Inside Story

The story behind the story

Tom Griffiths welcomes a profound exploration of intergenerational memory

Tom Griffiths 24 July 2015 2188 words

Worth the telling: Jane Hewett (1832–1928) (centre), pictured here with some of her descendants around 1920, was the last survivor of the family that emigrated from England to Port Phillip in 1850.

Graeme Davison begins his wonderful new book, Lost Relations: Fortunes of My Family in Australia’s Golden Age, with a sixty-nine-word “great-aunt’s story.” It is a tale of an emigrant’s arrival told to Graeme by his mother, May, who heard it from her father, Vic Hewett, who heard it from his great-aunt Jane. So it is with family stories: they have a pedigree. The story tells of great-aunt Jane’s arrival, aged eighteen, by ship with her mother and seven siblings, in Port Phillip in 1850 “before the gold rush.” She remembers climbing down the ship’s ladder, landing at Sandridge, and walking three miles across the swamp to spend the first night at the Globe Inn in Swanston Street. In the story, honed down the years, every detail means something, as does every omission.

Davison explains that this book “tells the story behind Jane’s story, the one she must have known but did not tell, or perhaps did not even think worth the telling.” These delicate words begin the book’s task of plumbing the mystery of families and of intergenerational knowledge and influence. What did Jane know but not tell or not think worth telling? And how can we recover that lost context and those lost relations? Are they lost because they are forgotten, suppressed, hidden, overlooked or taken for granted, or perhaps because they were so beloved that there were no words for them? We feel we are best known by our families, yet families lose intimate knowledge with shocking speed. In this book, Davison – an eminent professor of history – confronts his most intractable source: his own family.

It is there in the title: my family. Not a family, not any family, but my family. Davison’s purpose is to examine his relationship to these people and what that means. His own DNA, his own biological and cultural lineage, is brought under scrutiny. And so the second beginning to the book takes place in an English country churchyard where Graeme and his sister Helen contemplate the grave of their great-great-great-grandfather, John Hewett, a yeoman farmer from Hampshire. As Graeme stands by the grave, he feels the historian’s curiosity about this villager, prematurely dead, whose widow and eight children would, a decade later, voyage to Port Phillip. But Graeme feels something more. This man John Hewett was his ancestor, linked to him in some mysterious way, physically and culturally, and therefore more significant than any other in the churchyard. What are those links and how do they persist even when knowledge of them is lost?

That grave must have been a great discovery, a completing of the circle as the great-great-great grandchild, an Australian, makes the pilgrimage back to source, arrives in the village of thatched cottages, steps through the lychgate, finds the tilting gravestone and reads the lichen-encrusted epitaph to his forebear. It seems romantic and ancestral; we can almost see the parting mists of time, and Davison even quotes Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” But John Hewett died only a century before Graeme was born, and John’s eldest daughter, Jane – the great-aunt – died just a dozen years before the author’s birth. These are not great gaps of time, yet so much knowledge – so much beloved, treasured knowledge of face and voice, personality and philosophy, sense of humour and way of life, and even the reason why one would cross the world – is lost! How can this be? How can families, of all social institutions, allow this to happen?

Family history is so often forced to reconstruct from the outside in, from the bare recorded outlines of birth, marriage and death. “Little remains in writing of the Hewetts’ own words,” Davison tells us. “So I have had to reconstruct their story through the words of others, listen for clues to their thoughts in the voices of people like them, and try to put myself in the situations they faced.” He confesses it is a risky business, pushing the boundaries of what we can know or rightly guess, a risk the trained historian knows well. But with his own family the risk is greater, the intuitive leap so much more righteous and seductive. Davison deliberately puts himself in this danger, and enjoys making fun of his own moral sensibilities. And distinctive problems arise when he finds himself unearthing carefully created silences. Should those silences be violated, and what are the competing responsibilities of the historian and the family member – and why might they sometimes be at odds?

Lost Relations offers a rich tapestry of stories: the heartbreak and gamble of emigration, a sea voyage that was “a nineteenth-century love-boat,” the pitching of a tent on the Victorian goldfields, a 750-kilometre journey with horse and dray, a corrupt colonial election, an inmate of the Maitland Gaol, rural scenes of “Dad and Dave simplicity,” charged fervour from the “high-voltage religion” of Methodism, a swagman, a billabong and a lone bush death, and a new home tragically engulfed by fire on Christmas Day. The action moves from Hook Farm in Hampshire to Castlemaine, the richest alluvial goldfield in the world, to Williamstown, seaside town and no mere suburb of sister Melbourne, and finally to Essendon in the mid twentieth century, where the author delicately crosses “the threshold between history and memory.” Along the way there are conversations, tea ceremonies, revival meetings and family dinners, and the reader experiences surging hope and dismaying tragedy.

