The Iron Way

Dinah Birch

  • Common People: The History of an English Family by Alison Light
    Penguin, 322 pp, £20.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 905490 38 7

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 prejudices of family life start to seem fascinating, or admirable. We hanker after a clearer picture of the vanished men and women who gave rise to our parents’ lives, and our own. As she grows up, Jane Eyre learns about her lost mother and father, and draws strength from them; so too does Harry Potter. Popular fictions concede the power of inheritance even as they glamorise the courage of orphans.

For those without an aristocratic pedigree, family piety used to amount to little more than anecdotes about half-remembered relatives. Now anyone with a computer and a measure of determination can go much further. Archives and public records and censuses are accessible to all, and there’s plenty of advice on how to make sense of them. The viewing figures for the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? have held up for a decade, while Secrets from the Clink, its lurid ITV cousin, adds a distinctively Dickensian preoccupation with forebears who served time. Primary research is no longer exclusively a matter for academic historians. Amateurs can share the buzz of discovery.

Unsurprisingly, professionals have mixed feelings about the swarm of explorers among the databases. Every historian sympathises with the impulse to learn about the past. But bare facts about long-buried family members can’t reveal much about the broader cultural and economic circumstances that defined their lives, and objective analysis often takes second place to the resurrected details (revealing self-made success, lost grandeur, anti-authoritarian spirit or helpless victimhood) that best confirm the values of the investigator. Trained historians observe, sometimes disdainfully, that such researchers are looking for archival comfort food. The two breeds are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, but there isn’t much 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 symptomatic of a defeated and fragmented culture, in helpless retreat from a disempowering future? Does it reflect contemporary conservatism? Is it an evasion of the challenges of social and political reform? Light insists that her version of family history will concern itself with ‘big questions about economic forces, political decisions, local government, urban history, social policy, as well as the character of individuals and the fate of their families’. Her account will provide, she explains, something other than the inward-facing assemblage of disconnected biographical facts most family historians produce. She hopes it will serve as a model for more sceptical investigation. And perhaps it will, for this very self-aware book has much more intellectual energy than most representatives of its genre, and it is directed at a more knowing readership. Yet Light’s project has, as she acknowledges, entirely conventional origins. It was triggered, like many such ventures, by illness – her father died of cancer when she was in her mid-fifties. The work began with the wish to retrieve the past just as ‘memory and history seemed to be ebbing away.’

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