Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon
The first novel I ever read was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I was ten or eleven years old. I didn’t read the book in school. My mother bought it for me along with a number of Deluxe Junior Classics published by the Doubleday Company.
I can remember the look of the book: grey with a yellow spine and sketches of the four March girls in blue ink embossed on the cover. I can remember the feel of the book: the pages thick and slightly hairy, typical of Book-of-the-Month Club editions. I can remember the smell of the book: inky and acidy. It was a new book, after all. And I especially recall the thrill of opening the book, which I understood was my rite of passage into the brave new world of grown-up reading.
I loved Little Women. It changed my life as great books often do, but I can’t say the plot stayed with me. It was only recently, when I decided to learn Italian by listening to ‘easier’ audio books, that I became re-acquainted with Louisa May Alcott’s American classic. Over and over again, I listened to each delightful chapter, first in English, then in French, then in Italian. “Piccole Donne”. Superbo in any language.
It is understood that Louisa May Alcott used her own Massachusetts family as a model for Little Women, a work of fiction. Authors often lean on real-life characters for inspiration. Who wants to read about unrealistic characters?
The authors at Genealogy Ensemble are publishing a book of authentic short stories about their ancestors, Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. These stories, many of which saw first light on this blog, will soon be available in a glossy hold-in-your-hands hardcopy format.
Beads in a Necklace also includes personal essays by the nine authors, explaining how each of us was inspired to begin the long, difficult and rewarding journey of writing down our family stories.
Claire Lindell was surfing the Net, way back in its early days, when she came upon an article about her father, a pioneer in the Canadian mining industry.
Barb Angus was inspired by missed opportunities and a book called The Wolfe Pack by a McGill University author, Dr. Mildred Burns.
Lucy Anglin lost her mother very early in life and feels that her stories help honour her memory.
Janice Hamilton grew up with oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls around her.
Tracey Arial first wrote about genealogy for a classroom exercise; not a great experience, but one she looks back on with amusement.
Marian Bulford immigrated to Canada from Great Britain in 1978, but it’s her English sea-side roots that move her to write.
Mary Sutherland was inspired by her father once saying, “Find your way home,” and by some fine family heirlooms.
Sandra McHugh was inspired by her ‘two solitudes’ marriage and her Greek husband’s very different kind of family.
I myself got my start when I found 300 family letters from the 1910 period that had belonged to my husband’s ancestors from Richmond, Quebec. I read them out loud to a good friend who said, “Ick. They sound so old-fashioned.”
But I saw something else in these letters. I saw the story of a strong matriarch and her very spirited young daughters, who had known much better financial times but were making the best it.
I saw women who were on their own, in their fine house in the good part of town, because their men-folk were far away.
I saw proud, independent women who sometimes relied on the kindness of a well-off, gentlemanly neighbour to drive them to the post office or to shovel out their walk in winter.
It was the plot of Little Women, but with characters from real-life closely related to my husband and my very own children! How could I possibly resist that?
Beads in a Necklace: family stories from Genealogy Ensemble will be launched in mid-November. A limited number of hard copies will be available for purchase, locally.
Check back with http://www.genealogyensemble.com to find out how to buy one of these rare first editions. An e-book version will be available at launch, as well, with print-on-demand capability by Christmas.
The chapter on the Laurier Era from Canada Then and Now, my fifth grade history textbook. I read this, too, back in the day, but I was not impressed. This was a typical textbook, filled with sturdy but dull prose and employing a narrative style devoid of colour and controversy. This chapter, about a most pivotal time in history, made no mention of suffragettes and restless young women in harem pants. In fact, there are only two women in the entire textbook: Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance, worthy women, no question, but only two? Beads in a Necklace showcases many of our worthy women ancestors. It’s terrific social history.
Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent. Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.
Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.
Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers. Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.
Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.
What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art. The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.
The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.
Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:
- Are you using your own unique voice?
- Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
- Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
- Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
- Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?
Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.
As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.
Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth.
In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.
