‘Light writes beautifully. With such colour and with perception and lyricism she clads the past….Common People is part memoir, part thrilling social history of the England of the Industrial Revolution, but above all a work of quiet poetry and insight into human behaviour. It is full of wisdom.’ - Melanie Reid, The Times Book of the Week
‘This book is a substantial achievement: its combination of scholarship and intelligence is, you may well think, the best monument you could have to all those she has rescued from time’s oblivion.’
- Gillian Tindall, Financial Times
‘[A] short and beautifully written meditation on family and mobility.’ - Roger Clarke, the Independent
‘Intellectually sound and relevant…a refreshingly modern way of thinking about our past.’ – New Statesman
‘Light [is skilled] in probing dark corners of her ancestry and exposing their historical meaning…packed with humanity’ – John Carey, Sunday Times
‘Exquisite…Barely a page goes by without something fascinating on it, betraying Light’s skill in winkling out the most relevant or moving aspects of her antecedents’ lives, which echo through the generations.’ – Lesley McDowell, the Independent
‘An exploration of an English family tree the like of which has never been made before’ - Claire Tomalin
‘A remarkable achievement and should become a classic, a worthy successor to E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. It is full of humanity.' - Margaret Drabble
‘Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, Alison Light makes her family speak for England.’ - Jerry White, author of London in the Eighteenth Century
The Observer, 19th October 2014
Alison Light's evocatively written Common People may well inaugurate a new genre of non-fiction: public family history. Today the internet and regional record offices around the country are buzzing with people tracing their genealogies, looking up long-dead ancestors. The vast majority of this work is kept in the family or posted online for millions of us to ignore. Light offers another path: family history not as a catalogue of names, dates, occupations and events, but as a generational history of interconnected people, where the historian's task is to get a sense of how a life was made and what it felt like to make it that way. This isn't history from below so much as history from inside, to use the author's neat phrasing.
It begins with Light's father dying of cancer and the author trying to find the resting place of his mother who had been buried in a common grave when she was 38 and when the author's father was just four years old. What follows is part detective story, part Dickensian saga, part labour history. Light's forebears are Baptists and bricklayers, servants and sailors, small-scale manufacturers and factory workers. Money comes and goes: mostly it goes. Destitution and the workhouse are always on the edge of people's lives; for many they are at the centre. Light's ancestors aren't labourers eking out a living in the same village for generations; they traipse thousands of miles to try to better their situation.
Common People is family history where the figures are embedded in a landscape made up of building sites and lodging houses, where the pub acts as a labour exchange, and where family stories weave myths out of disappointments. It's a thrilling and unnerving read and shows us how skilled craftsmen and women were given the historical role of the working poor, not because their skills weren't needed, but because of the precariousness of their employment.