Alison Light

Alison Light’s latest book is A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation, about her marriage to Raphael Samuel.

CharlesBooth’s survey of London poverty was an epic Victorian undertaking. Beginning in the late 1880s with East London, Booth and his army of investigators launched a systematic study which went on to cover nearly all of the metropolis, then the largest in the world with around four million inhabitants. The accounts of their walks around London filled 450 notebooks. They visited...

Thevast majority of those who worked in service never set foot in a stately home. The country house, with its uniformed staff and rigid hierarchy, looms large in the British imagination, but the experience of service in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was far more mundane and far more various. Most servant-keeping households employed only a cook and a maid or a single...

Diary: Raphael Samuel

Alison Light, 2 February 2017

In his basement kitchen​ Raphael Samuel had a cabinet of curiosities, a glass-fronted corner cupboard filled with dusty objects. Among them, a lump of coal from the Durham coalfields and a plastic National Coal Board mug; a yellow and black theatre programme for a 1956 performance of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, with Mack the Knife sketched on the cover as a predatory city...

Oh those Lotharios: Jean Lucey Pratt

Alison Light, 17 March 2016

The​ early entries in Jean Lucey Pratt’s journals brought to mind Cecily’s diary in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Wilde sends up, among other things, the predictable script of boy meets girl. Long before she knows Algernon, Cecily has charted the progress of their romance in her diary, but when they meet, and Algernon falls instantly in love as planned, Cecily...

Unruly Sweet Peas: Working-Class Gardens

Alison Light, 18 December 2014

Lampy​, just a couple of inches tall, is the last of his tribe, and is now immured in a glass cabinet a long way from his German homeland. He was one of the porcelain Gnomen-Figuren brought to Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire in the 1840s to populate the huge rockery, fissured with crevices and ravines, which Sir Charles Isham created in front of his bedroom window. The rockery reflected...

Diary: Wiltshire Baptists

Alison Light, 8 April 2010

The village of Shrewton lies in the valley of the River Till, overshadowed by chalk escarpments, about four miles from Stonehenge. One of my ancestors, Charles Light, was the pastor of the Zion Chapel, a Baptist church there, in the second half of the 19th century. Charles’s younger brother, Henry, was also a Baptist minister, preaching in Chitterne, the next village. His son, another...

Lady Talky: Lydia Lopokova

Alison Light, 18 December 2008

Why does she want the red shoes? She wants to be special and she wants to be looked at. In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale, Karen, a peasant girl, goes barefoot in summer and in winter wears wooden clogs that rub her feet raw, but the mirror tells her she’s lovely and she thinks that wearing the red shoes will make her feel like a princess. Like selfish Heidi and tomboy Katy, Karen is a mid-19th century girl crippled by egotism. The shoes force her to dance non-stop and to display herself ‘wherever proud and vain children live’. Though it seems simply a punitive response to female narcissism, this is a Christian morality tale intended to warn against the sin of self-love. Karen is cast out of her community and her church; she has her feet hacked off, and the story ends with her repentance. What we remember, though, is not the final image of her blissful reunion with God but the red shoes, with the little feet still in them, going on dancing. Shoes were a homely and powerful symbol of status for Andersen, the son of a cobbler, a lonely, ungainly outsider. He was greedy for fame yet tormented by guilt at his success; ‘The Red Shoes’ inflicts a cruel comeuppance on exhibitionists and social climbers like himself.

Diary: In Portsmouth

Alison Light, 7 February 2008

Fortitude Cottage in Old Portsmouth, so the publicity tells me, is named after HMS Fortitude, a 74-gun ‘ship of the line’ that was part of the fleet which took on the French in the Napoleonic Wars. A tall bow-fronted house, it’s a bed and breakfast done out ‘boutique-style’, with white duvets, chocolate suede furnishings and modern ceramics. It was built on the...

In November 1913, ‘the Headingly two’, a dark-haired woman of about twenty-five and ‘a girlish figure in green cap and sports jacket’, stood trial for attempting to set fire to a football stand in Leeds. Among the evidence produced against them were some postcards, one declaring ‘No Vote, No Sport, No Peace – Fire, Destruction, Devastation’ and...

In the 1960s we used to sing a music-hall song in the pub whose rousing refrain began, ‘Two lovely black eyes – Oh, what a surprise!’ and went on: ‘Only for tellin’ a man he was wrong – two lovely black eyes!’ It took me a while to realise that the singer was a woman who’d been beaten up by her bloke because the song made me laugh so much,...

Diary: The death of Raphael Samuel

Alison Light, 22 February 2001

It’s four years since my husband, the historian and socialist Raphael Samuel, died of cancer at the age of 61. In the weeks after his death, I wrote about him every day. I filled a boxfile and an A3 ringbinder with anecdotes and observations, physical descriptions and characteristic phrases; I made notes on what he had told me of his childhood, on our marriage, on his work, on what we...

Among the Antimacassars

Alison Light, 11 November 1999

According to Baudelaire, fervent lovers and austere scholars have one thing in common, especially in their riper years. They share a love of household cats, who, like them, are ‘sédentaires’ and ‘frileux’ – sensitive to draughts. Baudelaire wrote many hymns to the friend of sensuality and learning, but it was another hundred years before cats reached their current popularity as pets. They have always had their followers but their association with paganism, with heresy and sorcery, made them a constant object of suspicion in Christian Europe. Condemned as the devil’s agents at witchcraft trials, burnt alongside Protestants by Mary Tudor and alongside Catholics by Elizabeth I, roasted at country fairs and persecuted for sport, cats were often given short shrift in Britain. Ancient symbols of fertility, they were commonly deemed lascivious (the female cat was especially lecherous), but feline stand-offishness was the real problem. The cat was of limited worth to humans since it only looked out for itself: ‘a useful but deceitful domestic’ possessed of ‘an innate malice’, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica put it in 1787.’‘

The Iron Way: Family History

Dinah Birch, 19 February 2015

Children​ often envy orphans. But the appeal of stories of parentless heroes who are free to make their own luck fades as the fluid possibilities of youth harden into adulthood. The quirks and...

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Ann Fleming once remarked that she was so depressed that ‘last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’...

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Lever-Arch Inquisitor

John Barrell, 29 October 1998

When Raphael Samuel died, the second volume of his projected trilogy Theatres of Memory was left unfinished. Some of the longer essays it was intended to contain were unwritten or unannotated or...

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