Pedigrees

By Pennington, Richard | Contemporary Review, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Pedigrees


Pennington, Richard, Contemporary Review


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. …

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