Last year, I wrote this post about four ways to research your family history. This week I discovered the limitations of research while I was writing an essay for my study.
The task was to write a short narrative on a person, place, time or event, using techniques based on genealogical research. I thought I would write about my great grandfather. Years ago, my mother divulged a family secret. She told me my great grandfather was possibly the illegitimate son of Tsar Nicholas I. Despite her strict Russian Orthodox beliefs, she was pretty proud about this improper connection. I often wondered if it was true. I thought it would be a fabulous topic to write about; until I began to research it.
There is very little information, genealogical or otherwise, on my great grandfather. Apart from his name, birth date, a couple of paragraphs and a picture (see above) in my grandmother’s book Upheaval, there is nothing. There is, of course, genealogical information on Nicholas as well as information on the way he governed Russia and the political decisions he made. I could not find much about his personal life, or at least nothing to assist me with my essay.
It was only luck which helped me to find one book which described Nicholas as a loving and faithful husband, who only began to stray later in life, when his wife had issues with her health. These issues included the fact that her doctor advised her not to have any more children. They had already had seven children. Apparently, Nicholas struggled for years with his feelings and his religion before eventually submitting to the arms of a lady who became his mistress.
Other websites, blogs and forums dispute this fact, stating that Nicholas had mistresses well before his wife had health issues. However, as far as I could tell, there was no definitive proof for either view. It seems as if his mistresses, if there were more than one, were all very discrete. There was even less written about Nicholas’ illegitimate children. Most sources believe he had at least three, and possibly six. My great grandfather was mentioned as one who was rumoured to be his son but was probably not.
What was I to do? It was too late to change my topic; the essay is due early next week. To be honest, I am also stubborn and the thought of leaving a topic simply because it is too difficult, is not one I usually entertain. But there was so little peer reviewed information and I could hardly base a premise on rumour and speculation. Or could I?
In the end I used the creative non-fiction techniques I’ve learnt over the last few years and I managed to cobble together a narrative. It certainly has facts woven through it, but much of it is based on speculation. If nothing else, it was a valuable writing exercise and I certainly hope it gets a good mark! What it does show is that researching your family history can be frustrating at the best of times. But it doesn’t mean you should give up.