Family First: Tracing Relationships in the Past
By Ruth Symes
(Pen & Sword, 224 pages, £19.99) When taking into account the title of this book, it would be easy to think “Not another ‘ how-to’ about family history!”. The market is awash with them, online guidance is everywhere, and, of course, WDYTYA? Magazine tells you all you need to know anyway!
However, this book is quite different – you should buy it, read it thoroughly, and let it reshape and inspire your ideas about your own family history.
Taking as her starting point a familiar source – the family and group photographs that are the images of our forebears – Ruth Symes ‘ interrogates’ the pictures, asking challenging questions. Why does father have that particular pose? Why are mother’s hands hidden by gloves? Who are the children looking at?
These, and a wide variety of other questions, lead her into fascinating explorations of social history, family relationships, as well as the ‘ done’ and the ‘not done’ in British society between the 1840s and 1950s.
Crucially, Ruth is showing the reader how to reassess and reappraise his or her own family and understand its workings in more detail.
This is both an exciting historical exploration and an eminently practical manual that asks provocative questions and poses interesting challenges.
At the end of each chapter, more detailed case studies address specific questions, such as what it meant to be a twin, or how widows managed in old age. These come with details of useful websites and other sources for further exploration.
Among its great strengths is that it takes current analyses and interpretations from academic historians, medical researchers and sociologists, and presents them in a brilliantly accessible and comprehensible fashion.
There’s a huge amount of research on Victorian, Edwardian and inter-war family life, but it’s mostly hidden in obscure publications.ns Now you can easily see those key findings and compare and contrast them with your own family.
I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family. It’s a great book – essential reading, I would say.
Alan Crosby is an honorary
research fellow at Lancaster
and Liverpool universities