If you find yourself opening any cupboards this week, be careful. There could be a skeleton inside.
Then again, cupboards with skeletons are surely the most interesting.
I can say this with some certainty after reading a fascinating book about the inevitability that everyone’s family tree has a skeleton lurking somewhere in it.
The book is called A Victorian’s Inheritance and is written by Helen Parker-Drabble, a lady who bumped into me recently, and persuaded me to buy it.
I’m glad I did, and not just because it backs up what I am fond of saying: that so-called ‘ordinary’ people nearly always have an extraordinary story to tell, and they should publish it as a book.
On the face of it, Helen’s book is a straightforward write-up of the meticulously researched family history she has been working on for years.
But that’s only half the story. As a qualified counsellor, she was also able to look at certain incidents in her family history and analyse how our ancestors’ character traits might be handed down to us, and how we, in turn, pass them on, too.
This provides several points in the book when the questions asked and the observations made really make you think again about the way we interpret history in general and family history in particular.
She pulls no punches on awkward subjects that crop up in her own family, including alcoholism, plus the story of her grandfather (and now my hero), who changed the course of the family history when he refused to doff his cap to the local lord of the manor’s estates manager.
It all reminded me of the skeleton we let out of a cupboard in Sydney, 20 years ago.
We were visiting the building where many of the convicts first landed after being transported from Britain, and where, by typing your surname into a special search engine, you could see a list of all the criminals with that name who had been sent to Australia.
With a common name like mine, it’s a pretty pointless exercise, but we did come up with a surname in the family that is very rare, so we thought it would be a bit of a laugh to try that.
We were first surprised to discover that there was, indeed, a man with the same name on the register – and then shocked to find his crime was recorded as ‘gross indecency’.
Not that we have ever confirmed him as an actual ancestor, and, anyway, skeletons are not always what they seem. What the Victorians considered ‘indecent’ isn’t necessarily anything shameful in these more enlightened times, and neither can we be sure that anyone accused of anything, back then, would have got a fair trial and a sound verdict.
But we can be sure of this: if anyone who has tried to dig up their family tree and NOT found a skeleton in a cupboard, there is only one possible explanation for it: they haven’t opened enough doors.
You can see Graham’s article on the ThisisWiltshire website.