A family tree is so much less trouble than a family

When so many of us are hopeless at family life, kith and kin who are safely dead offer a refuge
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The Independent Online

As the descendant of the Empress Josephine on one side and of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the other, I view the new obsession with tracing family histories with mixed feelings. When genealogists warn that discovering the truth about one's antecedents can be be a traumatic experience, they could be speaking for me.

As the descendant of the Empress Josephine on one side and of the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry on the other, I view the new obsession with tracing family histories with mixed feelings. When genealogists warn that discovering the truth about one's antecedents can be be a traumatic experience, they could be speaking for me.

It is all very well to know that somewhat dissimilar strains are to be found in the personal genetic soup (unfortunately I seem to have inherited the sullen passion of the famous Quaker and the social reforming zeal of Napoleon's wife), but then what of the other vicars, soldiers and wastrels drooping from every branch of the family tree? Where do they fit in?

There was a time when fossicking about in the archives for family history was regarded as a hobby for oldsters. They have the time and leisure. With age, there comes an understandable yearning for context, continuity. Delving into the past is natural. But now, in a sudden and possibly unhealthy way, genealogy has broken out of the twilight years to become big business.

The first indication of the new interest in family history occurred three years ago when a website containing for the first time details of the 1901 Census caused such a demand that it crashed and was temporarily closed down. Since then, the internet has become increasingly clogged up with genealogical searches. Recently another site, www.1837online.com, has been created to offer, for a fee, access to the records of every birth, marriage and death in England and Wales since records were centralised in 1837. It has been a huge success.

The craze has not gone unnoticed beyond the web. Two genealogical magazines were launched last year. On TV, the History Channel has a success with The Family History Project, and later this month BBC2 will broadcast Who Do You Think You Are?, a series in which public faces (Vic Reeves, Lesley Garrett, Bill Oddie, Jeremy Clarkson etc) are to be followed as they delve into their family pasts - Ian Hislop, it has sensationally been revealed, discovers that his grandfather fought in the Boer War. BBC4 will be joining in with something groovily interactive called Family Ties.

When an activity once regarded as only marginally cooler than brass-rubbing or ballroom dancing suddenly becomes this popular, it is worth asking what is going on. Increased access to the internet provides a partial answer, but fails to explain why so many of us have developed this pressing personal need to discover more about our antecedents.

The quest glamorises us, of course. Archives and records provide, if not an uncritical record of a life, then one from which everyday greyness and quiet failure is excluded. A testimony of births, marriages and deaths, spiced up with any achievement or scandal significant enough to have been noted for posterity, presents an accelerated, dramatised version of a life. The truth - "Joanna Smith, thoroughly nondescript wife to John, the dullest man in the village" - is rarely to be found.

So genealogy offers us a family that is more colourful, energetic, passionate and brave than the one that actually lives in these timorous times. The more imaginative researcher might even discern a heroic version of himself as he explores the past. A staff member of 1837online has said that those on the project's technical helpline sometimes have to counsel members of the public, such is the emotional impact of what they have discovered.

But I find this hard to believe, at least in the case of ancient family secrets. Even in this golden age of self-pity, no one is surely going to burst into tears at the discovery that, a couple of hundred years ago, a member of the family was a sheep rustler, murderer or spy for the French. I was told this week that one of my ancestors was famous all over Ireland for bouncing cheques; my chest swelled with pride.

The search into the past for an extended family provides another attraction in 2004. It demands less than a real, living family. The timing of the craze is no coincidence - at the moment when so many of us have become generally hopeless at maintaining family life, a connection with kith and kin safely dead offers a welcome refuge. Genealogists, one suspects, are more often men than women.

Maybe, in the end, genealogy will turn out to be just a craze like any other. According to Nick Barrett, a historian who is involved in Who Do You Think You Are?, the new interest is thoroughly healthy. "In today's dislocated society, it is a way of tapping into a community by tracing relatives back," he says, but then seems to concede something deeper: "There is almost a quasi-religious element to the way some people pursue their relatives."

Personally, I discovered quite enough about my ancestors some years back when, working in the British Library, I dug out a family tree to give to my father. At the very top of the tree (and I suspect that this is true of most family trees), was to be found none other than the King of Denmark, back in the ninth century. What a sad family decline it has been since then.

Terblacker@aol.com

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