Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors

  • By Alison Light
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Janet Mason Ellerby
  • October 5, 2015

A masterful chronicle of what it means to unearth one's past.

Common People: In Pursuit of My Ancestors

I was raised by raconteurs. My parents loved to tell stories, and they told them so well that we never tired of hearing them. But in her new book, Common People: In Pursuit of my Ancestors, Alison Light makes it achingly clear that my parents’ serene recollections should not be trusted. She reminds us that “as [memories] are passed on through the generations, they accrete new details or are subtly changed…We misremember the memories we inherit; their fabric is coloured by our own desires.”

Notwithstanding my parents’ narrative prowess, Light’s premise rings true. Their stories sparkled with heartwarming humor, but the skeletons — the adulterer, the suicide, the murderer — were expunged from the record.

Despite such conscious and unconscious elisions, family detectives like Light insist on tracking down as many facts as contemporary genealogy will corroborate. When I first opened her book, I could immediately see the fruits of her labor, as she begins with eight complicated family trees. Baffled by over 200 names and accompanying dates, ranging from William Hosier (c. 1640, Corfe Castle, Dorset) to Light herself, I pressed on to find that these trees serve the author’s purpose well. They demonstrate her frustration that so many lives can be “shrunk to fit inside a pair of dates in brackets.”

So she sets out to find the stories behind the facts and under the erasures. She wants to “follow the plot of a life and unveil the truth behind the family myths.” By immersing herself in archives, records offices, and websites; by rethinking family lore and reevaluating the significance of family mementos; by traveling to important locations in her family’s past; and by paying special attention to overlooked clues her hometown has always harbored, she constructs a new kind of family history, one that bridges the gap between official records and real people. Names, dates, and places can indeed open the door to life stories, but through narrative, Light gives substance to her family’s past, revealing their hopes and dreams, their loves and sorrows.

With lucent prose, she travels the roads her ancestors took as they moved across southern England, desperate for employment, shelter, and sustenance. Too much of a Freudian to stop with the details of a census, she disregards the boundaries between private and public and searches out the unknown worlds behind the place names, the emotional undertows, the backwash of what the facts meant in a life. And although she finds that many heretofore undisputed familial stories are tall tales, she digs deeper, probing for the emotional truths behind those tales. In so doing, she demonstrates that family history, like all history, “is never neutral in what it wants to say about the past.”

And Light makes no claim to neutrality. Rather, she uses family history as a means to analyze, for example, how religious faith becomes deeply sustaining for the poor even as she critiques the “unctuousness and bigotry of those convinced they [are] saved.”

She lambasts 19th-century authorities, who, haunted by imaginary “crafty cadgers and work-shy desperados,” insisted that poverty arose from moral delinquency and designed workhouses that were worse than prisons in order to repress “moral contagion.”

We learn it was the widows, the deserted women and children, the sick, the “feeble-minded,” and the elderly who suffered the humiliation and lethal filth of the workhouses. She poignantly illustrates just how “a political economy whose blind faith in the operations of a free market left little safety net for its human casualties.” Her social critique resonates today as we continue to witness economic inequality and religious zealotry.

Light brings her intricate family trees brilliantly alive. We get to know Evelyn Light and how she came to die young, so hampered by poverty that she was buried in a common grave. We hear Sarah Hill’s real story — the one erased from family memory — of how she was born in the workhouse and died in a public asylum for “lunatic paupers.”

And we learn Lily Heffron’s actual story — not the romantic version she loved to tell, but the one that places her in the workhouse at age 10, abandoned, institutionalized, and confined, just like every generation of her family.

At one point, Light pauses to reflect, “If geography is history, where does it begin? Like the next hill on a long walk, origins have a habit of receding as they are approached.” I read Common People as I hiked across England. Walking onto the Yorkshire moors, I wanted to think I was returning to my own geography, my history, my ancestral home. I even took a slight detour to a tiny hamlet on the North Sea that bears my surname, Ellerby.

Like most family detectives, I wanted to find “that plot of land” that would corroborate the family myth of a long-lost Eden, an uncomplicated agrarian life on the wild, rolling moors. But there have been no Ellerbys in Ellerby for as long as our old innkeeper could remember. As it was for Light’s ancestors, so it must have been for mine: “the decision to leave [was] easy in the end. No work and less and less to eat. It [was] time to leave the village, home and family and head for town.” Our innkeeper said that people like me still come back, hoping to give our lives form, substance, and significance.

We create, she suggests, our “own kind of time and call it [a family] history, human syncopation,” while knowing our stories, like those of our parents, are flawed, no more than an “offbeat accompaniment” to the world’s unfolding. Light generously and incisively records her family’s often rollicking but more often heartbreaking past, even as she reminds us of a larger, haunting melody, “the stealth of the glacier and the planet’s revolution in space.”

Janet Mason Ellerby is professor of English and women’s and gender studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women’s Memoir and Following the Tambourine Man: A Birthmother’s Memoir. Her most recent book, Embroidering the Scarlet A: Unwed Mothers and Illegitimate Children in American Fiction and Film, was published by University of Michigan Press in April of this year.

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