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Alison Light: Wiltshire Baptists, 8 April 2010

... 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 Henry, my father’s ...


Alison Light: Raphael Samuel, 2 February 2017

... shuffling off items into Raphael’s study, replacing them with wine glasses to reflect the light. The coin stayed where it was. I met Raphael in 1985 when I was thirty and he was fifty. I was in my first academic job as a polytechnic lecturer and working on a doctorate. ‘Raphael Samuel’ was a name on a book spine – People’s History and ...


Alison Light: The death of Raphael Samuel, 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 called his ‘Communist unconscious’; I even listed his shirts ...


Alison Light: In Portsmouth, 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 ...

Behind the Green Baize Door

Alison Light: The Servant Problem, 5 March 2020

Feminism and the Servant Problem: Class and Domestic Labour in the Women’s Suffrage Movement 
by Laura Schwartz.
Cambridge, 248 pp., £75, July 2019, 978 1 108 47133 6
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... The​ vast 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 maid-of-all-work or ‘general ...

Unruly Sweet Peas

Alison Light: Working-Class Gardens, 18 December 2014

The Gardens of the British Working Class 
by Margaret Willes.
Yale, 413 pp., £25, March 2014, 978 0 300 18784 7
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... 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 ...

Astral Projection

Alison Light: The Case of the Croydon Poltergeist, 17 December 2020

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story 
by Kate Summerscale.
Bloomsbury, 345 pp., £18.99, October, 978 1 4088 9545 0
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... bed, she told the journalist, there were strange happenings. A tumbler spontaneously shattered, a light bulb from the bedside lamp migrated, still hot and intact, to the other side of the room; a pot of face cream, flying through the air, narrowly missed Don, their son, who was coming to their aid, and their lodger, George, was hit by coins (a shilling and a ...

Among the Antimacassars

Alison Light, 11 November 1999

by Virginia Woolf, edited by Elizabeth Steele.
Blackwell, 123 pp., £50, December 1998, 0 631 17729 9
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by Paul Auster.
Faber, 186 pp., £12.99, June 1999, 0 571 19197 5
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... 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 ...

Oh those Lotharios

Alison Light: Jean Lucey Pratt, 17 March 2016

A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt 
edited by Simon Garfield.
Canongate, 736 pp., £12.99, April 2016, 978 1 78211 572 4
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... He’ – ‘someone slightly overpowering who dances divinely’ – she wishes she were ‘light and amusing and attractive’ (she is podgy, shy and often tongue-tied). Pratt writes her journal in the holidays from boarding school, ‘that strangely bittersweet prison’. She begins by breathlessly totting up her past ‘beaux’, who include a waiter ...

The general tone is purple

Alison Light: Where the Poor Lived, 2 July 2020

Charles Booth’s London Poverty Maps 
edited by Mary S. Morgan.
Thames and Hudson, 288 pp., £49.95, October 2019, 978 0 500 02229 0
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... whose ignorant, savage tribes, like those elsewhere in the British Empire, needed the clarifying light of Christian missionaries or exposure to scientific reason.The maps were imaginative artefacts as much as scientific documents. In the new folio they have been ‘re-curated’, as the cover blurb puts it, with just a hint of the coffee-table book. The maps ...

Regular Terrors

Alison Light: Window-Smashing Suffragettes, 25 January 2007

Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote 
by Jill Liddington.
Virago, 402 pp., £14.99, May 2006, 1 84408 168 0
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... 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 another addressed to Asquith: ‘We are burning for “Votes for Women” ...

Some Sad Turtle

Alison Light: Spinsters and Clerics, 29 July 2021

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Biography 
by Paula Byrne.
William Collins, 686 pp., £25, April 2021, 978 0 00 832220 5
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... Book of Gay Short Stories). Her gay men ironise femininity, break the rules of decorum and make light of deep feeling. Mervyn Cantrell, the caustic and gossipy librarian who lives at home with his mother, shamelessly lusts after Ianthe Broome’s Pembroke table in An Unsuitable Attachment; Ned, an American whose voice whines like a gnat, manipulates the ...

Lady Talky

Alison Light: Lydia Lopokova, 18 December 2008

Bloomsbury Ballerina: Lydia Lopokova, Imperial Dancer and Mrs John Maynard Keynes 
by Judith Mackrell.
Weidenfeld, 476 pp., £25, April 2008, 978 0 297 84908 7
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... journalist thought her less a flaming phoenix than a delicate hummingbird). Tiny, fast and feather light, with a leap almost as high as Nijinsky’s, at 18 she was the latest sensation of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev knocked a year off her age and promoted her as a child star. Mackrell is astute about Lopokova’s handling of her early celebrity and her ...

Harnessed to a Shark

Alison Light: Who was Virginia Woolf afraid of?, 21 March 2002

Three Guineas 
by Virginia Woolf, edited by Naomi Black.
Blackwell, 253 pp., £60, October 2001, 0 631 17724 8
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... 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, especially when we all whooped in chorus on the ‘Oh’, raising our eyebrows melodramatically ...

The Iron Way

Dinah Birch: Family History, 19 February 2015

Common People: The History of an English Family 
by Alison Light.
Penguin, 322 pp., £20, October 2014, 978 1 905490 38 7
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... traffic between them. In choosing to write the history of an English family – her own family – Alison Light makes a determined if somewhat uneasy effort to bridge this gap. Painfully aware of the hazards, she tries repeatedly to disarm the criticism, or self-criticism, that is an inevitable consequence of her project. Is the turn to family history ...

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