What is it like to be the distant relation of Charles Dickens, Emmeline Pankhurst or John Constable?

Holly Williams meets the great-great-great-grandchildren of four of the greatest Britons

Our family trees can be the source of endless fascination – people love to talk about what their granddad did in the war, how a great-great-aunt ran away from home to appear on the London stage, or to chase down ancestry charts that prove, once upon a time, our line was a noble one. But mostly, such antecedents are only really interesting within our own families, our own mythologies.

The exception, of course, is when a long-deceased relative is still relevant today – a well-known name, a famous figure, who gave us enduring art, or indelibly altered our culture, society or politics. Such ancestry holds a fascination: what’s it like to be descended from a household name? Is it a burdensome weight of expectation, a key to open doors with, or simply a source of pride?

"I have had comments like 'Darwin must be turning in his grave'"

Laura Keynes, writer, 34

Great-great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin

"It really confuses people that I'm a Catholic and a descendant of Darwin – they just assume you can't be [both]. Actually, Darwin was agnostic. If you read his letters, he always said agnostic is the only position to take; he wasn't an atheist. I've never seen the theory of evolution as incompatible with faith – and neither did Darwin.

My grandfather was a scientist at Cambridge and he edited a lot of Darwin's letters; I grew up with him always talking about Darwin, and having scholars visiting. It was my mother – who married into the family – who converted [to Catholicism] when I was really young and brought my brother and I up as Catholics. Then I lapsed as a teenager. I was getting, from my dad's side of the family, a very scientific point of view. And the values of Bloomsbury came through very strongly [John Maynard Keynes, the economist, is Laura's great-great-uncle]: the ethical autonomy of the individual, liberalism, scientific values. You just inherit these things from your family culture – and no one ever went to church, we never talked about religion.

It was when I was doing my DPhil at Oxford, and the whole 'God Debate' had started and I was reading [Richard] Dawkins portraying every religious person as a crazy fundamentalist... and I thought, this is not true to what I remember from my upbringing as a Catholic in Cambridge. I remembered deeply humane, tolerant people. Also, Dawkins' representation of Darwin made me question Dawkins – because I knew Darwin was a very tolerant and civilised person who would allow anyone their freedom of conscience, their freedom of belief.

Then my grandmother passed away – [she had been] put on the NHS Liverpool Care Pathway and it wasn't implemented properly: the nurses didn't give her pain relief on time, and we couldn't understand why she was being starved of fluids, and it was just horrific to watch. It felt like state-sponsored euthanasia.

That really made me think about human dignity: what do I think about assisted suicide, and euthanasia? And similarly, abortion was a big issue – I had personal experience of that during my DPhil. And I've always regretted it. As a woman – and I know a lot of people will disagree with me – I feel abortion is so damaging to the dignity of women.

That made me think again about what the Catholic Church asserts, the values that I thought were against the liberal, scientific culture that I grew up in. I realised the Catholic Church asserts these values for good reason: for the protection of human dignity. So that completely turned my world view around.

I was really cowardly [about telling my family] at first, I just kept it to myself. When my story came out [Keynes wrote about being a Catholic Darwinian for the Catholic Herald last summer, and is now writing a book on the subject], no one said anything, but I did get the feeling it was 'bad form'... there'd always been this family code of honour: don't mention Darwin! It was bad form to draw attention to yourself by using this Darwin connection.

I have had comments on Twitter like 'Darwin must be turning in his grave' and 'You obviously didn't inherit his intelligence', really nasty comments. But you take them on the chin.

Charles Darwin Keynes says of her great-great-great-grandfather (pictured): 'I knew Darwin was a very tolerant and civilised person (Getty)
Obviously I believe the evidence for the theory of evolution is compelling – it's the best theory we have. But it's always going back to the idea of what causes a cause: and evolution is not going to answer that question. For me, faith is always, kind of, a doubt. It's not a superstition, it's a reasonable doubt.

I'm not a Creationist and I wouldn't take the story literally. The way we understand things as humans is we make a story of them: we narrativise, we use metaphor and analogy. And there's the obvious fact that there must have been something at the beginning, there must have been some moment [of creation].

People look at the old man with the beard and think he's a cuddly grandfather – and there are lovely stories of him as a family man. And he's clearly very loved by British culture – we have him on a £10 note!

That came to me in the bicentenary year [in 2009]: Darwin was everywhere, and it just became apparent people were so proud of his ideas and how they'd moved our thinking on, and so I started to actually feel like, wow, this is quite cool that I have this gene somewhere in my body! It's not something to feel embarrassed about or hide away. It's a gift."

