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WHEN he was Secretary of the British Museum, Arundell Esdaile once remarked to me that half his readers under the dome were American Doctors of Philosophy devising pedigrees for their wealthy countrymen. He may have humourously exaggerated the percentage, but only slightly. It was a means for the poor student to go to Europe; and it enabled James Branch Cabell, for example, a young man from the University of Virginia, to pursue the genealogical research in France that later made him celebrated as the author of Jurgen. I am not sure now that the book, a kind of mediaeval, mildly Rabelaisian fantasy, merited its celebrity. But nevertheless, it helped to procure for its author a James Branch Cabell room in the library of the University of Virginia, a distinction that, as far as I know, has not been awarded to another of her alumni, a far more distinguished and important author who not only has written novels more enduring than Jurgen but has attained that almost celestial elevation reserved for only forty mortals in this world--a seat in the Academie Francaise. Perhaps the University of Virginia considers that a Julien Green room in the library could add nothing to the glory of an Academicien.

The early Dictionary of the French Academy does not know the word 'pedigree'; nor does Furetiere, whose dictionary is in many ways the better one, as he repeatedly pointed out to the Academy --in thirty-two polemical pamphlets, to be precise. Littre in 1877 declares it to be an English word, while the Oxford English Dictionary says it is French and is the old 'pied de grue' or crane's foot, a mark like an arrow-head indicating succession in genealogies. It adds three amusing examples of its use. By Sir Philip Sidney: 'Who had no better cover for his sordid extraction than a welch pedigree'; by the dour philosopher Hobbes: 'Virtue lieth not in pedigree'; and anonymously in 1871: 'Pedigree mongers now invent pedigrees'.

They were being invented long before 1871; and I suspect that the chief fabricant was the College of Arms, as the heralds are called. If we may judge by an interesting case at the end of the sixteenth century of the son of a glove-maker in a country town who supplemented his dwindling income by illegal dealings in wool that caused him trouble with the authorities--a son who also had his difficulties, with the civil authorities for poaching and possibly with the ecclesiastical ones on the occasion of his early marriage. Who eventually, having no aptitude or inclination for acquiring a craft or following a trade, left his young family behind and joined the players in the London suburbs.

He does not seem to have been a success as an actor, and apparently he was put to patching up old plays for revival. He was good at this, much better than as an actor, and in time began to improve on his originals and even to re-write them entirely. He was paid with a share in the theatre's takings, and as business for a long while was good, and as he did not live ostentatiously, he acquired over the years a little capital. He would now seem to have an aim in life: to be re-integrated into the respectable bourgeois life he had abandoned as a young man. He persuaded his ageing father to petition the College of Arms to be made a gentleman. The College obliged--for a fee; and provided his father with a pedigree and a coat of arms complete with crest and motto. (A motto that aroused the derision of his son's friends.) He invested his savings in his home town, and bought a large house and garden in the main street. He even tried to have the arms of his mother's family -- a much more respectable one--added to his own. But the heralds thought this was going too far; and they refused.

Now, at his father's death, a gentleman with a coat of arms, and able to live on the income from his investments, he retired to his native town, after a visit (which he himself records) to the Bath waters in the hope of curing a malady acquired in the stews of Southwark, or from a mistress. A prominent and wealthy citizen, certain of being ultimately entombed in the chancel of the parish church, he cut himself off from the somewhat disreputable milieu where he had made his money. He left behind his old actor friends, the ladies of the town, the foreigners with whom he had lodged. He was glad to be free of all that professional drudgery, the soiled and well-thumbed sheets of untidy manuscripts marred by the excisions of lines thought untopical or dangerous or by hasty insertions huddled up in the narrow margins, defaced by prompter's or propertyman's annotations. It would all, he reflected, soon be worn to pieces in the rough and tumble of the theatre and eventually be thrown away. In any case, it was no longer his property...

He strolled down his garden, thinking that it might be necessary to speak sharply to William Combe who was threatening to enclose some land for sheep. His interests as a tithe-owner could be affected. And if people were allowed to act as they pleased, there would be an end of orderly society...

It was genealogically all in vain. His only son died young, sine prole, as the heralds say. His daughter Judith married; but all her children pre-deceased her. His other daughter, Susanna, married and had a daughter who ended her life as Lady Bernard but left no children; and with her death Shakespeare's line became extinct.

But his sister Joan married a William Hart and had three sons. Returning one day in 1929 from a trek in the Victorian Highlands of Australia, I came, beyond Orbost, upon a countryman gazing vacantly at a field, and gave him the sele of the day, as Borrow would say. We got into conversation, and I gathered that as a farmer he was not very prosperous. His name was Hart. 'I'm descended from Shakespeare' he added casually, as though it were indubitable and well-known. I did not contradict him. If the family tradition were true, it would be from Shakespeare's sister that he was descended.
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Author:Pennington, Richard
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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