CHATTING WITH THE ANCESTORS
I’ve spent the last few days putting together a workshop for a state-wide family history convention, and feeling a bit out of my depth. To be honest, I know as much about genealogy as I do quantum physics – just enough to be confused. Counting back generations of great-greats and calculating cousins once or twice removed puts me in a spin.
Fortunately, I’ve been asked to focus on something I’m a little more proficient at: listening to voices from the past, searching for their lives, piecing together their worlds and making the distance between now and then disappear. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do on a Saturday with a bunch of enthusiastic strangers.
But I wasn’t sure how I might piece a workshop together for a group who will all have differing experience levels in writing – and differing desires in how they might want to go about presenting their ancestors on the page.
The query sent me on a hunt for snippets in my own family archives, to illustrate all the different ways we can try to capture something of the real lives of long ago.
I re-read a history from the pen of an uncle-by-marriage that tells a patchwork pastoral of Central Western and Riverina existence through the twentieth century in plain but highly informative language.
At the other end of the scale of historical imaginings, I also re-read Wild Chicory, my thoroughly fictive approach to showing how our cultural heritage and what we remember of family thread through us indelibly, informing all of our todays. It’s a story that explores my Irishness, and, in a way, how easily accessible that piece of my fabric is to me – how bright these story threads are.
As bright and constant, though, is the sense of my European heritage: threads of Germany present in my father’s taste for rollmops and sauerkraut, and always a glint of quiet pride at the Jewishness entwined around this side of the family, too. But these elements of my history are much more mysterious. I clutch at any hint of them as if they might hold the secrets of the universe.
So, you’d think I’d have scoured every last relic, every document in my possession, for all trace of them.
This afternoon, I discovered the transcript of an obituary written for my great, great, great (I think!) grandfather, Benjamin Woolf, in among a folder full of long-hidden Hebrew treasure given to me by a distant relative about eight years ago. How I missed it, I don’t know – except that my ditzyness probably explains why I’ve always erred on the side of the imaginative.
Published in an unnamed London newspaper in 1832, the headline of this obituary calls Benjamin Woolf, ‘The Celebrated Vocalist’, and the equally unnamed writer details his life fabulously and thusly:
The well-known and much admired theatrical singer & convivialist was born in the year 1780. At the early age of eight he was apprenticed to a watchmaker, with whom he continued for six months. Becoming weary of mechanical pursuits, he prevailed upon his master to cancel his indenture, after which, in opposition to the wishes of his parents, he applied himself to the cultivation of ‘sweet sounds’, & met with considerable encouragement. But finding his musical avocations less profitable than he expected, he was soon induced to enter upon another speculation, & hired himself to a glass cutter, when one of those misfortunes so attendant on youthful negligence, caused him to be dismissed from his servitude. A review in St James’s Park, having attracted him at a time when he had to convey a basket of cut decanters to a customer residing near Whitehall, the pressure of the crowd assembled there forced the basket of glass from his arm, & the contents were crushed to atoms. For this he was dismissed from the service of the glass cutter.
In the year 1793, having attained the age of thirteen, considered amongst the Jews as the first age of manhood, his singing at the Synagogue excited the admiration of the auditory, & from the approbation bestowed upon him on that occasion, we may trace his path through life.
In the year 1798, he became acquainted with some merchants bound on a voyage to Jamaica, who prevailed upon him to follow their fortunes. At that period, the black fever was raging there with more than ordinary fury, & eight of the nine of Woolf’s companions fell victim to its baneful effects, he having a very narrow escape.
On his arrival in England in 1800, he became acquainted with Simpson, the celebrated Harlequin, who, on hearing him sing, introduced him to public notice…
Details of Benjamin’s incredibly illustrious stage career with Sadler’s Wells, Drury Lane and a number of other popular London theatres follow. I’m still digesting how famous he must have been in those circles. But most preciously, the obituary concludes:
He was an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent & an excellent companion…his talent and urbanity always made him a welcome guest.
He left behind him a wife and ten children ‘to lament his loss’, as the writer clearly did too, declaring himself to have been Benjamin’s friend for eighteen years.
He sounds like a chap I’d want to know. Perhaps I already do.
Earlier this year I put the finishing polish on a manuscript that centres, in part, on the life of a raffish London Jew called Jem Fox; it’s with my agent now. I was searching for myself in him, no doubt.
Always searching for pieces of me.