What's it like to be the distant relation of someone famous enough to be on a bank note? Holly Williams meets the great-great-great-grandchildren of four of the greatest Britons

Our family trees can be the source of endless fascination – people love to talk about what their granddad did in the war, how a great-great-aunt ran away from home to appear on the London stage, or to chase down ancestry charts that prove, once upon a time, our line was a noble one. But mostly, such antecedents are only really interesting within our own families, our own mythologies.

The exception, of course, is when a long-deceased relative is still relevant today – a well-known name, a famous figure, who gave us enduring art, or indelibly altered our culture, society or politics. Such ancestry holds a fascination: what's it like to be descended from a household name? Is it a burdensome weight of expectation, a key to open doors with, or simply a source of pride?

Sasha Constable: Great-great-great-granddaughter of John Constable Sasha Constable: Great-great-great-granddaughter of John Constable (Rafael Winer)
"There's been at least one artist every generation – and very different ones"

Sasha Constable, artist, 43

Great-great-great-granddaughter of John Constable

"I wasn't really aware that my ancestor was such a great [figure] until I did my history of art A-level, when it became very obvious he was one of the great British landscape painters.

[His paintings] still give me goosebumps, really: they're amazing to look at, the absolute detail and passion that comes through. You can't fail to appreciate – even if you don't like his work – what an incredible painter he is.

He was a very determined man and artist, and he wasn't really ever that well recognised in the UK [in his lifetime]. That's been a great lesson to me. He's definitely had a big influence on my life.

My father's a painter as well, so I was always aware of being in an artistic family. There's been at least one artist every generation – and very different artists. One of [Constable's] sons was a very accomplished painter himself, and navigated the ocean, so we had a lot of his seascapes [in our home].

I did a sculpture degree at Wimbledon School of Arts, in the late Eighties. And then I did teacher training in the mid-Nineties, and it's something I enjoy. Though teaching in the UK was pretty tough, [whereas] teaching in Asia, the children want to learn.

Sasha says of her great-great-great-grandfather John Constable (pictured): 'He was a very determined man and artist' (Getty Images) Sasha says of her great-great-great-grandfather John Constable (pictured): 'He was a very determined man and artist' (Getty Images)
I've been out [in Cambodia] for 14 years now. Travelling is also something that runs in the family... I'm a stone-carver, so I visited magnificent stone temples across the world.

I initially came over as an artist-in-residence with the World Monuments Fund. I met a young guy working with the EU Disarmament programme, and we put a proposal together to do a 'weapons into sculpture' project and it was very successful. I worked with 23 students in fine art from the university [in Phnom Pehn]: we were given decommissioned weapons and then they were turned into these beautiful pieces of artwork. That really started something.

In the local sense, people here don't have a clue who John Constable is. But his work was very well known in France, and there's a large French presence in Cambodia, an ex-pat audience. People I'd meet would talk about 'Constable skies' here, because there are such incredible cloud formations... it was quite interesting, having that link.

We have sketches still that he did as a student, so it's his life-drawings and portraits that have influenced me. He was all about creating a feeling in his painting and I think I have followed that route, but more working with people than with the landscape.

We haven't, as a family, used his name – at all. People ask if I felt a lot of pressure from having that ancestry... And no, I don't. My artwork is very, very different – he is a great artist; I'm an artist with talent and ability, but of course I'm never going to reach his height. So the pressure's not really there."

sashaconstable.co.uk

Ollie Dickens: Great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens Ollie Dickens: Great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens (Anna Huix)
"We were all brought up on 'The Muppet Christmas Carol'"

Ollie Dickens, theatre student, 21

Great-great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens

"Most people don't know of the relation: I don't go up to people and say, 'Oh by the way, I'm the great-great-great-grandson of Dickens'. The first day at York [University], we had a class where we had to go round and say our names – 'Ollie, nice to meet you' – then surnames – 'Ollie Dickens' – and then our full name, and I was bricking it, because my full name is Oliver Mark Charles Dickens. And someone at the other end of the room shouted 'Ha! You've got Charles Dickens in your name'... but no one made the connection for about six months! It's one of our family traditions: if Dickens is the surname, they'll have Charles as a middle name.

Growing up, the main [Dickens influence] was A Christmas Carol – and specifically, The Muppet Christmas Carol. We were all brought up on that!

