30 Jan 2017

Family history, Hout Bay

I signed up for a MOOC on family history recently -- third week coming up. I like connecting with other people researching their bit of history, and finding out that many of the experiences are shared. But, after deciding to spend a couple of hours today researching one of my own "brick walls" or mysteries, I feel ambivalent. Why do people that I'm never going to meet seem more appealing than those readily available? Is family history a bit like loving detective stories -- the thrill of the search, the discovery of the neat resolution? Except, when you hit a brick wall and can't get ahead, it's not thrilling jumps but plodding through systematically that's likely to get you somewhere.

One of my mysteries is my great grandfather's first wife. After getting married and coming to South Africa, she ran away from the farm that was supposed to become her home. Ran away and disappeared from family history. My great grandfather married again and had the family that eventually led to me. But where did this first wife go?

A small part of me wants to find her to prove that he didn't off her in a fit of rage and bury her somewhere on the farm, never to be found. I don't really care whether they were or weren't divorced, or whether the law allowed someone who hadn't seen their spouse for 7 years to marry again without divorce, or proof of death.

Perhaps disappearing into mystery is a much more appropriate end to their love affair than something mundane like finding her living with a maiden aunt.

Their relationship seems to have started in England, when Eliza was an actress. She'd married her first husband at 16 and given birth to a son at 17, but somehow in the next decade climbed away from that to be a successful actor and my great grandfather's lover. Did she abandon her son in the process, leave him with family to look after? How did she manage being a working mother?

Her first husband filed for divorce, making my great grandfather co-respondent. He complained in the court papers that "on divers occasions" from May 1880, they had committed adultery with one another "in Mellons Covent Garden Hotel", Crown Hotel in Lynn, Norfolk, on the Isle of Wight, in Paris, in Cambridge, and again in Norfolk. They even lived for several months in the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town) as husband and wife.

But the petitioner for divorce died before the case was finalised. The 1881 Census finds him being cared for by Eliza's father and stepmother; his death from cirrhosis of the liver followed shortly. When Eliza and my great grandfather married the following year, she was a widow, not a divorcee. They were both 33 (or was Eliza just a little bit older, at 34?).

But after all this romance, hotel-staying, secrecy and naughtiness, and presumably a fair amount of shagging, life on a farm maybe was far too dull. So where did she go? So far, I can't find any sign of her at all, despite poking around in her family in case she pitches up in a census with one of them.

Despite some fairly slow and careful digging today, I don't think I'm much further ahead.

The day ended more pleasantly with the children swimming in the waves at Hout Bay. The water was pretty cold, and I'm glad I didn't have to go in. But the green waves were lovely to watch, the beach was clean, and there was a research-looking vessel moored in the bay.

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