by Graeme Davison
Allen & Unwin
Published June, 2015
Graeme Davison’s family history begins in the ‘quintessential English countryside’ of Hampshire, Jane Austen country, where his forebear John Hewett’s short, farming life came to an end in 1829. Standing before the lichen-covered headstone in a churchyard, the Australian historian begins to ask questions, the very stuff of all histories, whether monumental or domestic. The opening chapters of Lost Relations seek to provide sufficient background and detail to answer one of those questions:
And what prompted his widow and their eight children to quit this beautiful village and set off, almost a decade later, across the seas to distant Port Phillip?
Austen pops up again, soon after, when Davison wants to make a point about his people’s yeomanry background, contrasting what life was like in the industrialising nineteenth century for England’s elite ruling class compared with the experience of increasingly displaced rural families. There’s a third Austen reference a little later, when the narrative has moved on to the voyage of John’s widow Jane and her eight children aboard the infamous Culloden. Davison refers to Austen’s most admired novel, Pride and Prejudice, in order to contrast the social etiquette which ruled manners, society and relationships in that novel’s sphere with the romance and marriage of his great-great-great grandparents, Robert Hewett and Elizabeth Fenwick. Aboard the Culloden in 1850, en route for Australia in desperation as much as hope, Robert and Elizabeth would have been pragmatic about the good sense in finding a mate even before the troubled ship docked in Hobson’s Bay four months after setting sail. Elizabeth was one of a contingent of needlewomen, whose penury made it difficult for them to survive without prostituting themselves, while Robert was one of the eight children Jane bundled onto the Culloden when the chances of survival on the family’s Hampshire farm dwindled to remote. They chose each other on what Davison jauntily describes as this ‘love-boat’, where the presence of so many women had scandalous repercussions for the captain and crew. When he picks up their story again, eight months after their arrival in Melbourne, they are married, and while Davison frets briefly about the virtues of this liaison, he is reasonably content that it was, relatively speaking, of sound foundations.
This fretting about the soundness of his forebears’ characters is a refrain throughout Lost Relations, enjoyed by the historian for the opportunity it gives him to talk about himself with modest self-indulgence. It’s as though a well-dressed man has taken off his hat to pat his hair and found a bald spot he then delights in scratching. Never overplayed, and modestly developed, this interplay between the stories of the past and the historian’s self-scrutiny in recounting them is a device that is both charming and revelatory. It allows him to step out of the otherwise mundane detailing of who married whom, where they settled, what kinds of lives they led, and what they believed in, into discussions that are more personal and more general at the same time. He is asking of himself, and suggesting we also might ask of ourselves, am I who I am because of what happened to my forebears and because of who they were?
Austen’s most famous novel could fittingly be used as part of the subtitle for Lost Relations: something like, ‘how a distinguished historian overcame his own pride and prejudice to learn to love family history’. As it is, the publishers have chosen the less sensational ‘Fortunes of my family in Australia’s Golden Age’, sensibly identifying both that this is a family history and also that it traces back through the Central Victorian goldrushes. But, as historian Janet McCalman hints in her commendation blurb for Davison’s book, it is the writer’s decorous wrestling with his own discomfort that gives what would otherwise be a useful domestic history a ripple of intriguing danger and adds a meta-layer to the writing. ‘Australia’s most creative and original historian,’ McCalman says, is meditating in Lost Relations on ‘his family, his country and his craft… conducting a conversation with his readers about historical imagination and truth’.
If Davison is a fan of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice he will be well aware that the title is not only binary; Fitzwilliam Darcy is not solely the embodiment of pride, nor Elizabeth Bennet of prejudice, but it is the way each of those qualities in the other causes error and misunderstanding that creates the exquisite trajectory of their relationship. Davison foreshadows what he feels uncomfortable about when he writes in the introduction to Lost Relations, ‘For most of my life I have avoided family history’. As a professional historian, he confesses proudly, he has put up with the ‘chattering genealogists’ who frequent public archives, but now, here he is, having to swallow that pride to become one of them, chasing down the annals of family history to find his own identity.
His erstwhile distrust of the family history boom is on the record: back in 2009, in the journal History Australia, he wrote about what he called ‘speed-relating’ – the enormous increase in amateur family history thanks to digitalised archives and the clever commercialisation of search sites such as Ancestor.com. Davison enjoys wordplay and populist references, and there is nothing in his description of the chattering genealogists to make his own latter-day conversion to family history too awkward. But he comes through as a scrupulous writer, and so, now he has joined the ranks of those he calls ‘time-travellers’, he may well see his earlier position as displaying a certain amount of prejudice. What he said back then, referring in particular to the celebrity speed-relating television program, Who Do You Think You Are?, was that
what the time-travellers primarily seek is a sense of imaginative connection with a personal past, and healing from its hurts, rather than an analytical understanding of larger events.
