“What’s past is prologue”
Inheritance concerns biology, but as I have tried to show, it cannot be reduced to biology. DNA can be traced tangibly through the generations, but genetics is ultimately no more than a set of instructions for building proteins. Of infinitely more interest than the genotype is the phenotype – the organism which results from the genotype. Put another way, inheritance is about stories, stories of individuals and the families within which their lives are entwined.
I set out to write the story of my father, William Shakespeare. It was only when he died that I realised how little I knew about him. He had shared lots of stories – or rather, the same few stories told many times. But there were even more gaps, episodes which he would never discuss, or deeper questions that he did not think were important.
My father had been keen for me to go to the same boarding school, Radley College, as he had done. To be ready for public school at 13, I should start at preparatory school at 9. Consequently, I left home halfway through my childhood and while I always returned for the holidays, something had changed. I was growing up and apart from my parents. It was the rich and complicated life of school and peers that had become important, not what went on at home.
After school, I went to university, and I had barely graduated when my partner and I had my first child. Now my focus was not on my birth family, but on the new relationships that I had chosen. When I was 25, I moved to the North East of England with my daughter and her mother. Although my parents visited, the hundreds of miles which separated us prevented us sharing our lives and feelings. I did not prioritise getting to know my parents again, because I was impatient to get on with my own life, so different from their own.
In my thirtieth year, my father died aged 68, completely unexpectedly. Suddenly it was too late to ask questions or fill gaps. I felt cheated by fate, as well as guilty that my own preoccupations had prevented me getting to know my father better, man to man rather than parent to child. I had not been prepared to listen to him, or include him centrally in my life. More recently, I have realised that our lack of connection and understanding was not just down to me. My father was a very quiet man, who talked little and shared less of himself. My mother confirmed to me that he was never much of a talker, and they rarely had deep conversations: he spent most of his time reading books. Realising this, I was able to let myself feel angry and frustrated that he had not thought to speak about things that were important. He had failed me, as much as I had failed him, and our relationship had remained tender but superficial. We had been affectionate and loving, but moments when we found a sense of shared understanding and connection were few and far between.
Because it was too late to ask my father questions, I went and talked to his friends and relatives, asking them to dredge up memories of the 1930s and 40s, trying to get a sense of my grandparents, my aunt and even my great grandparents. I spoke to his cousins Jane, John and Ann. I spoke to his nephew Mark and his niece Amanda. I spoke to his best friend Scottie, who has himself since died. I read books and looked at records, and visited graves, and touched objects which could help me understand who my father was, and where I had come from. Although this research enabled me to gain more understanding, the picture will always remain incomplete: vivid in some areas, shadowy in others.
We never expect death, and people often die before we or they are ready. In the words of Samuel Beckett, “Death has not required us to keep a day free”. When a person dies, particularly someone who has lived a long life, much else dies with them. Young people rarely value listening to previous generations. They have their own lives to live, and consider the past to be outdated and irrelevant. But every individual contains stories, connections and memories which are unique and irreplaceable. As people grow up, perhaps when they start their own families, they often become more eager to know about what went before. At the end of my own journey, I feel strongly that other sons and daughters should speak to their parents and grandparents, and record their history: it’s a sentiment that others have echoed.
My friend Thomas Rütten, who was so helpful to me in my searches in Germany, read my chapter about my father and told me that it had moved him. He identified with my frustration at not having fully known my father, because he also regrets that he never took the opportunity to ask his own father questions about his life. As a young man, Laurenz Rütten had fought on the Eastern Front as a member of the Wehrmacht. The experience had been unimaginably harrowing, and for many years afterwards he had nightmares. Thomas’ mother discouraged him from asking his father about those times, so he never did. Now that his father is long gone, Thomas regrets that he missed the opportunity to understand more of what shaped his father: as a son, not just a historian, he realises the importance of even the most traumatic memories.
