At the last meeting of the Writing Family History group, we thought it would be good to take stock of our projects, so that’s what I’m doing.
Three years ago I was approaching near-retirement and clearing up my late parents’ house, my stepfather having died in the autumn of 2010, leaving some papers about my mother’s family and some genealogy he had uncovered. A perfect time to begin what I had always intended to do in retirement – explore my grandfather’s family history, having done a little work on it forty years before, when I was researching his theatrical career. The Faber Academy:Writing Family History course running from January to July 2011, was just the thing to set me going. I would concentrate on his great-grandmother, Esther Casson, whose portrait I had known since childhood, and who, I’d always heard, was a remarkable, forward-looking woman. She was the granddaughter of a Lakeland curate memorialised by William Wordsworth, the Reverend Robert Walker, nicknamed ‘Wonderful’ Walker.
I did not begin research until April 2011, and was chagrined to find there was little or no material relating directly to her. I expanded my project to include my own great-grandmother, about whom there was more information. I coined the title: Marrying Mr Casson. How many Mrs Cassons to include remains an interesting question. I am currently focusing on one more, of the intervening generation, daughter-in-law of my first Mrs Casson, mother-in-law of the third. A difficult woman by some accounts.
It has been slow work, partly because I have given myself such a wide spread, and partly because of the paucity of direct material; I still have a large number of unanswered questions, genealogical and other. The big question is: Is there a reading pubic for this, or is it of interest only to me and to some of my family? Much of the information I have gathered has been circumstantial; reading around the context of these women is fascinating, but could tempt me into ‘info-dump’.
I must fictionalise my Mrs Cassons to bring them to life, but I have still not decided what is the shape and thrust of the work or its viewpoint. I am searching for a structure that will give an original slant on researching and inventing their lives. I love stories of the winding paths people have gone on to uncover their family history. But there is usually a revelation unveiled at some point in their journey, or a mystery solved. I have discovered no such buried treasure.
I intended to complete a first draft at the end of 2013, but have only reached the 1820s. I shall continue writing a chronological account mixing fact and fiction, and then see what I really want to do with this study of three British women whose lives stretched beyond both ends of the nineteenth century. I foresee at least another two years’ work, hopefully with the continuing encouragement and support of the Faber Academy:Writing Family History alumnae, as well as of the family members who take an interest in my project.
© Diana Devlin