Writing the Lives of “Common People”: Reflections on the Idea of Obscurity

Alison Light

“Everyday” lives, “lives of the obscure,” the lives of “common people”—all these phrases are tricky and make me slightly uneasy because they always conjure up the opposite categories, which come with the buzz of value added: extraordinary lives, celebrity lives, the lives of exceptional people. Take the unhappy distinction between obituaries in the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian: some lives take up a page or half a page, and others are given very short columns—those they call “other people.” The ordinary tend always to be other people. Not you and me. But “obscurity,” we know, is a relative term. The servant was not obscure to her sister. It also hides assumptions about who matters and what matters, and how some lives count or do not count. This conference is, of course, a rebuttal to this.*

I’d like to begin with a biographical sketch which is in part a homage to Virginia Woolf since “lives of the obscure” is her phrase, and her passion for life-writing in all its forms has inspired many of us who work in literary or cultural studies and in the women’s movement (which does not mean we are not aware of the sticking points in her imagination). Let me remind you of Woolf’s biographical invention in A Room of One’s Own. A “what if” story: What if Shakespeare had been born a woman in Elizabethan England, agog to see the world and with “the heart of a poet”? Shakespeare’s sister “Judith” isn’t sent to school, is kept at home to work and is beaten if she picks up a book, is betrothed against her will and shamed into marriage. She manages to run away but can’t find work in the theater, is seduced and ends up killing herself, dying in obscurity, her gifts wasted.

In 1928, when she was talking to female students at Cambridge, Woolf’s story of Shakespeare’s sister pointed up the limits of women’s lives, how power relations are built into everyday life and that nothing is “outside history”: the family and the household, the social conventions against the work, the strictures about marriage and lack of choice over unwanted pregnancies, and so on. This is where many of us start, using the idea of the everyday as a wedge for prising open the grand narratives of the past but also recognizing that it is in our personal and social lives that we reproduce, say, the habits of command, or the divisions of labor; or in our bringing up of children that we pass on our fears about others who are different. The everyday is not outside history but is its texture, its warp and weft. It is the fabric of the present from which the past is made.

Woolf, though, wanted Judith to be a writer of genius like Shakespeare. Her interest in this invention was not in the everyday life except as a form of confinement. Elsewhere in her work her lives of the obscure—the “Mrs. Browns” on trains, clergymen’s widows, faded genteel spinsters, forgotten lady novelists, and devoted daughters, are a kind of reclamation. She notes household habits and past times, pets, and tea ceremonies, and conjures a life from a variety of sources, not only the written or printed—diaries, letters, memoirs, household accounts—but objects: a bonnet, a shoe, a ballad or “Miss Ormerod’s” insect collection. But she also fictionalizes, inventing dialogue, for example, imagining thoughts and longings. Woolf is often caught, I think, in a dilemma, which is a tension between the historical or documentary and the literary impulse and, if you like, between researchers and readers: Is the life always interesting or is it the way it is written that makes it interesting? I want to press on this a little harder.

My biographical sketch starts in the Jewish East End, in a family of three daughters living off Brick Lane in Spitalfields. Their parents, Jakov and Feigel Nirenstein, like thousands of others escaping the pogroms in Russia, arrive from Odessa in the 1900s. They are not among the poorest of the poor; Jakov manages a Hebrew bookshop that also sells religious goods, such as prayer shawls. The oldest girl, Minnie, has a musical talent like her uncle Laibel, a self-taught violinist who takes her to concerts. She is lucky. At her school in Clapton, East London, her gift is encouraged by her Fabian headmistress, Dr. Mary O’Brien, who insists on the girls learning German after the war and gives promising pupils what she calls “Shaw teas” —after the playwright—carrots and salad, promoting vegetarianism and free thought.

The family can’t afford to send Minnie to university, so Dr. O’Brien puts her in for a place at the Royal Academy of Music to study piano and composition. She is successful, but at nineteen she is also terrified, afflicted by shyness. For two years she stays solitary and friendless, too scared to eat in the canteen with the other students—a timid, ugly duckling of a Jewish girl. Nevertheless, she does extremely well, learning composition under a well-known musician, William Aylwin; she wins a competition and her student pieces, including a “Ballade” in the manner of late Debussey, are performed in South Kensington and also at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in the East End, near her home. But the money runs out. After her father’s death, her mother and sisters struggle to keep the business going. How could Minnie, without money or support, and with the pressure of family loyalty so strong, have put her music first?