He went on to question whether some of these connections were not a little tenuous, suggesting that it is wishful thinking to explain Geoffrey Robertson’s ‘imperious manner’ by linking him with Prussian aristocratic forebears, or Ita Buttrose’s successful career with the ‘feminist ambition’ of her great-great-grandmother.
Beware, the historian suggested back then, this is not quite history:
By linking the lives of present-day celebrities with the lives and times of their forebears, the series reflects a broader feature of the culture, apparent in much contemporary film, fiction and historical writing. In doing so, it confirms the quest for identity as a characteristic preoccupation of our age.
In 2000, when Davison’s The Uses and Abuses of History was published, he had already started his own tentative journey into his family’s past. A few years prior, he and his sister Helen found the gravestone of their great-great-great grandfather, John Hewett, in the churchyard of St Nicholas, in Newnham, Hampshire. In that book, written in the wake of the politically-driven debate about ‘monumental’ vs ‘critical’ national history, family history is described as ‘semi-private’ and ‘informal’. With the abatement of that sometimes very nasty debate, and the rise of what Davison sees as the quest for identity through family history, he has moved on. In Uses and Abuses of History, his underlying theme was ‘the continuing power of the past and the need to confront its uses critically’. That theme is still there, in Lost Relations, but what happens when the historical subject is oneself? Davison’s conversation with himself is nuanced by this tension between the historian’s rigorous justification of his portrait of the past and his recognition that, by pursuing himself – an understanding of who and what he is – via this family portrait, he is indulging in what he used to feel, with the pride of a professional, was beneath him.
What does he find? Like most Australians whose family line traces back to colonial settlement, it’s a story of gradual prosperity, dispersal and eventual diversification, with, in Davison’s case, the linking thread of their Wesleyan Methodist beliefs. Though he admits to finding skeletons in the closet, the revelations are not shocking, so mild or merely unfortunate are the misdemeanours of his relatives. He mocks himself early on in the story when his research uncovers a reference to some nasty business concerning Robert Hewett, only for this to then be crossed out of the family archive when he discovers soon after that this was a different Robert Hewett. You get an idea of this most courteous and careful of historians’ voice when he writes:
Lurking in the shadows of this story is the ghost of an ancient superstition: the dread of bad blood. Family historians may no longer hunt for noble or famous ancestors, but they remain nervous of the discovery of bad ones, especially if they fear that their moral or biological failings could be passed on. Perhaps that was why I was relieved when Elizabeth Fenwick, the poor needlewoman, passed the respectability test. And why I was glad that her husband Robert was not the ‘blackguard’ I first feared him to be. On the other hand, I was a little embarrassed by (Robert’s brother) Richard’s spell in Maitland Gaol for forgery.
Davison here, in a couple of pages preceding the family’s time in Wesley Hill, near Castlemaine (which is the reason for my own initial interest in this book, because that’s close to where I now live), revisits the Who Do You Think You Are? program, and the role played in the family history boom by commercial sites such as Ancestry.com. This time, however, it’s off the back of his own yearning for self-understanding. The fear of bad blood, he writes, is connected to ‘a surprising turn in contemporary culture’. Whereas Australians used to take pride (there it is again) in their independence from notions of heredity, favouring the emancipated Australian environment in their depiction of who and what we are, what we now see happening is a turning away from ‘civic, class or national identities’ towards what might be found in ethnic and family loyalties. This is a huge discussion with deep repercussions, only touched on in Davison’s book, but he manages to pose intriguing and important questions with tact and discretion. Go to it, he seems to be saying, of all those who log on, provide credit card details, then watch the family tree shoot out branches; but don’t forget to keep your real self connected to that other self you meet online:
The family one meets online is a virtual family in two senses: it belongs in cyberspace, not physical space, and in the past, not the present. It invites us to share the triumphs and tragedies of our forebears but without the emotional vulnerability it would entail in real life. […] we tend to draw from the family past only as much of their story as we find confirming of our own sense of self. […] In an age when traditional family structures are in radical dissolution, the family historian may now be more pleased than sorry to find forebears with matrimonial disasters of their own, but may flinch from a more radical questioning of the role of the family in society. By situating our families in the throes of history, and viewing their individual experiences against the background of their times, we take a first step towards making family history something more than a private hobby. It is here that genealogy, memory and history may become partners in a shared civic endeavour.
