Envying someone else’s family tree is clear evidence of an unbalanced mind, but that’s how I felt reading Mad Dogs & Englishmen*, an expedition round my family. The author is Ranulph Fiennes, whom the Guinness Book of Records described as ‘the world’s greatest living explorer.’
The story of ‘his unconventional, exceptional family’ goes back to 715 and includes Charlemagne (768-814) as well as Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel. Numerous skeletons fall out of the cupboard in Fiennes’s narrative but the author flincheth not: Thomas Fiennes, Lord Dacre, was hanged at Tyburn for poaching and murder. Prior to this, he’d sat on the jury at Ann Boleyn’s trial and been a pall-bearer at Jane Seymour’s funeral.
After that it’s almost an anti-climax to mention that a lady named Elizabeth Fiennes was a second cousin of Jane Austen.
There’s a remarkable drop-line tree at the beginning of the book and glancing at the famous personalities peering from its branches it’s hard to believe that this wasn’t simply a name-dropping exercise but a real family, generation after generation. If you’ve ever wanted an example of how to compile an informative but immensely exciting, honest and readable account of your ancestry, this book has everything, including wonderful illustrations.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN 9780340925034
*Noel Coward wrote:
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don’t care to, the Chinese wouldn’t dare to,
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one,
But Englishmen detest a siesta …