Category Archives: Book Club

Book Club: Common People

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 become remarkable. 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 at 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.”

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Book Club: The Hare with Amber Eyes

“One sunny day I set out to find Charles. Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street that charges off towards the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden-stone houses…” and with this, Edmund de Waal heads out in the footsteps of relative Charles Ephrussi, a wealthy Jewish banker, aesthete and collector. The result is this riveting family history, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

In a beautifully written narrative, he reveals how Charles’ collection of 264 netsuke – delicately-carved wooden and ivory Japanese belt fastenings – passed through several generations of the Ephrussi family, from Belle Epoque Paris to war-torn Vienna, and then – thanks to a loyal maid – to Japan and now London. In pursuing the netsuke, Edmund de Waal evokes a picture of each branch of the family in turn; he has an affluent and colourful family to work with, but this is not a glitzy society history, more a considered study of the Ephrussi family in context. His research shines through, without weighing down the storyline.

 

 

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