A British nonfiction writer and critic explores the story of her family’s past and its place within the larger narrative of 19th- and 20th-century British history.
Light (Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, 2008) began the quest to discover her roots when her father was ill with cancer. With one parent’s death imminent, the author became alarmingly aware of both the passage of time and her own ignorance about a family past that had left few tangible traces. She began her research with visits to parish registers and other local and national archives. As Light became acquainted with her ancestors, she also sought to contextualize their lives. The more data she acquired, the more she realized that “without local history to anchor it, family history is adrift in time.” The picture that emerged on both sides of her family tree was of working-class men and women whose migrations across England had been “shaped and limited” by the Industrial Revolution. Light’s forebears—most of whom worked as bricklayers, needle-makers, servants, farmers, and sailors—were among the most impoverished in Britain. Yet some branches of her father’s family, for example, managed, through a combination of fortunate personal choices and historical timing, to rise into the middle classes and prosper as businessmen and respected members of the clergy. Light’s research also led to the discovery of secrets hidden within family tall tales that masked the realities of shame and failure. One of the most dramatic involved a great-grandmother who was “born in the workhouse; died in a madhouse.” A product of impoverished circumstances she could not control, this ancestor’s life also told a story of some of the policies and practices—such as the British Poor Laws—that defined English society at the time. Light’s book not only offers an insightful account of her proverbial “travels through time.” It also provides a new, more historically nuanced way of thinking about family history.
An intelligent, thoughtfully researched memoir.