Thanks to sites like Ancestry and 23andMe, we’ve all been able to learn more about our family histories. Not all these revelations are happy ones. It’s possible to discover a half-sibling no one knew about, or that an uncle once talked about in glowing terms was, in fact, a scoundrel and thief. A search may turn up photos and official documents, but what really happened to all those people whose names turn up? What were their interactions with those around them? What were their daily lives like? How did they overcome economic and social challenges?
Simon Mawer wondered, too, but as an award-winning novelist he created a compelling portrait of his maternal and paternal ancestors in his new book, Ancestry. More than a personal story, however, Mawer has written an historical account of what life was like for working class men and women fighting to survive in nineteenth century England.
While Mawer obviously benefited from what information he obtained from his relatives who were still alive, he still had to do a large amount of research, not only about the living conditions the early members of his family endured, but also about the events that impacted their lives.
There are no rags to riches stories. Mawer’s ancestors were poor and worked hard to make ends meet. His great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Abraham Block, leaves home at 15, becoming indentured for five years on a ship. He is able to see the world, but life on the high seas is rough. In London, he meets Naomi Fulham, a seamstress who, after an encounter with a lothario, becomes pregnant and goes to live with a couple who, because they haven’t been able to have children, welcome her baby. Abraham and Naomi will marry and have more children. But Naomi is left to fend for herself and her children when Abraham is lost at sea.
On his father’s side, George Mawer, a soldier, weds a young Irish woman, Ann Scanlon. The newlyweds spend their early days living in the barracks, alongside other soldiers. Separated from the men with just a flimsy curtain, George and Ann make love and she becomes pregnant. Although unable to read or write, Ann, as fiery as her red hair, is smart and a survivor. She takes care of her growing family, daughter Mary, and son, George (another daughter died after birth), whenever George is called away with his regiment. But the ill-fated Crimea War will finally claim his life and, having just given birth to another child, Sarah, Ann struggles to keep her family together.
Mawer’s imagination fills in the blanks about the private lives of these two couples, including their sexual encounters. His accounts of the men’s lives, whether on the ship in Abraham’s case, or at war, in George’s, are so descriptive, it’s easy to imagine the horrors these two men faced.
Naomi and Ann, in my mind, stand out as the true heroes in Mawer’s family saga. After Abraham dies, Naomi finds a way to move forward. Ann, Illiterate, her only skills as a maid and laundress, still manages to win battles against some of the most learned men around her, pleading for the welfare of her children, but unwilling to give in to the ultimate humiliation, being sent to a workhouse. She shows no shame for what she is forced to do, while one man in particular who did take advantage of her, couldn’t withstand public scrutiny and leaves his practice and home.
Mawer agrees, noting in his epilogue: “It was the women who won though, the women who swam doggedly against the tide of history and dragged their children to the shore, thus saving them from destitution and setting them on the path to middle-class prosperity.”
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