See this woman. I’ve just found out that she is my great great great great grandmother.
Earlier this week, as part of a feature I was writing for The Birmingham Post, I went with family historian Paul Wilkins to Birmingham Central Library to trace my family tree and discovered, amongst other great worthiness, that I am a direct descendant of Elizabeth Fry, the woman who reformed prisons in the nineteenth century and is commemorated on the back of a fiver.
Now I’m trying to work out how it makes me feel.
To be honest, it wasn’t a total revelation. I was told this as a child but I had completely forgotten it as it hadn’t been mentioned since. This is the first time I have seriously tried to take it in.
The news broke on same day that Trinity Mirror announced it was looking to axe between 60 and 80 posts in the Midlands, which means that my job, along with those of my fellow journalists, is seriously under threat.
But did I care? No, not that day because my great great great great grandmother was Elizabeth Fry and if she could reform the prison service, then I was damn sure I could work out how to support my family even if I didn’t have a job in the depth of a recession. You can’t touch me Trinity Mirror, I’m made of noble, worthy, heroic, pioneering, life-transforming stuff!
And then the next day I felt stumped because it was raining and I couldn’t work out how to dry the washing…
At a practical level, knowing I have descended from a long line of do-gooders (we will be revealing more in the Post over the next few weeks) makes no difference at all. The difference is at the level of imagination and identity.
But even there, my relationship to the news is complex.
On the one hand, I am glowing – radiating the light from the halos of my ancestors. On the other, I know that I am who I am, regardless of who has gone before me. When I meet people, I want to know them for who they are, not for who their families might or might not be – and that includes myself.
I am very glad to be getting to know my ancestors but I am also very glad I lived for 45 years before I did. I’m glad I was established as a professional feminist before I knew my great great great great grandmother founded the first national women’s organisation. I’m glad I had inquired about working as a writer in residence in prisons before I was aware I am a direct descendant of a prison reformer.
My first reaction to the news is to tell people – have a good old brag. But once it is integrated into my understanding of myself, I think it is something I will want to keep quiet. I will get photographs of the amazing women who have gone before me. I will keep them at home and when life is challenging, I will sit in their presence and silently draw from their strength.
*I wrote this article originally for the Birmingham Post.