Fam­ily First: Trac­ing Re­la­tion­ships in the Past

By Ruth Symes

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

(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

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