Constructing family relationships through ‘things’

FacebookIn the past, just as now, family relationships sometimes needed to be maintained across distances. Today Facebook does the job well, with family members staying in touch by posting short comments, and very often sharing photographs of the activities and the loved ones’ material world. These statuses root people in their familiar (sometimes unfamiliar) surroundings, acting as both reminder and reassurance for family members and sustaining and sometimes forging familial contact.

8c letterIn the past, for those lucky enough to be literate, leisured, and wealthy enough, correspondence served a similar purpose. Historians have done some imaginative work on the bonds sustained across often vast distances, such as Sarah Pearsall’s book Atlantic Families in which she describes the ‘familial’ work of letter writers who adopted ‘familiarity’: ‘a mode of interaction that stemmed from the family setting and that implied degrees of knowledge and easy affability. It was both a tone, and a space for relations’ (pp. 56-7).

Given the changing technologies of creating the ‘familiar’ links, I wonder if the medium is less the key to the ‘familiarity’ – not so much Facebook or letters – but the materialising of connections that does the work.

In the Georgian family letters I read for my book people bridged the gaps between home and family members in order to keep children, parents, and relations integrated. This was not only through abstract statements of affection, or factual reports of family and local news. Frequently, familiarity was shaped between parents, children, siblings, and grandparents through the evocation of material things. For parents writing to children at school, pets, home, garden, and locality were vital in drawing the offspring back into the family circle. For instance, Joseph Munby senior wrote to his son at school in Scarborough:

Your Rabbits and Pigeons are all vastly well, and your Brothers and Sisters each sent you a kiss with their best love to you, Johnny says you will bring him a new whip from Scarbro. (no date, early 19th century)

People also used place and memory to fix the family member in the emotional nexus of home. Ruth Courtauld did just this in 1813 when she told George junior, away at school:

I sat a long time in your Summer house today and thought of you—not uncomfortably tho’ it will be a long time until I see you, but with pleasure, for I hope you are improving more than if you were here, and I know not any gratification I would not give up for your good—Anna Taylor, Catherine and Eliza often sit there and work and read, they have got a nice bench there, they all desire their Love [meaning they all sent their love to him].

Of course, things seen and experienced on holidays and visits also served well to solidify relationships (as well as interest recipients of letters). On 17 July 1809 William Gray, a York lawyer, wrote from Bath to his daughter-in-law, Mary, describing his holiday perambulations in the West Country (which included a fascinating visit to Hannah More and her sisters at Barley Wood). He ended:

Tell your W[ilia]m [William senior’s grandson, at that point 18 months old], that at Wells Minster I saw two fine grand clocks. On one of them was the face of a man. It was not a man, but with a great hammer it struck against a bell “one, two, three, four, five – just as a man would if alive”. The other clock had a top upon it like a table, & upon that table there were figures like little men & horses, but they were not really men & horses: yet they galloped round ye table one after another as fast as ever they would go. Grandmother & I said – oh that little William was here to see.

Wells clock

This self-made wealthy lawyer, now late in life, and rather ‘serious’ in the most pious Evangelical sense, used this delightful description of the famous Wells Minster clock to sustain his close relationship with his small grandson while away from his home in Gray’s Court in York.

William’s tone had developed eight years later to suit the age of his grandson, when he wrote directly to him on 14 October 1817, on another visit to the south-west. The earnest Methodist was far more to the fore in this letter, imparting news of visits to a Bible Society and Church Mission, and advising William junior to study and pray. Yet, the familiar (in both senses) structure of the letter persists. William gave his namesake news of his parents, grandmother, and various uncles and aunts. He described visits to Oxford colleges, the Roman baths and fine new buildings of Bath, and his celebration of his fortieth wedding anniversary.

Once again William senior used place to connect him with his grandson and their native city of York:

In our journey home, we saw the Cathedrals of Worcester, Gloucester, & Litchfield, & a fine old Church at Tewksbury, equal to many Cathedrals. Each of these had its beauties, and all of them except Litchfield, ousted York in elegant antient tombs & shrines of Princes & eminent persons: but in magnificence, size, and sublimity, York, when we arrived at it, eclipsed them all, & appeared to us more interesting than ever. So much for your native City!

This was no doubt more meaningful because William junior was away at school, so this pride in York Minster would serve to remind him of home and family –  after all the beautiful family home nestled under the Minster and its inhabitants would have seen it every day they resided there.

Grandfather William then moved into instructive mode, guiding his grandson on how to live piously and decently, before ending by locating himself in place and time (almost a selfie!), as he concluded his side of the conversation:

You will think this a long letter & so it is: but you must consider it a favour; as I am debarring myself of a walk on this beautiful Terrace by staying within doors to write it.

Thus this affectionate Grandfather (as he signed himself) bid goodbye to his grandson reminding him of his continuing important place in his family nexus:

How I shall be glad of a letter from you at any time, & not grudge the postage; but do not harass yourself about writing me, nor neglect the epistolary claims of your own family which are the first to be preferred. If you have not time this half year, you may probably in the next, to remember in that way.

This web of familiarity was successful, for the Gray family network was a powerful and long-lasting one. Indeed William senior’s son Jonathan and daughter-in-law Mary (William junior’s parents), moved in to Gray’s Court to live with him sometime around 1830, when William junior married his first wife Lucy. Sadly Lucy died of consumption at 26 in 1838 and Gray’s Court then became the home of William junior’s three small children who were cared for by their grandmother Mary. As William senior himself said, these great-grandchildren added to the blessings of their great-grandfather who died in 1845 aged 94.

It may be my romantic approach to history (when I’m free from academic conventions), but I would suggest that material things, places and spaces continued to forge the Gray family’s links and connections across generations and centuries into the twentieth century, when a descendant by marriage lovingly evoked ‘the voice of the house’ as the heart of the family’s life and history.

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