inside it. Where did that album come from? Where did it go?
When Cedar Cottage was sold, more downsizing had to happen. Papers and photographs were stuffed into the bottom of the dresser that stood just inside my grandparents’ Chelsea flat, as well as into bureau drawers and the wardrobe in the spare room. Books were pushed onto their already crowded shelves. When my grandmother died, these things moved to my aunt and uncle’s nearby house, where they were kept in the loft, or in a high cupboard in their drawing room. My aunt’s archival intentions were honourable; I once found a packet marked in her handwriting ‘Letters, to be sorted later’. How many things in our lives wait to be sorted later!
By the time my aunt and uncle died, I was helping with the house clearance myself. Many papers went to my stepfather, who had made himself unofficial historian of the Casson family. When he died, four years ago, they came to me. I soon discovered that the collection of resources I had inherited were patchy, to say the least.
The most substantial document is the poignant handwritten memoir compiled by one great great grandfather, a Welsh sea-captain: an account of his first marriage, of the 4-year voyage he took his wife on from Liverpool, during which two daughters were born, and of her death soon after they returned to England. What else? a few deeds relating to Casson properties; a list of ‘china, silver and plate’ sold to one great great grandmother by her sister; some letters exchanged between various Casson forebears between 1875 and 1909; a little booklet commemorating my great grandparents’ marriage; a tiny leatherbound volume of essays given to my great great great grandfather in 1815; a large album used by another great great grandfather as a sort of scrapbook, with a few notes and memorabilia stuck into it. Why these particular items, when so much else has disappeared? I shall never know.
© Diana Devlin