Her story is less dramatic than Judith Shakespeare’s. Minnie leaves college and goes back to help in the shop. Two years later, in 1931, a suitable match is made for her with a good Jewish boy, Berrill or Barney Samuel, a solicitor and a graduate of Cardiff University. Theirs is a traditional Jewish wedding in Shoreditch, he, short and tubby and somewhat over-mastered by his top hat, and she, looking gawky in white lace. They are showered with presents, including a modern, hand-painted dinner service in blue and orange and brown, a set of fish forks and knives, and much of the paraphernalia needed to set them up for bourgeois life. Like others from the East End, they move to a sparkling new home close to Golders Green and Finchley, on the fringes of Hampstead Garden Suburb. Soon enough, her husband is dandling their baby boy in the sunny garden outside by the rockery.

• •

Let’s stop the clock. Is this an ordinary or an extraordinary life? What shape shall we give it? As historians we can make much of it; surely, as feminists, as those alert to different cultures. There are so many sources now to find and draw on that could put flesh on these bones. We can know, for instance, that the Jewish East End was alive with a culture that fostered many artists, musicians, and writers—Isaac Rosenberg, David Bomberg spring to mind. There are websites like that designed by Nadia Valman at Queen Mary College, London, to take us on a tour. A historical imagination might equally be excited by life in Hampstead Garden Suburb with its experiments in housing and new forms of social life; its rejection of Victorian aesthetics with its modern interiors, pale painted walls, Ercol wooden chairs, and fitted kitchen units. The sociologists among us might want to chart the contrast of different worlds and social classes among the Jewish migrants from Shoreditch and Whitechapel as they found themselves in north London. What are now very pricey suburbs—Parliament Hill, Kentish Town, and even Hampstead—were far less salubrious between the wars, full of multioccupied houses, cheaply rented, with two or three generations crammed, the roads studded with Polish cafés and Russian bakeries and corner shops selling everything from hat pins to candles to rat poison.

Pause here to ask: what are we writing the life for? If it is to reveal exclusions, occlusions—as I certainly wanted to when I researched the servants who worked for Virginia Woolf and who were never more than their first names in most accounts of “Bloomsbury”— we have the advantage of what has been called “the archival turn”: so many institutions, now like the Royal Academy of Music, have their own records, and we have access to decades of scholarly research, including women’s history. There are secondary texts, such as Sophie Fuller’s Guide to Women Composers, which tell me Minnie was not the only woman student of composition between the wars. Hers was a remarkable generation of women. Among her close contemporaries were Elisabeth Lutyens (born 1906), Grace Williams (1906), Elizabeth Maconchy (1907), Imogen Holst (1907), the daughter of the composer. If chance had sent her to the Royal College of Music and not the Royal Academy, Minnie might have found a milieu. Except that these other women were able to support themselves or had family connections in the musical world—Lutyens, for instance, married Edward Clark, who was secretary to Schonberg and was responsible for bringing his music to the BBC.

All this is biographical “background” that can be brought to bear on the individual life—its frustrations and possibilities in the interwar years. But there are other questions. What we might call “History with a capital H”: wars, political regimes, laws, economic changes, and so on, impact differently on different lives at different times. If I return to Minnie’s life in the late 1930s, I find both she and her husband are members of the Labour Party and also running an agency to get Jewish children out of Nazi Germany. Then Minnie’s closest family—her sisters and their husbands—join the British Communist Party. Their evenings are spent at branch meetings and discussions, their weekends on the street canvassing, protesting, leafletting, informing others about the fight against fascism. More of the family join, and their social circle becomes entirely that of Party members, their dentist and their grocer even. Politics avalanched into Minnie’s life: it took up all her hours. Eventually it broke up her marriage and led to divorce, a scandal in those days, and to Barnett’s family cutting off from her.

Another pause for thought. To be a Communist was a complete social identity. Family life and political life were one, and in theory, at least, under Communism there was to be no private life: the self was to be subordinated to the struggle. Writing that life, writing any life, is about how the self is conjured, or narrated; a history of ideas about selfhood is implicit or explicit in what we write but this may be inappropriate or culturally out of kilter. How to do justice to Minnie’s life at this time? And how also to avoid the enshrinement of childhood as the origin of the self, that view which tells us that the child must be father to the man or mother to the woman—a view that determines, indeed over-determines—much biographical writing. Childhood becomes the key that unlocks the inner sanctuary of the person.

Yet this period of Minnie’s life was a radical break. It liberated her from domesticity; it emancipated her from religion—she was “against God,” she told her son. And joining the Communist Party was, for her, as for many women from very different worlds, an education, a place where she could argue and be taken seriously as a rational human being. For Minnie, self-fulfillment was not the aim—not “individuality,” that prize so often awarded by biography or seen as feminism’s goal. Being part of the group, acting together was what mattered: putting one’s “self” and its needs second for the public good. She was freed, to put it differently, from the burden of personal ambition.