The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have it. This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris, (loved it, so pretty).
Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.
Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre: “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”
Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of Miss Elizabeth’s life.
Just think of it. In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes, in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.
Now contemplate the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and then figure what it must have felt to be a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.
As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.
Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield, banker.
She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.
Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.
Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .
Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!
The year before, in 1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation. She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.
And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say, “I shall return.”
Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.
Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.
Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.
I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke? If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.
(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)
So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.
Just this short blog post.
Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes
Emma Forster. Reprinted courtesy of the genealogy website myprimitivemethodists.org
For a while there I thought I had an illustrious ancestor, Joseph Cowen, the radical Liberal MP from Newcastle-on-Tyne. Here was someone I could be proud of and someone my ‘socialist’ brother, living in Europe, could be proud of, too. Or, so I thought.
Upon looking up my great-grandmother Emma Cowen’s father, John, on familysearch.org , I discovered that the man was born in Blaydon Manor, Durham, which would make him the brother of this famous Joseph Cowen.
There was no other John Cowen born in Durham in 1832, his birth year, so it had to be him. Right?
I texted my brother in socialist Denmark along with a capture of a statue of Joseph in the town of Newcastle. “Look, who we’re related to. We’re NOT the descendants of lowly coal-miners. He’s got Daddy’s eyebrows, doesn’t he?)
My brother, probably washing down his grass-fed beef with an artisanal beer, immediately texted me back: “That doesn’t sound right to me.”
So, I double checked to find I had been foiled by a census typo.
My real ancestor John, great great grandfather, was misspelled in the 1841 UK Census under John Cowin. This John Cowin was born 1932 in South Bedburn, Durham. Another later Census entry for the family confirms Emma Cowan’s dad was born in Bedburn.
Emma is my great-grandmother from Durham, who married John Forster, Primitive Methodist Minister, from Cumberland, who produced Dorothy in 1895, who married a Malayan planter, Robert Nixon (from Helmsley) in 1921 and whom I only met once in my life, 1967, the year of Expo67. Dorothy is subject of my play Looking for Mrs. Peel.
So, it seems, I am not the descendent of a radical liberal politician, friend to Anglo-Jewry, but a descendant of one John Cowen, a Victorian Age auctioneer.
(And that is correct, because Emma Cowen was born on Eliot Street, in Crook and Billy Row, Durham, and his auction house was located there, I discovered on yet another online document.)
Because I had to know, I checked to see that the profession of auctioneer was a pretty lucrative one at the time, although one that was despised because it preyed on human misery. Thackery, apparently, simply hated auctioneers.
Bankruptcy was often used in Victorian era novels to make a point about human greed and to propel the plot. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, which I just listened to online, includes a sad, plate-by-plate description of a family bankruptcy.
Going backwards in time over the UK Censuses, I discovered John was the son of a grocer, Joseph, Crook and Billy Row, Durham, who was the son of another grocer, Joseph from Auckland Bishop, who was the son of someone who worked in the lead smelters at Alston, Cumberland. (If I got things right.)
Lead smeltering. Now, there’s the hideous job I was looking for! If your ancestry can’t be illustrious, it might as well be pitiful.
It didn’t take me long to find out all about the lead mining industry in Alston, Cumberland, where most of my Cowens lived. (The place is still crawling with Cowens.)
There are lots of books out there on the subject. I downloaded one off Archive.org about Alston and ‘its pastoral and mining people.’
For a time, apparently, lead mining was the only industry in the area, so my ancestor had no choice.
He had about 8 kids so the work didn’t dampen his mojo.
Lead was in everything back in the Victorian era, even in food, up until 1900 or so. (Lead actually smells and tastes nice, as any girl from the 1960’s who skipped on the sidewalks of our polluted city streets knows very well.)
These Durham Cowen’s were all religious, described as dissenters. Their births and marriages were registered at Redwing Chapel, Garrigle, Cumberland.
Here’s a drawing of the same chapel in the book about Alston and its people.