Writing about family history, and making it come alive from the genealogical details and family trees, and census returns is a challenge. There are so many unknowns; how for example, did Lois Elsden’s great grandparents meet, and then, defying convention and their families, live together and have five children? How courageous they were, but how did it happen? Lois will never know…
The story I want to tell is about my grandparent; the truth of their love affair is lost in the secrecy imposed on their relationship by disapproving relatives and discrete,and maybe ashamed descendants. I have some of the facts, some dates of births and deaths, some half-remembered family memories, and some collateral information I have discovered about residences, businesses, and travel.
My difficulty is how to present it so it is not just a list with some amplified explanation. I want to write their story, to make it accessible to my cousins and my children so they will grasp the events as I know them, and add a little colour to the bald facts… the few facts that we actually know.
I have begun to see how I might write something about them which would put over what I know of their lives, a hundred and twenty-five years ago. Here is something I wrote about my great grandparents, Louis and Lois:
Maybe they were at an exhibition, maybe she was standing, admiring a picture, standing with a natural elegance and grace, and maybe he noticed her, noticed her lovely form, her erect posture, the dreamy expression on her face as she stared…
Engrossed in the works of Charles Robert Leslie and Clarkson Stansfield, maybe Lois Penney didn’t notice the man with the extravagant moustache, immaculate attire and jaunty air.
Or maybe they met like this.
Maybe she was in Regent’s Park, strolling arm in arm with her sister Sarah beneath their parasols, gossiping about their family, their oldest brother George who was so taken up with business and commerce, George who had changed their father’s basket making company into an enterprise, with factories in Mansfield. Or maybe they were gossiping about their father’s second wife and brood of step brothers and sisters she had brought into the marriage with her.
Maybe as they strolled a glove was dropped, a handkerchief escaped, and maybe a man with a fashionable moustache and even more fashionable and expensive clothing saw the two young women, saw the dropped glove, the fluttering handkerchief.
Somehow an encounter happened, somehow the young woman from Northamptonshire became acquainted with a handsome man from an immensely wealthy family, a young man recently arrived from his native Australia.
Did they take tea together? Was that what might have happened, maybe with Sarah as chaperone, with Lois and her new acquaintance barely aware of the sister, only conscious of each other.
Was it love at first sight, were their feelings so overpowering that they threw convention aside? Because he was a Jew from a strict and observant family, his father Samuel, a pillar of the great Synagogue in London, and joint founder of the new synagogue built in Hobart Tasmania, the first synagogue in the Antipodes.
Louis could not marry Lois, however willing she might have been to leave her Christian faith behind, he could not leave his own family, he could not go against the traditions of his faith and his upbringing.
How did they meet? No-one will ever no, but maybe, maybe, maybe they sat beside each other in the Albert Hall at a morning concert given by Her Majesty’s Opera Company, conducted by Signor Calsi… Maybe…
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