The Ethics of Family History and Biography

Front cover of book, The Hare with Amber EyesEdmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is a family history that has become a best-seller.  It is a biography that follows the trail of small Japanese carvings as they were passed from owner to owner within the family while the family were entangled in the broader travails of nineteenth and twentieth century history.

Edmund de Waal received an unusual inheritance – over two hundred small Japanese carvings called netsuke (click here to see some of them).  In this book De Waal retraces the lives of the previous generations of his family who had owned the netsuke.  Thus the book is not a birth to death biography of the owners; rather taking up the story of the owners of the netsuke from the point when they first received them to when they passed them on to the next owner.  I liked this approach.

This book could only have been written by an artist.  Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter.  He understands the tactile allure of the netsuke:

What was it like to have something so alien in your hands for the first time , to pick up a box or a cup – or a netsuke – in a material that you had never encountered before and shift it around, finding its weight and balance, running a fingertip along the raised decoration of a stork in flight through clouds?


Edmund de Waal explicitly weaves himself into the book.  As the current owner of the netsuke he is part of the story.  He shares with the reader his response to the people he is writing about and explains his thoughts while he was researching the book.

This book is a fascinating history of a wealthy family in nineteenth century Paris, Vienna during the first half of the twentieth century and post-war Japan.  Yet I was disappointed that with such an interesting story at his fingertips de Waal did not probe more keenly.  All the way through I felt that he was skating over the surface of the story.  He could have done more.

Then came the last chapter and I understood.

“… I have the slightly clammy feeling of biography, the sense of living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission” says de Waal (p346). “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others” he commented when discussing the destruction of hundreds of family letters by his grandmother.  She was hurt by her mother’s numerous affairs.  De Waal commented:

… why should everything be made clear and be brought into the light?  Why keep things, archive your intimacies?  … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on.  Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.

p. 347

I am confronting this issue myself while assisting a relation who is writing a family history.  When interviewing a relation for this project I uncovered petty dislikes, jealousies and hurts.  I would imagine that most families have these lurking somewhere.  Inclusion of these would make our family history more real. Maybe if I probed this pettiness something more substantial would be revealed? The historian in me says I should, but as a member of this family I do not want to resurrect such feelings.  Why revive the hurt that some in the older generations may have spent years recovering from?  Why say nasty things about members of the family, no matter how true they may be?

Yet rose-coloured history is boring and worse – it is deceitful.  In the past families caused great harm by hiding things that needed to be discussed such as mental illness, addiction, birth outside of marriage, relationships with indigenous people to name just a few.  I am happy to discuss these things but I am exercising my judgement to ignore what I regard as petty.  I don’t think their revelation is important and I believe that their inclusion in a history would make it tawdry and unpalatable.  Maybe what I consider to be petty will in the fullness of time be regarded as important?

I have decided to prioritise family harmony.

At what point should we drop these sensibilities?  Is it okay to investigate and dredge up these issues when all the people involved are dead?  Should we have different standards that we apply according to whether a person is living or dead?

These are the issues Edmund de Waal faced when writing about his own family.  A better job may have been done of this book if an independent biographer had researched and written it.  They could have probed where de Waal feared to tread.

Does this attitude point to conflicting standards between those upheld by family members and those upheld by independent biographers?  What responsibilities do independent biographers towards their subjects?  At what point should independent biographers respect the privacy of their subjects?

I am still disappointed by Edmund de Waal’s account but one strength of The Hare with Amber Eyes is that the author shares these difficult issues with the reader.   No history is perfect, no history is complete.  Edmund de Waal recognises this and encourages the reader to understand this too.

I am interested to hear from you about how you deal with these issues when researching your family history.

2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Family History and Biography

  1. Yvonne, I read The Hare last year, and simply loved it. It’s interesting, but I simply didn’t have the same sense of dissatisfaction that you clearly had. He talks openly about his great uncle’s homosexuality (the partner is still alive), he mentions his g-grandmother’s affairs, though not in detail, and implies that she killed herself, even though his grandmother and g-uncle never admitted this, he deals with the bisexual French Ephrussi who started the collection.

    If there’s an area where he maybe fudges, it is with the economic ruthlessness the Ephrussi family must have shown in cornering the grain market that made their fortune. And this gets messy, since he is writing about a rich Jewish family that suffered terribly as a result of 20C anti-Semitism – it’s understandable if he doesn’t want to portray them as Shylocks.

    I’m not entirely sure what ‘secrets’ De Waal left out, that you feel a non-family historian would have added – and I’m definitely curious to know more.

    More generally in response to your query – I think if you have the evidence for bad behavior, it should be included in a biography, and definitely makes the biography richer (and the protagonist more empathetic). But family grievances can often sound like the last drunken hour of a Christmas lunch – full of trivialities and half remembered offenses that are of no interest to anyone but the participants. And I think as writers, our first duty is not the bore our readers!


    • I agree that Edmund de Waal was not hiding anything re homosexuality, his great-grandmother’s affairs etc. In fact I thought he handled the homosexuality of his great-uncle well. I didn’t feel that there was anything missing regarding his great-uncle that could have improved the book.

      However, I wanted more probing into his great grandmother’s affairs which were publicly known. He says that he “delicately” inquires about her lovers and is clearly embarrassed about it. I can understand why he would not want to inquire further. I would feel the same in his shoes.

      She was having affairs with an army officer, a prince and possibly others. Was the author’s grandmother humiliated by the gossip circulating about these affairs between a Jewish woman and gentiles? How did gossiping impact on the functioning of the family socially and in business? How were the Jewish community affected? Would the records of her lovers have revealed more? I appreciated the fact that the author mentioned the affairs. If he had been an independent biographer I think he would have delved more.

      Regarding Charles, the author says, “he never stops being a Russian citizen. He always has this secret hinterland.” This is so true and the second last chapter about the family in Odessa gives a little background but I wanted more. He started the book by telling the story of Charles but I realized when I reached the end that the reason why I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. The author depicted Charles’ interest in art beautifully and also discussed Charles’ public social life. Yet Charles remained rather one dimensional. Missing was a feeling of Charles’ connection to other places, particularly Odessa. The western European Ephrussi were secular yet Charles and others donated money to a Jewish school in Odessa. The Ephrussi family used their power in the grain market to try to stop the Russian pogroms. His grandmother asked her father for permission to receive Rabbinical instruction. This to me indicates some cultural identity as Jews, even if they many of them may not have been believers. This was not explored in the book.

      I agree with you about the possible reasons why Edmund de Waal avoids exploring the Ephrussi business. Additionally he clearly wants to limit the project and get back to his pottery. The netsuke are a useful device to do this. I think it is reasonable that the author did not discuss the business much in the book as he clearly told the reader the limited scope of his work at the beginning. However, I feel that there is a bigger story that should be told.

      I could go on, but this is a comment not a post. Thankyou Marion for pushing me to explain myself!


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