At school, one of the English sets was doing Dickens, and I wasn't allowed to be in that set, unfortunately! I've still got the big ones to read, like The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations. But I read A Tale of Two Cities over my gap year, and that's when I began to realise how a big a thing it was – it hadn't been blown out of proportion, he really did know how to write.

Love, loss, struggles, hardship – [what he wrote about] anyone can relate to, and he did it so well. He was a social reformer, and he touched so many people. He wrote from the soul.

Ollie says of his great-great-great-grandfather Charles Dickens (pictured): 'He touched so many people. He wrote from the soul' (Popperfoto/Getty) Ollie says of his great-great-great-grandfather Charles Dickens (pictured): 'He touched so many people. He wrote from the soul' (Popperfoto/Getty)
[At the bicentenary celebrations in 2012] we had about 200 members of the family in a huge lunch hall, four or five generations, which was amazing. Not many people can say they know their third and fourth cousins. And we have the annual Dickens Lunch: all the male members of the family, over 18, go to London and have a boozy lunch at the George & Vulture. There is a bonding link between us, and it's just who we happen to be related to. My father even writes a family newsletter.

The bicentenary was a huge event. It wasn't until the actual day that you realised how many people really, really loved Dickens. I feel so proud to have the link.

Personally, [my favourite book] is A Christmas Carol. My father went to Galveston in Texas, there was a huge Dickens event there when I was four or five. And he did a reading of A Christmas Carol. I was young enough to play Tiny Tim, so I got to get up and say 'God bless us every one' in a very high-pitched English accent, which went down quite well. That's where I got the acting bug!

Being an actor is the aim: I have a term left at university, and then the real world starts... A lot of people don't know, but Dickens didn't want to be a writer, he wanted to be an actor. He had an audition somewhere like Drury Lane, but on the day he was very ill and couldn't do it. By the next time, he'd already become a famous writer... but he kept doing performance. In Tavistock House, he converted a room where he would put on plays for family and friends.

If I did inherit any genes – and I certainly didn't inherit any writing genes, I was terrible at English at school – hopefully I've got some of his acting genes."

Helen Pankhurst, right: Great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst Helen Pankhurst, right: Great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst (Getty)
"If the Suffragettes were around today, they'd be horrified"

Helen Pankhurst, social campaigner, 49

Great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst

"The Pankhursts were a complicated family, with very different views within it: Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were about the vote, whereas Sylvia [Emmeline's daughter] and her father were very much about wider issues, to do with equality, working women's rights and international issues.

My father was Sylvia's son, and really an academic – not just an ivory-tower academic, but this activism of Sylvia and Emmeline wasn't as important to him. But it became important to me.

Because I was born in Ethiopia, and understanding the greater needs of women in developing countries, I really wanted to do something about that. I studied economics in the UK, and I went back as part of my thesis to live in a village in northern Ethiopia when I was 20 or 21. That was a pivotal point: I realised I wanted to do something more than write about it.

The Pankhurst name resonates in ways that give me a voice, not just to talk about women's rights here, but also to say: we need to be doing things about the greater inequalities that exist in some parts of the world.

Helen's great-grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst (pictured) campaigned to get the vote for women Helen's great-grandmother Emmeline Pankhurst (pictured) campaigned to get the vote for women (Getty)
However, I've spent half my life in the UK and I'm very aware of ongoing [equality] issues here. We live in a time when there's a bubbling around lots of different issues within women's rights, and it's important to bring them all together. It's a fantastic time [for feminism]. Social media now allows individuals to have fantastic power for change: think of campaigns like No More Page Three, or Everyday Sexism...

I think the Suffragettes would love some elements [of our society today]. They were at the front of using all sorts of clever ways to get media attention and get social change; they were phenomenal, if you look at some of the things they did, and the numbers – they managed to get 500,000 people, at least, on one rally. If they were here today they'd be so enamoured by the tools we have at our beck and call. But I think they'd also be horrified by some of the ongoing inequalities – honestly, do we really still have only half the number of women we should have in Parliament? And the attitudes to women who step forward, the vilification, the trolling and all of that – which are exactly what they had to face.

I think, also, they'd be quite chuffed that the Suffragettes are remembered and used in ongoing work – I use the name in my Care International campaign, Walk in her Shoes [raising awareness of the distances women in developing countries have to walk to collect water]. And I think they would be intrigued by the fact that they're still relevant.

Both my daughter and son are very aware of the heritage, and very proud of it.

I've got Sylvia as a middle name, and I feel, more than anybody else, she's been at my side somehow. I've been very privileged to have her as a role model"

Dr Helen Pankhurst is an ambassador for Care International; see careinternational.org.uk

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