“One sunny day I set out to find Charles. Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street that charges off towards the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden-stone houses…” and with this, Edmund de Waal heads out in the footsteps of relative Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy Jewish banker, aesthete and collector. The result is this riveting family history, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.
In a beautifully written narrative, he reveals how Charles’ collection of 264 netsuke – delicately-carved wooden and ivory Japanese belt fastenings – passed through several generations of the Ephrussi family, from Belle Epoque Paris to war-torn Vienna, and then – thanks to a loyal maid – to Japan and now London. In pursuing the netsuke, Edmund de Waal evokes a picture of each branch of the family in turn; he has an affluent and colourful family to work with, but this is not a glitzy society history, more a considered study of the Ephrussi family in context. His research shines through, without weighing down the storyline.
As family historians, what can we learn from it? The Hare with Amber Eyes successfully captures a sense of time and place. The core historical facts about the family have been used as a starting point, but de Waal’s well-crafted text takes us well beyond that – into Charles’ salon, choosing outfits in Emmy’s dressing room, peering with horror as the Nazis take over the Palais Ephrussi. And the research journey – how he tracked the ancestral trail – adds plot and vitality, keeping us engaged as the storyline unfolds. Launched to critical acclaim, The Hare with Amber Eyes won the Costa Biography Award 2010.
3 Ideas for Family Historians
- Write about a quest
Before writing The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal had reached a juncture with his family history. “I realise that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long,” he writes, “I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative – or go and find out what it means.”
It’s de Waal’s personal quest that underpins The Hare with Amber Eyes. “Being busy is no excuse,” he says “I have negotiated with my wife and cleared my diary. Three or four months should see me right.” His sense of mission provides a strong narrative thread throughout: we accompany his visits to former family homes in Paris, Vienna and Tokyo; we peer over his shoulder in libraries and archives; and we relive his memories of drinks with Great Uncle Iggie. As the journey progresses, we’re there to witness his new discoveries, to share his excitement.
Write away: Consider whether you could use a quest as the storyline for one of your own family history pieces. A light touch often works best; the reader doesn’t want to know about every document you’ve studied or every deduction that you’ve made. Instead, outline why your project matters, where it has taken you, how you feel about its resolution. To get started, have a go at writing a couple of sentences that set out your mission or project. As an example, take a look at the opening paragraphs of this blog post about tracing Harry Shipley.
- Base a story around an heirloom
Throughout his narrative, Edmund de Waal brings us back to the netsuke. They were first acquired in 1870s Paris when a taste for all things Japonisme became the fashion: “Charles bought them, not piece by piece like his lacquers, but as a complete and spectacular collection from Sichel… Did he fall in love with the startlingly pale hare with amber eyes, and buy the rest for company?”
In 1899, Charles gifts them to cousin Viktor and wife Emmy in Vienna, and they’re placed in her dressing-room where “the children choose their favourite carving and play with it on the pale-yellow carpet. Gisela loved the Japanese dancer, holding her fan against the brocade gown, caught in mid-step. Iggie loved the wolf, a tight tangle of limbs… Elisabeth, contrary, loved the masks with their abstracted memory of faces.”
Some thirty years on, the Nazis systematically plunder the house of valuables. The family flee to safety. Remarkably, Emmy’s maid Anna stays on and day by day tucks a few netsuke into her apron pocket, ferreting them away until they’re all hidden under her mattress.
Post-War, the family are reunited with the netsuke: “Elisabeth opened the attache case and showed Iggie the netsuke. A melée of rats. The fox with inlaid eyes. The monkey wrapped around the gourd. His brindled wolf. They take a few out and put them on the kitchen table… It’s Japan, he said, I’ll take them back.”
Write away: Use a family heirloom as a narrative device for a short piece of writing. Whatever the object – a piece of jewellery, an ornament or trinket – an heirloom can make an intriguing theme for a family story. When and where was it made? Study the object’s texture and workmanship. In what circumstances did your ancestor acquire it? What did it mean to them? As an example, here’s a short piece about the tool chest of Martin Collis.
- Use your senses to enrich the imagery
Edmund de Waal has an artist’s eye; when not writing, he works as a potter creating delicate, pale ceramic pots. The Hare with Amber Eyes reflects his artistic sensibilities – it is finely crafted, the language is carefully honed, at times it’s poetic. Notably, he uses the senses – touch, taste, smell and so on – to evoke a rich, more particular impression of life in the various family households. In these two extracts, for example, he considers the children’s experience of the Palais Ephrussi, their grand home on the corner of Vienna’s Ringstrasse:
“There are things in this world that the children hear, but whose sounds oscillate below an adult’s sense of pitch. They hear the green-and-gold clock in the salon (which has mermaids on it) tick every slow second as they sit in starched immobility during visits from great aunts. They can hear the shuffle of the carriage horses in courtyard, which means they are finally off to the park. There is the sound of the rain on the glass roof of the courtyard, which means they are not.”
“There are things that the children smell that are part of their landscape: the smell of their father’s cigar smoke in the library, their mother, or the smell of schnitzel on covered dishes as it is carried past the nursery for lunch. The smell behind the itchy tapestries in the dining-room when they creep behind them to hide. And the smell of hot chocolate after skating.”
Write away: Choose one sense – sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch – and write a paragraph of memories evoked by that sense. Start by writing the first piece around your own childhood memories at home; focus on recalling the details of the sounds, tastes or smells. Then try writing a similar paragraph about a relative living during another century or in a different home; use your imagination to describe the sounds, tastes or smells they experienced.
Try out one or two of these ideas and let us know how you get on.
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is available in paperback, e-book and hardcover illustrated editions. You might also like to dip into this reading guide produced by publishers Chatto & Windus.