Oh Happy Day
Carmen Callil
Jonathan Cape, £18.99

THE draw of genealogy and programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? lies in our desire to feel connected – to discover more about our roots and understand the influences that have shaped us. 

We set out expecting to be shocked by how different the lives of our ancestors were, but end up realising that most of what makes us human remains the same. 
The reason celebrities so often cry when they are told their great great grandfather ended up in the workhouse or their great great grandmother was thrown out on the streets after falling pregnant is that a struggle is a struggle no matter how long ago it took place. 

This, too, is the appeal of Carmen Callil’s Oh Happy Day, in which she charts her forefathers and mothers’ journey from impoverished beginnings in 19th century Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, to much better lives in Australia, via the deportation to the New South Wales penal colony of one George Conquest, convicted of stealing hemp from a canal boat. 

Along the way, she introduces us to an underclass of stockingers, silversmiths, bootmakers, skivvies and others who were one rung up from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. And what we discover is this: just like today, their lives were precarious and their fates governed by forces beyond their control. When – for example – new technology created bigger, better knitting machines, rendering the old stocking frames obsolete, many of those who had worked in the old cottage industry became destitute.

The railways had the same arbitrary impact on towns, as those with stations flourished and those without faded away. Always losers in a rigid class system, these workers were rarely more than a handful of pay packets away from degradation.

In research terms, Oh Happy Day is a phenomenal achievement. Callil – the founder of Virago Press – has dug deep into books, newspapers, historical archives, parish records and court documents to provide a meticulous account not only of the lives of her relatives who were “busy insects of the yearly industrial revolution”, but also of the broader historical context.

And so the book covers great swathes of history, giving us an insight into the Luddites, the Chartists, the non-conformist churches, the journeys to the Antipodes, the white Australia policy and the stealing of land from the Aborigines: all the political events that were unfolding as her ancestors forged their way in the world.

Callil is not a particularly lyrical writer, but she is forensic, relying on lists to recreate the atmosphere of times and places. Unfortunately, her rigid adherence to the facts she has unearthed is such that she fails to flex her imaginative muscles, especially when it comes to her central characters: Sary Allen, George Conquest, Sary’s son Alfred, and others.

Remarkably, she has gathered enough information to chart clear trajectories for all of them. Sary was born illegitimate and went on to have illegitimate children of her own. The first, Eliza, who died as a toddler, was Conquest’s; the second, Alfred, probably her step-brother’s. Conquest, a stone mason, served time on the Ganymede, one of the prison hulks that stood on the Thames after the American War of Independence, before being transported to Australia on the Nithsdale. Once there, he was “assigned” to work for a series of settlers, ending up with David Reid, a magistrate known for his leniency towards convicts. Conquest helped build Reid’s impressive homestead before gaining his certificate of freedom and going on to make a small fortune.

Callil is blessed with a genuinely good storyline. Now a man of means, Conquest returned to England, found Sary whom he hadn’t seen since she gave birth to Eliza, and helped her (along with several of his brothers) to join him in Australia. Sary and George set up home together and eventually married.

She is also able to uncover a great deal of information about Sary’s son Alfred,who marries Mary Ann Brooks (Callil’s great grandmother). Having inherited Conquest’s estate, everything augurs well for the couple, yet things start to fall apart on the death of two of their children, Alfred, seven, and Alice, 10 months. Alfred senior takes to drink, while Mary Ann becomes a medium.

These are intriguing stories, limited only by their fact-based nature. Callil will occasionally intuit something about one of her characters – for example that it is likely Conquest stole the hemp to pay a legal order in connection with his daughter, Eliza, or that Mary Ann’s interest in seances was born of a desire to  reconnect with her lost children. 

But she does not, cannot, invest them with inner lives; and so we come away with no real sense of Sary’s relationship with George or how the years of poverty took their toll, or what it felt to find herself suddenly transported from a life of drudgery to a life of plenty. 

Callil’s frustration over this manifests itself in her frequent recourse to Charles Dickens. She quotes at length from Great Expectations, particularly the passage where Abel Magwitch, escaped from his prison hulk, presents himself to Pip in the graveyard. It is a clever ploy; she is trying to reflect some of his descriptive genius onto her own characters. But much of the time it just serves to remind the reader how much more they want to know. Indeed, the one moment of complete emotional engagement comes from the only real-life encounter – Callil’s mother’s account of meeting Mary Ann as an old woman. “She had all those fine sons, but she never got over the death of her little girl,” Callil’s mother writes. “She came to stay with us and went round the streets picking up sticks for the fire.”

Oh Happy Day is also dragged down by the weight of the contemporary parallels Callil forces it to bear. Sure, Sary and George could, at a push, be described as the refugees of their time and it is true that “the wealthy and entitled few at the top continue to prey on the much larger number of the poorer beneath them”, but these observations are so obvious as to be hardly worth making, while references to Universal Credit and Brexit feel contrived.

More interesting – possibly because the context is less familiar – is her assessment of British colonialism as it played out in Australia and the competing narratives at play as the country confronts what it did to its indigenous peoples. “The notion of inherited guilt is a waste of time, the notion of acknowledgement is not,” she writes. “Self-flagellation is not called for, self knowledge is.” 

Callil’s exploration of her ancestors’ lives in Oh Happy Day does add to the sum of that self-knowledge, even if one wishes she had allowed herself more leeway to conjure up their interior journeys as vividly as their exterior ones.