The revealing – or reappraisal – of ‘forgotten’ histories, from national to family ones, is a recurring theme in historical fiction, as several recent features in Historia have shown. Often this burying of the past is an attempt to cover events which people have considered shameful, but that’s not always the reason for history getting lost, as VB Grey, author of Sisterhood, writes.
I suspect that the ‘forgetting’ of most family history is deliberate. Some erasures can be retrieved before it’s too late, especially when a new generation sees no shame in making public what the previous one was eager to hide. My mother, for instance, exasperated by Edwardian respectability, saw no reason to uphold the disgrace of an aunt who, because of an illegitimate child, had to go to the back door to receive hand-me-down clothes and garden produce.
Shame is not the only driving force behind lost histories. When I was young I helped my mother to sort through boxes left untouched since her parents’ deaths. One contained bundles of letters written by my great-uncle Napier who was killed on the Marne in 1916, together with a collection of black-edged envelopes containing letters and condolence cards sent religiously on the continuing anniversaries of his death.
I was fascinated – we had just begun to study Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at school – and read them all.
And so I was horrified when my mother then resolutely threw the lot onto a bonfire in the garden, declaring that her childhood had been haunted by the endless remembrance of the Great War and she wanted rid of it.
Sometimes hindsight throws up nuances that may be impossible to reconcile. My mother spoke warmly of a teenage exchange visit to Hamburg she made in the late 1930s, yet whenever I asked about her experience of pre-war Germany it would appear that evidence of the fascist regime had left no impression on her at all. Even though my mother could be vague, this seemed unlikely. After her death I came across some pencilled scraps of a diary she’d kept that revealed, between sightseeing and tennis parties, how her hosts had been ardent Nazis.
My mother knew the realities of the war. As a junior doctor in the East End she’d treated civilian casualties from the V1s and V2s, and told me how early newsreel from Belsen was first shown privately to doctors so officials could gauge future audiences’ limits of toleration – and credulity – for such horror. I imagine that her enduring silence about the visit stemmed from a guilty mixture of loyalty to a family who’d been kind and generous to a schoolgirl on her first trip abroad and mortification at her naivety.
My reaction when I found her scribbled account was similarly conflicted. As a historical artefact it demonstrates the complexity of mixing youthful gratitude and gullibility with extremist politics; as a personal document, should I not regard it as entirely private? But she had not destroyed it and, mindful of the bonfire of Napier’s letters from the front, nor will I.
I grew up with an even more compelling family mystery, a story that also intertwines the personal and political and that inspired my new novel Sisterhood. My attempts to unravel the mystery and retrieve names, dates or official records have all failed, and I am now the only one left who knew the aunt whose history has been lost.
My aunt Margaret was my mother’s twin sister. By 1942, armed with a degree in French and German, she was in uniform in London where she met Jozef, who was older and part of a glamorous circle of Polish exiles. Before the war he had possibly been a journalist or magazine editor in Warsaw.
It’s likely they met through whatever work Margaret was doing, but my mother never said what that was; or, perhaps because it was secret, simply never knew. The MOD will not disclose which wartime unit she served in until twenty-five years after her death, a date not yet reached.
At some point after the war, Margaret and Jozef were to be married. I don’t know exactly what happened, but it seems, as a Catholic, he confessed to having been married. His wife had remained in Warsaw, where hundreds of thousands of civilians had perished, and she could not be traced. Margaret had a breakdown and was hospitalized but never recovered. She remained a ‘mental patient’ for the rest of her life.
She and Jozef were together for several years, yet I have never seen a single photograph of him, and my only physical proof of his existence is a beautifully written Latin inscription on the flyleaf of a translated Polish novel that he gave her. I knew her well, and admired her wit and lack of self-pity, but never felt able to ask such deeply personal questions about her past
My mother had liked Jozef and considered him the perfect partner for her sister, yet it was hard to pin down her shifting accounts of what had happened between them. She also claimed not to remember his surname or to know what became of him after Margaret’s breakdown, except that their father had asked him to stay away.
Thirty years ago, when I was a journalist, I talked to several people who had been connected to the Polish Government-in-Exile in wartime London, but I had too little information for anyone to identify him. I visited Warsaw in 1992, curious to see what remained of his city and also to research the 1944 Uprising.
At the time, I failed to understand that no one there would even acknowledge the Uprising because, despite Glasnost, the shadow of Stalin had successfully proscribed all willingness to remember it. Sometimes the erasure of personal history is essential to survival.
It has always seemed wrong to me that the lives of my aunt and her lover should be forgotten; perhaps the loss of the full story has only made their fate pull at me more powerfully. I understand my mother’s impulse during her sister’s lifetime to guard her privacy and protect her from further hurt, but I also agree with what President Biden said on the recent centenary of the Tulsa Massacre in Oklahoma, that only in remembrance do wounds heal.
And so, in my new novel, Sisterhood, I have written an entirely fictional account of what might have happened to characters like them and, in doing so, attempted to celebrate the spirit and courage of all that was lost.
As Isabelle Grey, she is a screenwriter, journalist and author of the DI Grace Fisher crime series as well as two novels of psychological suspense.
Win one of three copies of VB Grey’s Sisterhood in Historia’s giveaway (ends on 24 August).
- Modified detail from Morris Ginsberg and LSE Students at Grove Lodge, Cambridge, June 1940: Wikimedia
- Members of the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion, with VB Grey’s great-uncle Napier in the front row on the right: supplied by the author
- V1 Bomb Damage in London, 1944: Wikimedia
- Rare Agfacolor photo taken in Warsaw in the Old Town Market Place (Zakrzewski’s Side) during the Warsaw Uprising by Ewa Faryaszewska, August 1944: Wikimedia