Davison explains that he avoided family history most of his life, partly because he is “not much attracted to mystical or biological notions of blood and inheritance,” and partly too out of professional wariness. He instinctively drew a boundary between family history and academic history, which he calls his “day job” (a good joke this, from a dedicated lifelong historian who thinks of history as a vocation and a calling!). Davison says he finally “succumbed” to the appeal of family history not only because he “wanted to better understand who I am” but also in order to “think more concretely about the relationship between the familial and communal pasts.” In other words, this book is a search for identity as all family history fundamentally is, but it is also a reflective exploration of family history as a method – and what better case study could there be than one’s own family? But it is more than that. If a historian wants to examine the mystery of the relationship between generations, and if he wants to do it in a personal and contextual way, then he has no choice about where he must go.

The native Algonquin people of North America have a story about a woman and her baby who were left alone in a winter camp and had just one small fishhook with which to catch food. The mother could easily rig a fishing line, but she had no bait, nothing with which to catch the fish. What was she to do? She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. Davison has done the same thing: he has gone fishing with the worm of his own flesh.

Those of us who have long admired Graeme Davison as a scholar and a teacher, as an engaged citizen, as a public historian as well as an academic historian, are not surprised to find him writing so eloquently of his own family. His landmark work, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, first published in 1978, was a study of colonial generations. He has long been interested in heritage and the popular past, in the uses of Australian history, and in history as a moral discipline; he has always loved fieldwork, leading walks, reading buildings and landscapes, seeking the past in the present; and his upbringing in the self-improving world of Methodism perhaps also inclined him towards an interrogation of the balance in our souls between nature and nurture. Graeme was always going to find himself here.

In his quest to understand how things “pass mysteriously from generation to generation,” Davison does finally concede some power to blood and physical inheritance, but he also traces influences that have more to do with culture, pattern and tradition, and with talents, values and foibles. Like Tolstoy, Davison is interested in the “common characteristics that bind good families across generations.” Ultimately he offers us a haunting and complex portrait of fate. The title of the book provides a clue. When Davison uses the word “fortunes,” he is drawing on a term from “Australia’s Golden Age” to invoke life’s game of chance and circumstance. These people, his people, made decisions, and they were fateful ones. And only the passing of time – across generations – enables us to see how. We begin to understand that the ancestral past lurks within us, as an unfolding potential or constraint. Fate and fortune are not the same as luck. They allow us some agency, even if it is not always conscious.

The book alerts us to another uncanny working of fate. As the older Davison seeks his family, he sometimes encounters his younger scholarly self, a step ahead of him but looking in a different direction. So he researched Henry Mayhew’s sensational articles on the London needlewomen of 1849 before he knew that he had an ancestor among them; he became the historian of Marvellous Melbourne before he knew that four of his great-grandparents arrived there on the eve of the 1880s land boom; and he led urban history walks around Richmond before he knew he was passing the site of his great-great-great-grandmother’s home. What kind of intuitive inheritance is at work here?

These gentle, whimsical stories make this book also the most modest of intellectual autobiographies. Davison does not say this, but he is able to illuminate the lives of his ancestors so well because of his own scholarly work and that of his students and colleagues whom he has taught and inspired for half a century. It is Graeme Davison’s school of history that pioneered Australian understandings of the Victorian city, researched urban life in Britain and Australia, investigated the lives of outcasts and drifters, the predicament of the city-bred child and the work of the great social investigators, wrote about nationalist literature and the city and the bush, examined respectability, social and geographical mobility, energy and material life, and the historical contours of space and time, and reflected constantly on the nature and practice of history itself. A stunning tapestry of these themes is woven from the personal journey described in Lost Relations.

The beauty of this book and its mode of telling is that many Australians will enjoy it on at least two levels – for the compelling story of this particular family, in all its diversity, and also for the resonances they will find with their own family histories. In the case of my own family, I discovered many parallels and coincidences. Like the Hewetts, it also looks back to bold and mysterious acts of emigration from Britain, to voyages by sea during which lives were literally reinvented, and to the pitching of a tent on a central Victorian goldfield. I too have Cornish and English ancestors (along with my Welsh ones), and grew up making occasional weekend trips back to Castlemaine – where my grandfather was also born. On those trips we would nostalgically walk the “pummelled” earth of alluvial mining, look at an old family home now owned by others, and visit the graves of ancestors in Campbell’s Creek Cemetery, as Graeme’s family did.

My forebears also shared in the drift to the city, the gradual migration to the middle class, the violent disruptions and long shadow of overseas war, and the reconstitution in suburban Melbourne of rural and domestic networks that brought the bush to town and may also have carried echoes of village life from the other side of the world. Like so many other families over this period, mine too experienced the lengthening of lifespans, the shrinking of family size, the increasing opportunities for education, the weakening of religious observance and the revolution in material life. I felt so deeply and personally drawn into this moving saga that I found myself waking at 3 am after reading it, perhaps so that I could consider the lives and fates of these people in a dream-like state, for that is another level of comprehension and empathy.

Lost Relations is an impressive historical and literary achievement and, incidentally, a fascinating tour through the mind and inheritance of one of our finest historians. It is also a profound and practical intervention in intergenerational memory, working intelligently against the gradient of loss. •