17 February 2011

Genealogical Biographies

Unless you are exploring your family history just to be able to extend the entries in a chart, which may be called a family tree, then you are probably also quite likely to be a biographer.  How do you go about researching and writing a genealogical biography?



I am not particularly interested in finding out if I am related to William the Conquerer or Louis XIV, and I certainly do not want to search my ancestry to the extent that the final printed result resembles a very large toilet roll.  If all the living relatives of all my great, great, great, great grandparents were gathered in one place, we might be able to fill a football stadium, an opera house, and/or the Palace of Versailles.





Is he a possible ancestor?



If I managed to trace all the lines of my family history back to the year 1066, and could meet all of my forebears who were alive in that year, would we be able to fill the Coliseum in Rome?  Would there even be so many of us that we would be able to conquer a country all on our own?

Although I hope that my ancestors were mainly peaceful people, history often proves otherwise, at least in the written records.  How do you go about writing a biography about someone who does not appear very often in any written records?

Some of my ancestors were legitimate offspring, like Louis XIV.  Some of my ancestors were illegitimate, like William the Conqueror.  All of my ancestors are worthy of written biographies, whatever their parentage.  Perhaps yours are, too.







Louis XIV could be an ancestor of mine, or yours, as he, like his cousin Charles II, was known to have had many illegitimate children.  In Louis case, many of his legitimate decendants either died of measles or had their heads chopped off.  In such cases, it is probably better to be illegitimate.


My mother's maiden name is of French-Norman origin.  One of her ancestors is either likely to have been a Norman conquerer of some description, or was a peasant on the lands occupied in Shropshire by one of those conquerers.   I do not have any biographical evidence of either possibility, and I have better things to do than attempt to find out.  If your own family tree now resembles a toilet roll, perhaps you have some time on your hands and would like to investigate the facts of the matter.


Here are some links that you may find interesting:


Geneabios - Biographies for Genealogy

Cyndi's List - Biographies

Genealogical Society of Victoria Online Bookshop - Family Histories and Biographies

Gould History and Genealogy - Australian Biographical and Genealogical Records from 1788 to 1899


It is useful to investigate the possibility that someone may already have written a biography about one or more of your ancestors.  It can mean that you do not have to do so much research yourself.


Sometimes, a biography of someone else may mention one of your ancestors or another relative, or provide a description of the environment in which they lived.  I have recently sent my mother a biography about someone who probably knew her Uncle Bertie quite well, Company Sergeant Major Stanley Hollis, VC. I found the book on the Amazon UK site, meaning that I did not need to post a copy from Australia.



Here are some links mentioning Stanley Hollis:


Wikipedia - Stanley Hollis

History Learning Site UK - Stanley Hollis

D-Day to Victory - Stanley Hollis

Flames of War - CSM Stan Hollis, VC 



About the book:


D-Day Hero: CSM Stanley Hollis VC - By Mike Morgan

Amazon -  Reader reviews of the book


I have read a few of the sample pages of the book, available on Amazon, and it appears to be written in a warm and human way, attempting to capture the family life, background, personality and character of Stanley Hollis.  I am not sure how my mother will respond to it, though, as it is probably not at all like the books she usually reads.

My mother, as I have discovered, not only has a possible connection with Normandy on her father's side.  She also has a family connection with the Liberation of France, through the Battle of Normandy and her maternal Uncle Bertie's role in it.  Bertie Harris was two years older than Stanley Hollis.


More about D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: 


The Telegraph - The D-Day Hut - article one

The Telegraph - The D-Day Hut - article two

This blog - About Bertie - article one

This blog - About Bertie - article two

Wikipedia - Normandy

D-Day Overlord - Normandy 1944

Wikipedia - Battle of Normandy

Kids Net - Battle of Normandy


I will not be writing a biography about Bertie Harris, or Stanley Hollis.  Nor will I be writing a biography about Louis XIV or William the Conqueror.  My biographies will be about my grandparents, and my husband's grandparents.

However, I still find it interesting to read genealogical biographies about other people, rather than go to the trouble of writing them.



Here are a few more links you may find interesting:


Genealogical Search Australia

Wikipedia - Lineal descendant

Wikipedia - Collateral descendant

Wikipedia - Descent of Elizabeth II from William I

Wikipedia - William the Conqueror

Wikipedia - Louis XIV of France

Time Ref - William the Conqueror 

Normandy Tourism


What may we learn from reading biographies about how to research and write about our family history?  Whether reading about famous and not-so-famous people, the choices of the writer are important in how we respond to the life of the person we may be reading about.  There is a huge amount of information online giving advice on writing biographies, much of which I believe to be of little value.


Here are some links I have found interesting, though:


Wikipedia - Biography

Bookrags - How to write a biography

A Sydney University lecture on why biographies matter
(introduction and podcast)


My husband is currently reading a biography about Charles de Gaulle.  It is by Sir Bernard Ledwidge, who knew Charles de Gaulle personally.  I would like to have more time to read a few more biographies, though I am still in the process of writing up an account of our family history research trip to Italy, which we made in 2009!

Now my mother, my husband and I have a trip planned for this year.  We hope to visit Bertie's grave in Normandy for the first time.  In my teens, in the 1970s, I went on a school trip to France, staying in the town of Étretat.  I returned there about 25 years later with my husband, in the year 2000.  Claude Monet visited Étretat some time before we did, and made a visual record of his experiences:






Although we probably will not have time to visit Étretat again this year, we will be going to an area of Normandy I have never visited before.  I would very much like to see the Bayeux Tapestry.  Have you seen it?  Have you even tried making a similar embroidery of your family history?


Wikipedia - Étretat

Bayeux Tapestry Museum


In the 1950s, my mother went to Switzerland on a school trip.  At the beginning of our 2011 travels, we plan to take her back there, for the first time since her teens.  We also plan to take her to Paris and Versailles for the first time.  It will be a very busy two week trip for us all.  Fortunately, there is a great deal to see online in the meantime.

Learning about William the Conquerer, Louis XIV and Charles de Gaulle will probably be very useful, too.

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I especially appreciate historical insights.