In 1978, a family of Russian ‘Old Believers’ living in a supposedly uninhabited part of the Siberian taiga were discovered by a team of geologists. They had fled Stalinist persecution, and for half a century had lived in isolation in a ‘low, soot-blackened log kennel’ with a floor made of potato peelings and crushed nutshells, one tiny window, a fire, a single rushlight, and one item of furniture — an axe-hewn table. Five adults lived without sanitation in a space seven steps long and five steps wide.
The geologists were horrified. What they failed to notice, Judith Flanders points out in her thought-provoking examination of the evolution of ‘home’, is that
what they were seeing were not conditions of unimaginable harshness, but the ordinary living conditions of their own history. And ours. A world where every aspect of life was lived in sight of others, where privacy was not only not desired, but almost unknown.
Both Flanders and Alison Light make intelligent and largely successful attempts at mental time travel, taking their readers with them. Flanders’s The Making of Home intends, she says, to ‘make invisible patterns visible’. She considers how political, economic, religious and social changes shaped our requirements of ‘home’, and, more interestingly, how technologies — advances in heating, lighting, furniture-making — changed our behavioural, even our moral priorities.
She encourages us to rethink the ‘evidence’ we have about past lives. Paintings and novels, for instance, are selective, and use domestic details for symbolic or aesthetic effect; they are not reliable witnesses. Where in those calm, tile-floored 17th- century interior paintings can we see a ‘spitting-sheet’ — fabric attached to the wall behind a spittoon to protect valuable wall-hangings or pictures from splashback? It’s rare enough to see the spittoon itself. Yet both items were commonplace.
While Flanders grapples with how our ancestors lived through scrutinising the things they used and the way they used them, Light uses the history of her own family to investigate subsistence-level living over the last couple of centuries. Her family, ‘common people’, left very little behind them in terms of letters, photographs and other biographical documents. Graves are unmarked, family anecdotes unauthenticated — and sometimes false. Wisely, Light refrains from spinning skeins of whimsy about individuals; the reader is not provided with colourful characters to cut out and keep. Instead, she makes a virtue out of a necessity and uses her scant handful of facts as magic beans from which grow strong, interweaving structures which we can climb to reach her family’s past, which becomes a shared, national story.
Common People is admirably organised into four sections, one for each grandparent. Light’s father’s mother came from a family of needle-makers. Light, moving into Flanders’s territory, thinks about needles, from prehistoric tools made of antler or bone to the fine steel that transformed the clothing industry in Tudor times. ‘Without needles, civilisation was impossible,’ says Light; it was her forebears, the Dowdeswells, making needles in their Midlands cottages, breathing in ‘a perpetual cloud of stone and steel dust’, their eyes at risk from the ‘sparks and shards of metal which flew off into their faces’. Flanders emphasises how for centuries dwelling places were also workplaces, with no differentiation between one function and the other; Light’s needle-makers illustrate the point.
Light’s paternal grandfather was ‘a wanderer’ — indeed, mobility (physical, not social) characterises many of the lives she investigates. Bert Light had cut loose from his suffocating ‘Salvationist’ family. A search for their origins leads us across Salisbury Plain ‘sometime in the 1800s’. These early Lights, rather valiantly, put their Dissenting consciences above their material interests, and were eventually rewarded with relative prosperity and respectability in the Portsmouth building trade.
A branch of Light’s mother’s family, the seafaring Heffrens, also lived in
Portsmouth, specifically Portsea Island, still the most densely populated part of the country outside London. It was here that Light herself grew up, and she does an excellent job of conjuring up the fascinating squalor of the docks, the beer shops and brothels and the adventure of the sea. No wonder Henry Crawford, the smiling villain of Mansfield Park, is drawn to the dockyard ‘again and again’.
The finest passage in Common People concerns Sarah Hill, Light’s mother’s grandmother, who spent her childhood in Cheltenham workhouse and died in Netherne county asylum. The cause of her early death was ‘exhaustion after 16 days of mania’. Sarah was, says Light, ‘the lowest of the low ... shunted over 300 miles across Britain in a series of displacements’. She became a servant, then a mother, but, as Light uninsistently suggests, her rootlessness, her lack of belonging, caused an instability that never left her and eventually killed her. Those Old Believers in their Siberian hovel seem almost enviable by comparison. They had an identity and a home. It was their kitchen garden that alerted the geologists to their existence.
Both writers handle a mass of disparate material with discriminating skill, showing how history is made up of minutiae. Flanders’s canvas is too large; her swoops from the general to the particular are sometimes vertiginous. Light is occasionally school-mistressy, inclined to guess what our assumptions are so that she can then correct them. But she is right when she tells us that ‘family history humanises’. Both books are deeply absorbing. I’ll return to The Making of Home often, to look things up; but it’s Common People that I’ll want to read twice.