No, not a review of one of Jane Austen’s lesser-known offerings, just some thoughts on family history and similar research.
It can all be summed up by the case of my great-great-great uncle Moses. According to the Blackburn Standard of Saturday 16th February 1884 one Moses Gregson, a stone mason, was up in the Borough Police Court for using threatening language to his wife Margaret the previous day.
It may very well be a tale of domestic violence, but on the other hand it may be the story of a family man (or lovable rogue) who took an uncharacteristic drink and ended up in deep water. He was also fined 5 shillings for appearing drunk in court the previous day, so I suspect that he’d been hauled into court by the police whilst still full of the drink that had caused the original problem.
The question is whether to tell people or not.
To modern day members of the family it’s an historical curiosity, but if you tell outsiders it could be a bit embarrassing. It depends on your sensitivity to such things, and though I’m no shrinking violet I do feel a twinge when discussing the story.
The embarrassment would rise, I feel, as you go back in the generations. My mother would have been very unhappy with me revealing it, and my grandmother would have been quite upset. My great-grandmother, who may well have known Moses as a child, is an unknown quantity.
She was born in 1879 and is the oldest member of the family that I knew personally. I really don’t have a clue how she would have reacted to me telling the world her uncle had been in court for drinking and using threatening language to his wife.
If she was still alive I may have been too embarrassed to even mention it to her. She in turn may not have worried about it at all as she had grown up with many things and taken them all in her stride.
This leads on to another example.
I have a small silver medal issued in 1919 to thank a railwayman for his service in the Great War, where he had served in Mesopotamia. He had two spells in hospital – once with fever and once with syphilis, which seems to have brought his service to an abrupt end. This article discusses venereal disease in the Great War if you are interested.
It’s slightly different to the case of Moses Gregson, as he isn’t a member of the family and I feel no embarrassment about it. I do, however, feel that family members who knew him may still be alive and it’s for them to talk about it (if they want to) rather than me. He was still alive into the 1980s and some of his old neighbours might still be around too.
It’s quite a can of worms when you start looking at it, and the choices are even harder when you’re trying to think of someone else and their reaction.
If something was mentioned in the newspapers in 1884, or in army records in 1918 should we talk about it openly, or should we worry about the possible sensitivity of other people?