Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors by Alison Light

By Alison Light

“Family historical past starts with lacking persons,” Alison mild writes in Common People. We ask yourself approximately these we’ve misplaced, and people we by no means knew, concerning the lengthy skein that resulted in us, and to the following, and to now. So we commence exploring.
 
such a lot people, even though, surrender a couple of generations again. We run right into a hole, get embarrassed through a ne’er-do-well, or just locate our ancestors are much less glamorous than we’d was hoping. That didn’t cease Alison gentle: within the final weeks of her father’s existence, she launched into an try to hint the historical past of her kin way back to she may quite cross. the result's a clear-eyed, attention-grabbing, usually relocating account of the lives of daily humans, of the harsh judgements and tough paintings, the nice success and undesirable breaks, that chart the process a existence. Light’s forebears—servants, sailors, farm workers—were one of the poorest, touring the rustic searching for paintings; they left few lasting marks at the international. yet via her painstaking paintings in documents, and her skill to make the folk and struggles of the earlier come alive, gentle reminds us that “every existence, even glimpsed in the course of 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 mild does right here for her personal ancestors, and, through extension, everyone’s: attracts their studies from the shadows of the prior and is helping us comprehend their lives, estranged from us by means of time but inextricably interwoven with our personal. family members background, in her arms, turns into a brand new form of public history.

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The past lurked and lingered and could easily be surprised. It particularly favoured the dark and the dangerous—the dank corners in the Round Tower at Old Portsmouth, for instance, where you could imagine, my mother said, all the people who had been imprisoned there, or the soldiers who had worn out the steps, trudging to and fro. I was troubled by ghosts (ghost stories ran in the family); ghosts were where the past leaked into the present like dye. I certainly learnt that the past was perilous, stalked by legendary illnesses—whooping cough, scarlet fever, rickets, polio—which had ravaged my relatives; people in the past, they said, had to live in pigstyes and they died like flies.

A week after my visit my father died. When, eventually, I told my mother what I’d found, she was more pragmatic. It was sad, she said, but perhaps the family were grateful that the corporation had taken care of the body; such burials were two a penny and the funeral might have been a relief, and not a matter of shame. At least Evelyn had been properly buried and in a proper cemetery. There were plenty who were worse off. This was a different perspective. I could not imagine this level of gratitude or of poverty: to be that beholden.

Long-lost ancestors can, of course, be infinitely preferable to the families in which we live: grander or more victimized, apparently more interesting, more appealing, morally more worthy. ‘We all have half a dozen possible ancestries to choose from, and fantasy and projections can furnish us with a dozen more,’ the historian Raphael Samuel wrote in Island Stories (1998), wondering if people turn to make-believe identities in the past because they can no longer find a home for their ideal selves in the future.

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