In a telling moment early on in A Radical Romance, Alison Light admits that she once identified with the character of Jo March, the tomboy in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Jo, it will be recalled, is the sister who marries a professor, years older than her, a German immigrant called Friedrich Bhaer, who is tender and warm and encourages her writing. In many ways it’s a model modern partnership.
Light found her own professor in the shape of Raphael Samuel. In 1987 she married him, following a whirlwind courtship. He was in his early fifties, from a Jewish communist family that traced its roots back to Russia and Eastern Europe. A self-declared communist from the age of eight, Samuel had left the party in 1956 after the revelations of Stalin’s crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He went on to become a charismatic figure on the British left. As a founder of the History Workshop, he was an influential historian, committed to the idea of a people’s history, or ‘history from below’.
Light was 20 years his junior. ‘A Portsmouth girl’ from a working-class family, she’d voted for Mrs Thatcher in 1979 out of feminine solidarity. Although she had reverted to Labour, her politics were still largely ‘untheorised’, social rather than ideological. On the verge of an academic career, her life kept stalling and stopping. Her mind, ‘if not unmoulded, was not yet set’. If Raphael Samuel hadn’t existed, she writes, she would have needed to invent him.
They had been married for barely a decade when Samuel died from cancer in 1996. One of the remarkable things about Light’s book is that it is both a moving story of one particular love affair, with a heartfelt portrait of Samuel at its centre, and an illuminating narrative of wider appeal about the pitfalls of marriage — especially the pitfalls of marrying a much older partner — the devastation of loss, and the long drawn-out process of mourning that flows and ebbs, and suffers a sea-change, but never really ends.
Light brings Samuel back to life with such vivid detail that it’s almost as if she is rehearsing falling in love with him all over again. She recalls his rare capacity to listen, his ‘beguiling openness and extreme rationalism’, as well as his haphazard methods of research and lecturing. I laughed out loud at the description of him giving the Ford Lectures at Oxford, cocking a snook at academic stuffiness as he did so. Avoiding ‘the flummery of a gown’, he turned up with a bag overflowing with books and lever-arch files and proceeded to pull them out, ‘like so many rabbits from a hat’, as he scrambled to find a reference to buttress his argument.
This is a memoir of cauterising honesty. Light has written in the past about Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, in which the second Mrs de Winter struggles to find an identity amid the shadows cast by her glamorous predecessor. In her own marriage, it wasn’t the memory of a first wife that Light had to do battle with. Instead, she found herself oppressed by the contents of Samuel’s ‘old curiosity shop of a house’ in Spitalfields — where every item seemed to offer a mini-history of radicalism — and hemmed in by the constant entertaining of his endless band of friends and admirers (‘Another 12 Italian Marxists for breakfast!’). She felt almost buried alive under the accumulation of his books and papers. At times, she bravely confesses, ‘Raphael was simply… too much for me’, and she came close to breakdown. Moving into his crowded life she had lost sight of her own identity and sometimes felt like ‘a small boat bobbing in the backwash, trying to find an even keel’.
As their relationship nears its tragic close, you sense Light’s reluctance to tell the story of Samuel’s last moments. So much modern memoir writing has a smoothed-over quality, as if it is indeed emotion recollected in tranquillity. That is very much not the case here. The poignancy of Raphael Samuel’s end is only matched in its intensity by Alison Light’s recognition of what she memorably calls ‘the human bargain’: that we give and receive love in exchange for death. This is a book that deserves to be widely read.