I heard another story from a Norwegian academic colleague. His father, Halldor Sandvin, is a retired school teacher. Once a month he writes a letter, circulated to his eight grandchildren, in which he tells them a story from his past. He calls it Manns Minne, “The Memory of Man”. Often it will be something he has not told his own children, perhaps something funny, or a story with a moral, or a story about his childhood, growing up in a poor family in a valley south east of Bergen. I love this idea. I feel grateful that my own father wrote his memoirs, but sad that there was so much he did not include and that I never thought to ask him.
My brother’s father had a heart attack in the family home and shortly after died, when Matthew was only 16. Hugh Galpin was a fascinating person: a circuit judge, a wine-maker, an amateur archaeologist, someone with many interests and skills. Matthew feels sad that he never knew him as an adult. His father was also a classical music enthusiast, who built his own hi-fi system: Matthew has inherited hundreds of his records. We were talking recently when he had the idea of listening to them all, one by one, in his studio. To hear this very personal collection of music would be to experience a curiously embedded self-portrait in sound. It would be a way of meeting him face to face, decades after his death.
My interest in the past, and my search for the sources of my life in the doings and beings that preceded me is also an investigation into what I will leave behind. What will my grandchildren think of me? When I have descendents who never knew me personally, what will I mean to them? The thought of being forgotten, of being known no more, seems like a second death. To a supreme solipsist, it is unbearable.
At this point in human history, every person in the developed world possesses so much portable property: books, photographs, letters, diaries, records and CDs, furniture, clothes, shoes. But how little of it passes down. I still own some of my father’s possessions – a box of diaries, most of his books, some of his clothes – but do not know what to do with all this. Where should it go? I have my aunt’s bible, my grandmother’s hair stick, my great grandfather’s copy of the life of Burne Jones. What will happen to them when I die? Will this congealed memory end up in the earth, into landfill? Or into storage? What if there was a place, some sort of vault, where you could and view the unwanted effects of your great grandfather, your grandfather, your suicide aunt?
The fate of the vast majority of people who ever existed is to be forgotten within a generation. But would it not be possible, desirable, to edit down the clutter and the letters and the memories into a distilled memorial? The urge to remember and record motivates this book. My family is not particularly distinguished, scarcely famous, certainly not unique. Perhaps our most distinctive feature is that so many different forms of inheritance can be traced within our stories. Most families can’t claim a very visible genetic condition, the same name as a uniquely celebrated genius, an inherited title, let alone a long lost brother and a suicidal aunt: we have all of these, and more. But every family has its secrets, and most have something distinctive. Some of the most vivid and interesting biographies or diaries are of nonentities. Even if it will only ever be your own family who find it of interest, the testimony is worth preserving so that your descendents can know what came before.
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What precedes us is important for many reasons. We are living through an era which stresses reinvention more than continuity, choice more than accommodation. Modern individuals live many lives, moving house or changing careers or having make-overs to become different, better, more beautiful people. We want to think of ourselves as originals, as self-made people. In my academic field, sociology, terms like fluidity, hybridity, the nomad are the common stock of post-modern and post-structuralist accounts of contemporary life.
Yet there is still a yearning for tradition and historical connection. People value authenticity: ‘being yourself’, ‘being true to your roots’, not being someone you’re not. Perhaps this search for origins is part of the reason, in a fast changing world, that genealogy has become so important to so many people. For many people, the past is part of their sense of self. Coming to understand our forebears, and knowing that via the mysteries of genetics or vaguer notions of ‘blood’ we share something of their embodiment, we realise that we are not simply isolated individuals, but part of a web of connection, the latest in a line.
Writers often have the most vivid sense of this inheritance. In her story “The lady of the house of love” Angela Carter writes:
“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.”
In her discussion of Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo, Hilary Mantel suggests that ghosts might best be imagined as the spirits of ancestors who live in and through their descendents. As Nancy Miller asks: ”Why write about the dead? Because the dead are alive in us and in our faces.”
The anthropologist Tim Ingold takes a similarly poetic view of inheritance. He suggests that the stories we tell are not simply about the ancestors, but become the ancestors. In the oral culture of traditional societies, when you tell the stories, the ancestors are present, recreated. Ingold wants us to think of the world as woven, not as carpentered blocks: we are not separate individuals. He uses the metaphor of transmission, not transport: we carry things on, we don’t carry things across the generations. Life is not the internal property of self-contained human beings, but the property of a field of relationships.
