Having grown up knowing almost nothing about my extended family, due to the disinterest of my parents in their relatives, it has been a great surprise for me to suddenly develop a passion for genealogy. Unfortunately I have left my investigation rather late, because most people from even my parents' generation have died, but thanks to the intrusive internet it is possible to unearth the sorts of facts previously found only in family stories or possibly the Family Bible.
Disappointingly, I have not yet discovered anyone particularly newsworthy or infamous among the 750 or so leaves of the family tree I have so far identified, but the exercise has given me several points to ponder:
- The general expectation of a young woman in the 19th century must have been that she would bear 10 or more children, usually at intervals of a year or two.
- She would expect several of her children to die at birth or in infancy, and that she herself would probably die before she was middle-aged, most likely from infection, often as a result of pregnancy or childbirth.
- Young men would expect to leave home in their mid-teens and then to spend almost all of their time working, often away from home. They usually married young, and began almost immediately to produce as large a family as possible.
- It was very common for one parent to die while some of the children were still very young, and the remaining parent usually married again, often starting another family.
- Any parent who managed to survive into old age always went to live with one of their children, usually an unmarried one.
- Hardly anyone got divorced (although there is no reason to suppose that marriages were generally any happier or unhappier then than they are now).
- Young orphans were far more common than today, leading to more formal or informal adoptions.
- Families sailing from the UK to Australia not infrequently lost or gained a child during the voyage.
None of these are fresh or insightful observations, but the point is that these people were my family. They are not characters in a novel or part of a sociological treatise on "19th Century Life in the Colonies". My own (extremely unusual) middle name pops up at least once in each generation, tying me firmly to these women whose lives were unimaginably different from my own.
So one question is foremost in my mind as I unravel these histories ... "Could I have coped with lives like theirs?" Of course that is impossible to answer and therefore pointless to ask, but nevertheless I feel ashamed to say that I doubt it very much indeed.
(as in "things which incense me", not "things for waving incense about")
I am implacable about fairness, and this frequently gets me into trouble. My friends charitably call this behaviour "standing up for what is right" or "speaking out against injustice and deceit".
Just as accurately, my critics label me as a "troublemaker",
or to use a more vivid expression, a "shit-stirrer".
Keeping out of trouble, avoiding confrontation, minding my own business, not fighting other peoples' battles for them, letting things be, remembering my (inferior) position, sticking to battles I can win ... these are lessons I seem to be unable to learn.
Most people very sensibly prefer a quiet life, and try to avoid situations which will cause them distress. Of course that doesn't mean that they are any less fervent about injustice than people like me - they just have a more self-protective way of dealing with it. And if someone else seems not just willing but actually eager to go into battle on their behalf, why not let them?
I have previously described two of my futile battles this year, but no sooner had those wounds healed than I was hurling myself pointlessly back into the fray. The same two "Goliaths" continued to raise my ire throughout the year by persisting in their shabby treatment of students and volunteers respectively, so after a very short period of meekly acknowledging those in "authority", I resumed my doomed campaign on behalf of those they treated with such disrespect.
Of course the natural reaction of anyone to a persistently annoying pest is to swat it, which is precisely what happened (again).
Will I ever learn not to keep trying?