Common People: The History of an English Family by Alison Light - review by Miranda Seymour

Miranda Seymour

Tales of the Workhouse

Common People: The History of an English Family


Fig Tree 322pp £20 order from our bookshop

Family history – as Alison Light pithily observes in her intriguing addition to a thriving genre – is an addictive enterprise. Since 1990, family history searches have become the third most popular area of activity online in Britain (after shopping and pornography). Only the social level has undergone a change. Where obsequious librarians used to be tasked with linking their would-be illustrious subject to the highest in the land (‘she herself being the great-niece of the Duchess of Belishapool…’), one current fashion is to illustrate how a feisty, straight-talking subject has emerged from some pretty unspeakable depths. Mary Berry, the baking queen, has recently shared her discovery of an ancestor’s miserable life in a Norwich workhouse. (Workhouse history is another booming area of interest on the internet.) Light’s prodigiously diligent researches take her further still. ‘If anywhere can claim to be my ancestral home’, she writes, with not much sign of irony, ‘it is the workhouse.’

Unflinchingly bleak though the tone of Light’s book is (‘Down they go, down, down…’; ‘Always that feeling, did it all come to this?’), the stories she has uncovered are both striking and full of pathos. How sad can it be to go in search of an admired grandmother’s burial spot

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