Saturday, 12 August 2017

A Special Post - meet genealogist Dr Janet Few

In a departure from the usual content of this blog – my current dabbling in my family history research – I'd like, on this occasion, to introduce you to a proper genealogist!

Please welcome, historian and author, Janet Few.

I first met Janet in Walter Henry's Bookshop in Bideford, when she was dressed as her alter-ego, Mistress Agnes, talking about the whys and wherefores of 16th and 17th century clothing.

And fascinating it was too – there are so many clothes-related sayings we use which originate from the period. Straight-laced being one I recall her explaining...

But I digress. You'll have to read Janet's book, Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs – one of her many publications – to find out more.

Mistress Agnes is one of the historic characters brought to life through Sword and Spindles . With their interactive living history presentations, they travel all over the country and overseas (check out the news page on their website for their latest adventure) covering subjects such as plague and pestilence, crime and punishment, the history of medicine and witchcraft.

And if writing books and enactment wasn't enough, Janet also offers a variety of historic research services. So I was delighted when she found a few minutes in her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

I started by asking her...

When did you decide to become a genealogist? It wasn’t a conscious decision. When I was seven I drew up a family tree on the back of large cardboard adverts for dog food and I was hooked. I started seriously researching twelve years later and suddenly I found that various aspects of family, social and community history had taken over my life.
How lovely to start so young! I bet a lot of us wish we'd begun earlier.

What's the most frustrating brick wall you've broken through? It took me 37 years to find the parents of my 6 x great-grandfather in my direct paternal line.
A lesson to us all, not to give up!

What gave you the idea for Swords and Spindles? I was working as an historical interpreter for a tourist attraction, which was closing down. Some of the staff felt that it was too good an idea to let go, so although we do not have premises, we still inhabit the C17th and travel around the world bringing history to life.
It's such a fabulous idea and great fun, I would imagine. Both for spectators and player alike!

Tell us the sorts of things you do as Mistress Agnes. Amongst other things, I give people make-overs C17th style, concoct herbal cures, avoid detection by the witchfinder and explain what to look for in a good set of armour.
Very handy life skills!  How to avoid the witchfinder sounds particularly intriguing.

You’ve written several history non-fiction books. Which did you enjoy writing the most? It is difficult to decide, as I’ve enjoyed them all in different ways. Helping 80 women recall their memories of 1946-1969 for Remember Then was very rewarding. 
And I enjoyed reading it too. It inspired me to begin writing down my own memories and to encourage others to do likewise.

I also feel that the booklet Harnessing the Facebook Generation: ideas for involving young people in family history and heritage has something very important to say.
I know you are passionate about getting young people involved in history. I think the book's a brilliant idea. 

You’ve recently turned to writing fiction. Are you enjoying the change? Yes. I have become really excited by the way that the story is evolving. It is not without its problems though. I am not used to writing dialogue, so that is a challenge. The fact that the plot is based on a true story makes it difficult for me to leave my historian head behind. I have to convince myself that it really doesn’t matter if I can’t solve a research problem, I can just make it up!
Basing it on a true story must make it even more difficult than starting with everything made up! But I do understand what it's like to stumble upon a fascinating real event and want to get it out there. 

Tell us a little about the story. It is about a North Devon family who were exposed to the dangers of disease and of the First World War but for one young woman, it was her own mother who posed the greatest threat of all. The story investigates what it was about the mother’s origins in an isolated rural community that would drive an ordinary fisherman’s wife to take desperate measures in order to preserve her sanity? The plot is based on a real scandal that lay hidden for nearly a century. Rooted in its unique and beautiful geographical setting, it is the unfolding of a past that reverberates unhappily through the generations and of raw emotions that are surprisingly modern in character.
There's nothing quite like a good old fashioned historic scandal! I'm really looking forward to reading it when it's published. 

Have you any other writing projects planned? I need to say no. I really need to say no but my interest is sparked by so many things. I am fascinated by the history of ill health, particularly mental ill-health. Then I should finally get round to writing up all the biographies I have collected of C19th emigrants from North Devon. Oh and then there’s the novel that I was going to write before ‘Daisy’ popped up and said ‘write me’. Has anyone actually worked out how to get 48 hours into each day? 
I think we'd all like to know that particular trick, Janet!

If you'd like to find out more about Janet, her books and the historic presentations of Sword and Spindles, then drop into her website The History Interpreter for all the details.

It just leaves me to say a huge THANK YOU to Janet for taking time to answer my questions and for appearing on this blog post.