Not long before his parents died in the 1980s, Michael Holroyd asked them to write some account of their early lives. These two documents, which, where they do overlap, differ dramatically - they do not even agree on the date of Michael's birth - market the starting point of the book. A biographer by profession, Holroyd had always assumed that his own family was perfectly English, or at least perfectly ordinary. But old photograph albums, papers found in the lining of an evening bag, and crumbling documents in various public record offices gradualy yield clues to a constellation of startling events and eccentric characters: a long, slow decline from English nobility on one side, and on the other a dramatic Scandinavian ancestry. Fatal fires, suicides, bankruptcies, divorces, unconsumated longings - all of these flow from the pages of his parents' recollections to which he adds his own.