2015, 288 p.
“How to produce a good family history?” asks fellow-historian John Hirst in his blurb for this book. His answer: “Get a master historian to write about his own.” Hirst is right. Davison is a master historian and this book is far more than a family history.
Graeme Davison, who is most familiar to me with his Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne and The Use and Abuse of Australian History, has not been (and still is?) not completely comfortable with family history as a pursuit.
For most of my life I have avoided family history. The crowds of chattering genealogists in public libraries and archives are one of the daily hazards of the academic researcher. I have written critically about the perils of ‘speed-relating’, the craze for online genealogy, and the business activities of Ancestry.com and other commercial genealogical websites… Only as I grew older and my parents passed on did I begin to recognize how much of my life had been shaped by family tradition and expectation, not to mention genetics; although even now, when temptations to reminiscence and nostalgia grow stronger, I resist them, conscious of their distortions. In the end, however, encouraged by my family, I succumbed to the appeal of family history, not only because I wanted to better understand who I am, but also in order to think more concretely about the relationship between the familial and the communal pasts. And ‘doing’ my own family’s history, or a part of it at any rate, seemed the best way to tackle it (p. xiii)
He doesn’t leave behind his identity as professional historian in doing so, though. He starts his book in Hampshire, with the railway carving its way past the Hewett family’s village, and finds himself wondering what the Hewetts thought about it- and the historian in him makes its presence felt:
As an academic historian I would not even attempt to answer the question: it is too conjectural. I would be better off examining the opinions of people who actually wrote them down. But the people who wrote things down are not the people whose feelings I want to know. Ancestry inspires the assumption that our forebears, being our own flesh and blood, are somehow more accessible, as well as more important, to us than other dead people… However, our distant forebears were not people just like us in period costumes…The idea that we can actually put ourselves in the shoes of our forebears is a harmless enough delusion, but a delusion nonetheless. [However] By reconstructing the situations they faced, taking account of the beliefs and attitudes of the time, comparing their situation with that of others, we can begin to understand their actions, even if we cannot enter their minds or hearts. This is what historians call the discipline of historical context. It begins by treating our own forebears not as special but as ordinary people of their time, and it ends- I would argue- not by enhancing family pride but by expanding our common humanity. (p. 18-19)
Unlike Nick Brodie’s Kin, (my review here) which makes the rather large claim of being “The Real People’s History of Australia”, Davison’s book works on a more modest canvas. He focusses on “Australia’s Golden Age” and those members of his family who emigrated to Australia in the years surrounding the gold rush. He stops his account at his father, who did not emigrate until 1911. Like a spider weaving a web, he tethers the thread in England- in Hampshire, in London and the journey of the Culloden to Port Phillip- and stretches it to the gold fields of Castlemaine, strings it across the seaside town of Williamstown on Hobson’s Bay,to the small cottages of Richmond and eventually to the middle-class prosperity of suburban Essendon.
He notes that
Family historians rely largely on sources created by the state, or earlier by the church. Our narratives are hung on the skeleton created by legally defined events- births, marriages, deaths, bequests, leases, taxes, property transactions, crimes, censuses and the like. But little of what matters most in our lives is captured by such documents. If we are lucky, a few old letters… or bits of oral testimony…are left to reconstruct the most intimate, precious, fragile, irreducibly personal part of our lives from the outside in, relying on materials that are cold, standardised and impersonal. Like the prophet, the family historian sometimes seems to inhabit a valley of dry bones, inert and meaningless until they are clothed with flesh and the spirit is somehow breathed into them (p.100)
Davison does breathe life into them, not from filling them from imagination (as a novelist might) or by speculation (which a less disciplined historian might do) but by bringing to the endeavour what historian Keith Hancock called ‘span’- that big picture perception that makes sense of the small. I learned a great deal from this book, particularly in terms of push-factors, both in the United Kingdom and within Australia itself, that prompted the geographical shifts revealed by those dusty dry documents. As it happened, his family history provided a rich case study for the effect of religion on individuals and families, not just as an entry in a document but as lived experience.
Davison is a much older and more experienced historian than Brodie, and he does not feel the same urge to slash at the historians who surround him. In this regard, this is a much gentler and more mature history than Brodie’s, told with humility and grace.
Does the world need a deluge of autobiographical, family-based histories, written by historians? I’m not sure that it does, and perhaps this will be a passing phase. Nonetheless, I suspect that Davison’s book will survive when the genealogical juggernaut moves on.