Philip Larkin blamed them for everything while Darwin took the longer view. Novelist Daisy Hildyard chooses the best poems, books and plays about our human inheritance
I was thinking about ancestors when I started writing Hunters in the Snow. One thing was an odd, old family tree which traced its line back to Neptune, god of the sea. Another was a science book on recently discovered fossilised evidence of a giant fish-like creature, with flippers, from which all mammals are descended.
I was thinking about how these things relate to each another. I was also thinking about my own family, as everybody does, and the bits of family history I'd picked up or invented.
I'm keeping my list within an English cultural tradition (and so, as tends to be the way in this culture's genealogies, dead white men feature prominently). I thought that readers might find some interesting ancestral lines between the works I've chosen, some of which slightly push the top 10 boundaries since they are poems or plays, but they fit my line of thinking. The list below goes back in time.
Caravan-dweller "Rooster Byron" lives off speed, special brew and raw eggs, but his ancestry is majestic. A Byron boy, he says, is born with three things:
"A cloak, and a dagger, and his own teeth. He comes fully equipped. He doesn't need nothing. And when he dies, he lies in the ground like a lump of granite. He don't rot. There's Byron boys buried all over this land, lying in the ground as fresh as they day they was planted. In them's cloaks. With the teeth sharp. Fingernails sharp. And the two black eyes, staring out, sharp as spears. You get close and stare into those black eyes, watch out. Written there is old words that will shake you. Shake you down.
2. "This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin
This poem is childlike, but knowing and grim, like several generations at once. It begins with a famous line about your Mum and Dad and ends on a cheery note: "Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf/ Get out as early as you can/ And don't have any kids yourself."
At the beginning, Lawrence gives a history of the Brangwen family.
"The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire. Two miles away, a church tower stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it. Whenever one of the Brangwens in the fields lifted his head from his work, he saw the church-tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky. So that as he turned again to the horizontal land, he was aware of something standing above him and beyond him in the distance."
Going back, I was surprised to see how short this section was – a couple of pages. In my memory, it was more substantial, setting up and sustaining an ancestral understanding of two novels' worth of Brangwens in The Rainbow and Women in Love.
Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce is a long, bitter and, for its lawyers, pleasingly expensive inheritance suit, "from which no crumb of amusement ever falls". The storyline is a parable about the kind of ancestors we all want, the rich kind, who are probably more likely to leave us scrapping with our brothers and sisters than they are likely to leave us with a fortune.
Near the beginning, Darwin considers what we do not know about our ancestors.
"The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species, and in individuals of different species, is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so; [or] why the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather or grandmother or other much more remote ancestor."
6. "The Eternity of Nature" by John Clare
This poem traces ancestors backward to Adam and Eve, and descendants forward to children still "in the womb of time". But Clare is more interested in a relationship with other living things, which endure for longer than human generations. It could be cliched (the title, which may have been added by early editors, is unpromising), but Clare's anatomical scrutiny gives an ant's-eye view which sees "eternity" in consistency: he mentions a bee's thighs, the five spots inside a cowslip flower; and how a daisy "strikes its little root". These things give the speaker the nerve to write down his poem – "thoughts sung not for fame" – taking an example from another careful observation: "[b]irds, singing lone, fly silent past a crowd".
7. Brief Lives by John Aubrey
This collection of what we would now call biographies is a good read, whether Aubrey is writing on Descartes or Milton or on some now-forgotten bookseller. We learn, for example, that William Harvey, a Renaissance physician who first described how blood circulates, was thought "crack-brained" by many contemporaries; he liked to meditate in a cave; was sleeping with his maid; "did call the modern authors shitt-breeches"; and left Thomas Hobbes £10 in his will.
Aubrey traces his subjects' heritage, sometimes through interesting but mistaken routes. Shakespeare, he says, was a butcher's son, and "when he was a boy he exercised his father's trade, but when he killed a calf, he would do it in a high style, and make a speech".
This play would seem to promote the inborn nobility of the monarch's blue bloodline, if it were not for the fact that Prince Hal's fat sidekick steals the show.
9. Chronicles by Holinshed
Shakespeare's history plays are directly descended, or stolen, from Holinshed's huge history. (There's a good version online.) Much of the history is about fighting, and much of the fighting is over the reading of family trees. The chronicles were written by several individuals, and the histories they tell are strange and wide-ranging.
10. The Bible
The Old Testament, in particular, has many long and boring lists of who begat whom. The Bible is the ancestor to each of the works listed above, and the first or only book that many of our own ancestors were able to read.