Yesterday I received a treat in the mail.
To start at the beginning, some number of years ago when I started researching Alice’s story, I rapidly assembled a list of “core texts” that I needed to be able to read. (I should add in here that the reference and bibliography sections of books are a great way of finding your way back to the original texts, both books and newspaper articles. Often they will also include the details of people interviewed as well. As I have an academic background, I am very keen on these sources, and on getting as close to the original source as possible.)
Chief in my list of core texts were the two books by Alice’s first husband, Vicomte Frederic de Janze. Frederic died aged 33 do there is no chance of getting an interview with him, so texts that he has written are the next best thing to the original source.
The first book, Vertical Land, is extensively quoted in White Mischief (Fox) and The Life and Death of Lord Erroll (Trzebinski), and pretty much any other book that touches on the Happy Valley set in Kenya. The second book, Tarred with the Same Brush, also deals with thinly veiled portraits of the Happy Valley set, and their activities.
Both are incredibly rare and difficult to get hold of.
I eventually tracked down (with the assistance of Errol Trzebinksi and Frances Osborne, author of The Bolter ) a copy of Vertical Land in the Reading room at the London Library. I was able, for a small fee, to get this transferred to the local State Library, where I was allowed to read it in their reading room and make notes. Needless to say I took so many notes and quotes I probably should have just written it out in longhand. As it is now out of copyright, it has been put online at Project Gutenberg and can be read in full here.
Tarred with the Same Brush remained elusive, although the lovely Frances Osborne sent me a photocopy of her copy. While some of the text is difficult to understand without the background knowledge of to whom it refers, and the knowledge that they are real events being recounted, albeit somewhat disguised to protect the guilty. It is only a pity he didn’t write about the shooting and court case as it would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts about what was happening with his ex-wife.
I had previously set up a number of searches through websites such as Alibris and Biblioz. These searches had managed to find a number of other rare books for me (including Oserian: Place of Peace, a private publishing by Charles Hayes, which contains a fascinating treasure-trove of stories).
To my great surprise, Alibris finally turned up gold! An ex-library copy of Tarred with the Same Brush, and at a reasonable price. And it arrived in the mail yesterday – a tattered maroon book stamped throughly inside and out with the markings of various libraries, slightly yellowed pages, the occasional ripped page or marked page. Much as I love the cheapness of e-books, it really isn’t the same as holding a real book in your hands.
I am now settling down to read the original text, dredging my memory to remember which name represents which person, fitting together the stories with the real events.
Small things can cause such excitement!
PS: Another useful resource is Open Library.
While you may be fascinated by the subject of your research, unless you can find a story – with a hook – you are not going to get published.
Of course, this may not be your aim. You may be reconstructing a family history for your own pleasure or your family’s information. All equally valid.
But if you want to be read – even by a tolerant and cooperative family – you need to tell your story.
Lists of dates and facts – while interesting to you, and representing the result of hours, days, months of dedicated and creative research – are not that interesting to read. The excitement you felt when you tracked down some hard-to-find little gem of research does not usually translate to excitement in the reader. You have to assume that your average reader is not as obsessed with your subject as you are. They need to be wooed.
Is your story going to be chronological? Or are you going to start with the most dramatic part and then go back in time to show how the subject got to that point? Is there a dramatic part? Too many flashbacks can be confusing unless really well handled.
The best advice I ever received (from Frances Osborne, author if Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter, both about her ancestresses. She said “write with passion”.
It took me a while to work out what that meant to me. My natural writing style has been subjugated over the years into something the cross between a university essay and a government report. Excellent for presenting dry facts and a logical argument but not great for writing a biography.
Write with passion didn’t mean overly flowery detail, emotive words, embroidered prose. It meant entering into the spirit of the subject, the spirit of the times and telling the story from her perspective, even if it was written in third person, not first.
I’m still working on it.