Most of us, however, give up a few generations back. Read more...
Most of us, however, give up a few generations back. We run into a gap, get embarrassed by a ne'er-do-well, or simply find our ancestors are less glamorous than we'd hoped. That didn't stop Alison Light: in the last weeks of her father's life, she embarked on an attempt to trace the history of her family as far back as she could reasonably go. The result is a clear-eyed, fascinating, frequently moving account of the lives of everyday people, of the tough decisions and hard work, the good luck and bad breaks, that chart the course of a life. Light's forebears--servants, sailors, farm workers--were among the poorest, traveling the country looking for work; they left few lasting marks on the world. But through her painstaking work in archives, and her ability to make the people and struggles of the past come alive, Light reminds us that "every life, even glimpsed through 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 Light does here for her own ancestors, and, by extension, everyone's: draws their experiences from the shadows of the past and helps us understand their lives, estranged from us by time yet inextricably interwoven with our own. Family history, in her hands, becomes a new kind of public history.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-07-06
- Reviewer: Staff
Light (Mrs. Woolf and the Servants), an English writer and critic, promotes the rewards of genealogy as she seeks her roots from Norfolk to Wales to the South Coast. Taking her cue from the BBC celebrity series Who Do You Think You Are?, Light acknowledges that the “Internet produces its own version of ‘archive fever,’ ” and that “people want to know where they came from.” She opens Part One with her father’s death and digs into the mysterious origins of her paternal grandmother, discovering that her grandfather, who came from a long line of bricklayers, had a hand in building the pubs of Portsmouth. Part Two focuses on Light’s mother’s background, with her maternal grandmother supplying the “foundation” of her family. Light’s maternal grandmother, likely an illegitimate child and dropped off at a Portsmouth workhouse at age 10, became a matriarch and looming familial presence. Ancestors from both sides spent much time in workhouses, a Victorian institution that provided material for Charles Dickens and became, by default, Light’s “ancestral home.” As the self-appointed family detective, she ends up compiling eight intertwined family trees that date back to 1640. While someone else’s family history may mean “more to the teller than the listener,” there is ample Victorian history to engage the keen Anglophile. 31 halftones. (Oct.)