Again and again we are struck by the uncanny resemblances between family members: my niece who looks like my mother, my older brother who looks like my maternal grandfather. A family is a patchwork of many different cloths – names and natures jostling together randomly, with no pattern or forethought. But it is stitched together by the threads of inheritance, sometimes visible and sometimes hidden, which make of those dozens of disparate parts a whole.
As I learn more about the lives of my relatives and ancestors, I begin to think of myself as made up of different people, playing the game of attributing aspects of my personality to forebears. So I’d like to think that perhaps I have the impulsiveness of John Howard Shakespeare ; the humour of Geoffrey Shakespeare; the verbal dexterity of Cox Sproule; the bookishness of Judith; the cooking and hospitality tradition of my mother, grandmother and ultimately great grandmother Minnie Cooke, pressing the same meals on different guests in different countries over more than a century.
In voice and physical appearance, I resemble my father, but my bossy personality comes from my mother. Just as property is gathered together and then dispersed, shared out amongst descendents, or DNA is recombined and passed on, so my fantasy is that circulating elements from all who went before me have shaped and influenced my own make up. In the words of Nancy Miller,
“We make sense of ourselves in relation to a particular piece of the family story.”[i] (164)
If indeed we owe so much to our inheritance, then knowledge of the past becomes self-knowledge.
You might want to be selective about your inheritance, but it’s not always something you can pick and choose. I don’t much care for the Shakespeare baronetcy: it’s an unwelcome embarrassment, but it’s mine whether I like it or not. I am glad that my two children inherited high intelligence, but perhaps it would have been easier for them had they not also inherited my disability. I am relieved that none of us, so far, has manifested the Shakespearean tendency towards depression.
There’s lots of supposition here. I am making assumptions and drawing links which science cannot, currently, validate. I want to understand everything, trace cause and effect, make a pattern and shape to what is disorganised and often unknowable. Sociologist Jennifer Mason calls these connections “ethereal affinities”, beyond rational explanation but central to the fascination of kinship[ii].
What we do with ourselves, we do for our forebears too. Sometimes disinterestedly, not always consciously, we rework the tapestry of our origins to incorporate brighter threads, more coherent patterns, stronger pictures. My grandfather Douglas, the artist in the jungles of Ceylon, maintained that his ancestors were not simply Raffels, Dutch engineers and adventurers, but Von Raffels, German aristocrats now fallen on hard times. My English grandfather Geoffrey, Liberal politician, wanted to believe that his name, not just his coat of arms, legitimately connected him to the playwright of Stratford Upon Avon. I see a photograph, compare skin tones, and recreate a Sinhala ancestor who may never have existed, to add some racial exoticism to a suburban English upbringing. A strain of imaginative recreation seems to run on both sides of my family. But in this we are not alone: I think of others whom I have encountered who have their own fantasies of royalty many times removed, of Fenian rebel ancestors, of family trees burnished with actors, artists, poets, and generals.
* * * * *
Inheritance has many mechanisms. Strands of DNA are shuffled and combined, passed down through egg and sperm to children and grandchildren. The childless aunt may have no descendents, but the DNA she shares with her brother may carry some of her distinctiveness onto her nephew. Stories from a father’s childhood or recipes from a mother’s country are transmitted orally and by example across the generations to the son’s life, and to his family in turn. We inherit through biology, culture, psychology, law and economics. We come into the world not naked and unwritten but bearing the marks of our forebears. In our lives, we play out, emphasise, ignore, reject, reinvent, and revert to aspects of our inheritance. In turn, we seek to control what we pass on to our children in the choices of who we marry, when we reproduce, where we live, how we spend and what we save. All of these actions and reactions operate within a complex dialectic of choice and fate, free will and determinism. As Marx said, we make our own history but not in circumstances of our devising. In the end, we have to believe we are responsible for our lives, in order to make something of them. You cannot control what you inherit, but it you do have the responsibility for what you do with it. We are all born copies, but we die originals.