This is rousing and encouraging, all the more so because it is set within the elegantly written, generation-by-generation account of the Hewetts’ Australian story. It is difficult not to agree with John Hirst’s appraisal that the way to produce good family history is to ‘get a master historian to write about his own’. But there’s another nuance to this tussle between the professional historian’s rigour and skill in attempting objective narration and his willingness to say ‘I’, which appears to grow in confidence as the story approaches his own era, and which culminates in his loving, moving description of his grandfather Vic.
The way he writes about Vic needs to be put in the context of his reticence in using his family’s stories without their consent. Several times, he questions his right to out his long-gone relatives for the sake of his book. The most difficult moment, which elicits a frank statement about the moral dilemma of using people’s secrets, involves a tragic fire, accidentally lit, which resulted in a woman’s death. Witnessed by his grandmother Emma when she was a child, it was never spoken about, and Davison writes that he would probably have left it out of his book if his grandmother had still been alive. ‘Even now, I wonder if telling it breaks some code of family loyalty,’ he writes, ‘I wonder if I am placing my calling as a historian above some higher duty to my kin’.
This is a provocative statement, one that each reader can puzzle over and respond to according to their own code of ethics and experience. But as part of Davison’s self-portrait, it must be placed within the context of what comes to be the defining feature of his family and their linked histories, which is Methodism. This eventually emerges with impressive clarity in the writer’s description of Emma’s husband, his grandfather Vic, who died when Davison was sixteen.
Vic was one of four brothers, the sons of Wesleyan Methodists who had settled in Williamstown, and when Vic settles with his own family in Essendon, he has the role of lay preacher at the Methodist Church there. Because the history is now entering the author’s own lifetime, he admits he is relying as much on memory and its associated impressions as he is on written or oral records. And that memory is infused with such tenderness and respect, his writing becomes elegiac:
I knew even then, that he had shaped my life. I would inherit his Methodism, his love of the spoken and printed word, his passion for literature and history, his moderate leftist politics, and his sense of humour. In time, I would shed some of his beliefs – his teetotalism was one of the first to go, his pacifism rather later – and his personal influence would be modified by the influence of others. But often, it seemed to me, I was following paths that he would have followed himself, if the world had been as kind to children of his class and generation as it was to mine.
Vic’s life, his passionate decency, are neatly summarised in Davison’s ode to his grandfather. With this, and with the penultimate chapter recounting the final days of the last remaining Hewett from that Culloden voyage, the historian is physically with us, sitting by Vic’s bedside as he lay dying, walking the streets of Richmond as a young university student, beginning his career and discovering much later that was where the widow Jane, she who had begun the family’s Australian story when she embarked on the Culloden, lived until 1874, in a cottage now demolished. And her daughter Jane, who dies in 1928, aged 96, in the Old Colonists’ home in North Fitzroy (where my own grandmother died), embodies the intent of Davison’s book, the reason he called it Lost Relations. Jane’s modest life, unmarried and childless, would seem but a footnote to the construction of this family’s history, but it was her passed-down account of the Culloden arrival story, and Vic’s visit to her before she died when he took her picture and listened to her talk about her life, that begins Davison’s book.
On the cover of Lost Relations is a photograph that encourages readers to see joy in the Hewett’s story. As you read about their often hard progress from arrival in Port Melbourne, to fortune-hunters on the goldfields, to respectable middle-class suburban Australians, that photograph of the faces of the women and children, composed with Aunt Jane as the apex of a happy pyramid, is a reminder about why this historian, and so many people, treasure mementoes from their shared past. The photo reappears inside, this time alongside another photo of Aunt Jane, in what appears to be the same formal, black taffeta frock, with the same odd cabbage-shaped cap on her head. This photograph, also taken by one of the four brothers, Reuben (Bob), is Jane and the menfolk, with Bob at the apex, Jane alongside Bob’s father Robert Henry, who nurses Bob’s son, another Robert Henry. The happy group of women and laughing children is replaced by the serious official look of men’s business: Jane’s face, relaxed and sharing in the women’s group, becomes grim in the men’s group. How gently we are encouraged to understand the difference between the way histories can be told when we choose to privilege particular perspectives.
Davison’s concluding chapter makes a case for family history embracing not just the positive and celebratory, not just what can instil pride and confidence, but also to include what he calls the “black sheep”, those who fell by the wayside, whose misdeeds are forgotten, who left little trace. He does this in the name of humility but there’s no need, really, to claim a moral imperative for including such people and their stories in family history. As Graeme Davison shows so well, in the hands of a careful and skilled historian, every life has vivid, potent and poignant relevance.