Book review: Love’s Legacy by Daniel Fallon
When Daniel Fallon’s father died, he inherited two letters sent to his great-great-grandfather by the French romantic writer François-René de Chateaubriand. The letters aligned with a family story about his great-great-great-grandmother Mary O’Neill showing kindness to Chateaubriand when he was in London – and Fallon wanted to know more.
Love’s Legacy is Fallon’s investigation into a family mystery and his journey through French and English records in the hope of solving the question:
is Chateaubriand my great-great-great-grandfather?
Love’s Legacy: how is it best categorised?
Love’s Legacy doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre.
On one hand, it’s a biography of O’Neill and Chateaubriand; outlining their lives and movements.
On the other, it’s a memoir of Fallon’s quest into the past.
However, unlikely some other books in the family mystery memoir genre, it is a chronological account of Fallon’s research and doesn’t lose itself in flowery descriptions of the scene of the research; we know he writes to genealogists with the hope of an answer, but we don’t hear about the sun shining through the window, warming his back like a soft hug from his g-g g-grandmother as he composed his email. To me, this is a positive. I’m here to find out about the family mystery, not Fallon himself. That doesn’t mean it’s free from emotion, but the emotion is kept in check and the focus is kept, rightly, on the mystery.
The role of forebearers and our identies
It’s also a story about our identities and the role our forebearers, or our perceived forebearers, play in that. Does it matter and, if so, why? Can a single person in our history shape future generations?
As Fallon notes as he fails to find records to back up his family’s oral history, “my faith in the family story began to waver” and “could I trust the stories my father had so vividly related?”
He takes us on the journey while he navigates his family story and his own identity; what does it mean when our precious family stories are questioned?
In Fallon’s case, not only was a story of a “guileless girl” helping a gentleman in distress being presented by one biographer as a “mistress”, but his own ancestry was now in question: “[h]ow would I rethink my ancestry?… Questions about the paternity of an ancestor can stir one to action and it certainly did in my case”
Who hasn’t hoped there was someone famous, someone, as profound as a French romantic writer, in their family tree? It feels like his journey could be any of ours as he finds old letters, letters that were “unknown to Chateaubriand scholars”, that shed light on a family oral history. Chateaubriand was paying for Fallon’s great-great-grandfather to attend school, that, according to his family story, “Chateaubriand assumed this duty in gratitude to the boy’s mother [for her kindness]”. However, as he unravelled the past, Fallon wondered “if there could be other reasons Chateaubriand had assumed responsibility for Thomas’s education and wellbeing” – what reasons indeed!
Love’s Legacy: A page-turner indeed
I found it to be a quietly achieving page-turner. As he came up with new ideas to follow and unravelled new threads I wanted to keep reading to know if this time it would be the answer, the “smoking gun” evidence he was looking for.
He takes us through the avenues he traversed as he sought out archives and experts, perhaps providing other budding investigators with ways they can also find their family history. Although Love’s Legacy is not a how-to guide, it gives insight into how others might also solve mysteries in their own family trees, such as the need to be flexible with the spelling of names, how neighbourhoods can change over time, and the need to triangulate evidence where there’s a lack of a clear answer; “consider conditions in London more than two centuries ago.”
Fallon the storyteller
Fallon comes across as a comfortable storyteller.
He writes of “messages written in pencil” from his father; messages from the grave a perfect allusion to Chateaubriand’s memoir Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe. Fallon refers to “characters in an oral family history” and his approach to them as “characters” shows in his storytelling – a storytelling that’s in his blood.
I recognised elements of magical realism early on and was glad to find out, when he introduced his great-grandfather as “one of the forerunners of the style known as magical realism in modern Latin America”, that my undergraduate Spanish literature had come in handy! I enjoyed its small inclusion at the start and I was hoping there’d be more, but there wasn’t. This makes sense when you consider a factual narrative, and I don’t know how it could fit, but perhaps it could have been incorporated into the conclusion more.
So, is Chateaubriand Daniel Fallon’s great-great-great-grandfather? There are no spoilers here. You’ll have to read it to find out.
This book will be enjoyed by others with mysteries in their family and, of course, for fans of Chateaubriand.
Love’s Legacy is available at a range of retailers in Australia, Europe, and the US.