As its title suggests, Common People: The History of An English Family is the story of everyday folk. We don’t meet any kings of industry or aristocrats here; instead, author Alison Light introduces us to needle makers in Alcester, builders and Baptist preachers in Portsmouth, and sailors setting sail to Newfoundland. These are lives that at first sight might seem unremarkable, yet Light uses her creative touch to ensure they merit a closer look. She is working with the kind of family history material that most of us discover in our tree – yet she nimbly interprets the family storylines, enriches the narrative with local and social history, and reflects upon her role as the family historian along the way.
The book falls into four extended chapters, each one based around a grandparent and their ancestry. Thus, we hop around the country following Light’s quest for documentary records and other family traces. We spend time with grandmother Evelyn Whitlock in the Women’s Forage Corps, get locked inside the Netherne Asylum with Sarah Hill, and head out to sea with ‘Captains’ Giles and John Hosier. It’s ambitious in its scope – spanning five or six generations on all sides – but it’s skillfully handled, a sign of Light’s talent as an ‘historian of forgotten people’.
Every now and then, she steps aside from the storyline to reflect upon the joys and challenges of being a family historian:
“Family history, like all historical work, is messy and loose-ended, full of false starts, red herrings and wild goose chases, discoveries which are sheer serendipity and might so easily have been missed. Far from being dead ends or time wasters, these detours are part of historical work. They reveal our misconceptions and dislodge our assumptions about the past.”