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Common People

In Pursuit of My Ancestors

“Family history begins with missing persons,” Alison Light writes in Common People. We wonder about those we’ve lost, and those we never knew, about the long skein that led to us, and to here, and to now. So we start exploring.
Most of us, however, give up a few generations back. We run into a gap, get embarrassed by a ne’er-do-well, or simply find our ancestors are less glamorous than we’d hoped. That didn’t stop Alison Light: in the last weeks of her father’s life, she embarked on an attempt to trace the history of her family as far back as she could reasonably go. The result is a clear-eyed, fascinating, frequently moving account of the lives of everyday people, of the tough decisions and hard work, the good luck and bad breaks, that chart the course of a life. Light’s forebears—servants, sailors, farm workers—were among the poorest, traveling the country looking for work; they left few lasting marks on the world. But through her painstaking work in archives, and her ability to make the people and struggles of the past come alive, Light reminds us that “every life, even glimpsed through the chinks of the census, has its surprises and secrets.”
What she did for the servants of Bloomsbury in her celebrated Mrs. Woolf and the Servants Light does here for her own ancestors, and, by extension, everyone’s: draws their experiences from the shadows of the past and helps us understand their lives, estranged from us by time yet inextricably interwoven with our own. Family history, in her hands, becomes a new kind of public history.

352 pages | 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Biography and Letters

History: British and Irish History, General History

Sociology: Social History


"This is a richly peopled book. . . . Common People is a great deal more than a family history. Light is a literary historian, and her talent here has been to use her skills not just to pursue individuals through the thickets or record offices and county archives, but to set them within their historical era. . . .The achievement of Common People is its triumphant demonstration of the interplay between individual lives and the somber backcloth of economic circumstance. . . . The effect of Common People is to make you aware of the hidden network of anyone’s ancestry. In illuminating her own, Light serves up the most powerful family history I have ever read."

Penelope Lively | New York Times Book Review

“Above all a work of quiet poetry and insight into human behaviour. It is full of wisdom.”

Times (UK) Book of the Week

“I read Common People with a mixture of admiration, awe and sorrow. . . . It is a remarkable achievement and should become a classic, a worthy successor to E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. It is full of humanity.”

Margaret Drabble

“By turns mesmeric and deeply moving: a poetic excavation of the very meaning of history.”

Daily Telegraph

Common People tells the story of Alison Light’s own experience of looking for her ancestors: a quest for origins, explanations and the filling of absences. It is also a moving meditation on the role of family history and on the nature of history itself. . . . The results are inspiring. Few historians can match Light’s ability to see a subject anew and explore it with imagination and humanity.”

Times Higher Education

“Remarkably gifted at investing bare archival facts with emotional valence, Light delivers a history-from-within that makes readers care deeply about a great-grandmother who enters the world as a workhouse baby and leave s it as a pauper lunatic, about a great-great-grandfather who suffers an ineluctably downward trajectory in employment that finally lands him in a workhouse. Readers do learn about the larger historical dynamics driven by the Industrial Revolution, British imperialism, and two world wars, yet the individual never disappears from view. A cross-grained family history that transcends its genre.”—Booklist


"Professional historians tend to regard family history as a poor cousin of the history of societies or nations. But as Alison Light shows in this meticulous, moving study of her antecedents, 'once the branches proliferate, families become neighborhoods and groups, and groups take shape around the work they do and where they find themselves doing it.' The personal is always public. . . . Ms. Light's book is full of moments where the public and the personal intersect to quietly devastating effect."

Wall Street Journal

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Credits
Family Trees
Prologue: A Child’s Sense of the Past
Part One: Missing Persons
1. Evelyn’s Grave
2. Hope Place
Part Two: Tall Stories
3. The Road to Netherne
5. Albion Street

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