Family & Ancestry
Q. Have the research and writing of these books led you to a better understanding of family history in general?
A. It has led me to a number of conclusions. In writing Sarum, which covers ten thousand years, it was necessary to have fictional families living in the same region over huge periods; but the understanding between myself and the reader was that this was a novelist's device. A little after the novel came out, remains of a man, many thousands of years old, were recovered from a village west of the Sarum area. His DNA showed that at least one man in the same village was his descendant. Clearly population shifts are like waves upon a shore. The underlying population of an area tends to remain there. In England, the ancient Britons of the Celtic tribes were not pushed out by the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans mixed with the Saxons, and so on.
Q. Is that why everyone is related to everyone else?
A. Maybe. As far as I can see, in the western world, after the great tribal migrations at the end of the Roman Empire and the Norse migrations a few centuries later, there was about seven hundred years before the big emigrations to America and then the coming of the railways caused people to move and mix in a big way. What's most striking is the way that even the gentry class, who had more opportunity to move about, tended to marry in their own locality. So I think you get areas where most of the population comes to be related, and then in modern times members of those groups have been mixing all over the western world. That certainly seems to be indicated by most of the family trees that I've seen.
Q. In your novels families change their classes dramatically down the generations. Is this just a novelist's device?
A. No. In the Germanic countries of Europe, and to an extent in France, society was separated into castes; but since the Norman conquest in 1066, England, because of its different inheritance system, followed a different path. The great historian of feudal England, J.H. Round, estimated that the average feudal baron's family only kept their place in society for three generations - and this in a period when, in my schooldays, we were told that society was static. No wonder our medieval ancestors believed in the Wheel of Fortune. Researching these books taught me that English society was remarkably fluid, even in the middle ages. The landowner's eldest son inherited the estate; the younger sons had to seek their fortune. And quite often, in fact, they went into trade, and in due course the law, hoping to make enough money to acquire land of their own again. In the towns, especially London, they mixed with merchants who were buying estates of their own and, unsurprisingly married them. The great Lord Cornwallis, famous on both sides of the Atlantic, was an aristocrat of the first order; his medieval ancestors were London aldermen. Add to that two things: first, the fact that some people rise and some fall; second that as families multiply down the generations, so assets are subdivided. A rich man's grandchildren may be working as labourers, and vice versa. The family stories in my books are frequently based on real family histories. Most of us myself certainly included, have ancestors at one time or another from every class, high and low.
Q. So you believe that we are all more socially mixed then we realise.
A. Yes. It's all there in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Thackeray's Vanity Fair. The study of genealogy is a wonderful cure for snobbery.
Q. Yet most people who look into their ancestry secretly hope to find someone important there.
A. And if they can go back far enough, they probably will. The estimate has always been that a third of all English people descend from King Edward III. One of my Australian cousins showed me recently that she and I descend from the Emperor Charlemagne. As I said to her: "This changes everything." Apart from trying to recreate the Roman Empire, Charlemagne had a squeaky voice and a pot belly; but he did make great efforts, not very successful, to learn to read and write. And how many of us could show descent from him? Millions, certainly.
Q. But the truth of our ancestries can never be completely known.
A. Exactly, and as long as we don't take ourselves too seriously, ancestry should be enjoyed. I'll give you an example of what I think is the right attitude. There was a story in my father's family - who'd been harmlessly farming in the Severn Valley since the fourteenth century - that they descended from a Romano-British general. We're talking the time of King Arthur here. My father laughed at it. But when, as a boy, I asked one of my uncles about it, he fixed me with a baleful stare and told me: "This gives our family an antiquity so preposterous, that you will show a very poor spirit if you do not insist that it is true." I like that. It's the sort of thing that Mark Twain would have said.