Equally, too, a sense of collective memory or of belonging to a generation may be as relevant or even more important to a life than individual experience. Writing about his growing up in France, the philosopher Michel Foucault, born in 1926, insists that “nearly all the great emotional memories” of his childhood were “related to the political situation.” [1] Recently, Luisa Passerini in her Autobiography of a Generation, has tried to find a way to capture group experience and her own relation to it, including her years in psychoanalysis, by weaving her own story and reflections into a web of documents and interviews with students, women, and workers involved in the Italian struggles around 1968. Her book is broken into different parts, different voices, using memory to call official accounts of the period into question but also—since she is an oral historian—assessing those memories critically, looking for their tropes, their repetitions, and contradictions. Memory can also be deluded.

The relation, in other words, between the singular and the representative, is a tension that takes different forms and emphases in life-writing, whether the case study, the extended biography, or the memoir. And “once a life has been turned into stories,” “it becomes those stories,” cautions Jeremy Gavron in his account of his mother, Hannah Gavron, a young feminist sociologist who killed herself in 1965 when he was four. In A Woman on the Edge of Time, Gavron wants to make his mother representative of her times without her being merely a reflection of history, crushed, if you like, by context or background, or fashioned into an example of a ready-made interpretation or theory. It means that he, too, eschews the extended narrative and writes a fragmentary text.

And then—another pause—the so-called “non-eventful.” After the war, now in her forties, Minnie married Bill Keal, a sheet-metal worker from working-class Liverpool, the love of her life. She was calling herself Minna by then, more romantic, less Cockney than Minnie. Should we end it here? She left the Party, as so many did, in 1956 after the invasion of Hungary by Soviet troops and the revelations about Stalin’s purges, though she stayed a left-winger. They moved to a 1930s semidetached house, not unlike her first home with Barnett, outside a small town in Buckinghamshire, and she worked in an office. Sometimes she gave piano lessons to local children. Minna retired when she was sixty and entered what she felt was the autumn of her life. An ordinary life after all?

• •

Of course I have created the sense of ending by narrating Minna’s life in this way. Writing a life is always a question of how we represent time—from the life to the day and its passing—but also the different paces or velocities of time. When I wrote Common People, I was struck, for instance, with how different a child’s experience of time is, especially when well-meaning Victorian social investigators were puzzled that slum children seemed happy playing their games in filthy streets or diving for pennies from wharves. But the children did not know themselves to be poor. It was not their “background” but their foreground. They had not yet made a narrative of themselves in those socially divisive ways.

The arbitrary shape of a life given by clock time or chronology; the kinds of time we inhabit; how we don’t live our lives progressively, though much may be spent in anticipation, and the alchemy of memory, which itself changes over time, all need consideration. Old age, say, a great deal of which may be lived in memory, is a good example of what doesn’t count in a conventional biography. It is usually the winding down; twenty years may get twenty pages because “nothing happens.” Then there are the breaks in a life that are as formative as any progress, those times out of time: falling in love, childbirth, mourning, breakdown itself, when time enters another dimension, elongating or shrinking like a surrealist clock.

In Common People I wrote, too, about the ways in which time in families is generational, repetitive, cyclical—how events in women’s lives differ to those of men. I used my own family history and ended up following many different branches of my forbears, going backwards across the centuries, a hectic process, which also speeded up historical time and undid periodization. Whirling across the centuries, backwards, places become a kind of “flow,” not static as they are on maps; communities come and go; cities turn back into fields. I found I needed a mentally split screen to see generations emerging and to track the multiple narratives, full of uneven, unmatching developments. So many of those handy divisions and short-hands historians rely upon, like “the country and the city” or “pre-industrial and industrial,” became unsettled. Kinship creates a different geography. I found, for example, when I discovered my grandmother, Evelyn Light, whom I never knew, aged ten in the census of 1900, that she had cousins and siblings working as laborers on the farm; others traveling the country as railwaymen; still others working in local factories. One grandmother ran her own pub, another worked as a housekeeper to a baronet in London. She was living on the outskirts of Birmingham—was it a rural or an urban life?

I also included memoir in Common People as a jumping-off point: memories of my grandparents and their stories. This was in part an antidote to working in cyberspace—with its instant access to information and instant intimacy: the pace of the inner life, of reflection and memory as an opposite, resistant current. Memory was a slow coach, and it also allowed me the breathing space of an image. Plus memories, like dreams, are an emotional inheritance that shape us as much as land or property—the tall stories others tell, and those with which we grow up, are a legacy, part of who we are.

My family history became a group biography of sorts about the migrant English and the Irish poor. They were mostly agricultural workers, sailors, servants, or itinerants—or forced laborers, like those transported to Van Diemen’s Land. I had very few objects, photographs, gravestones, let alone dwellings; some lived in the forest, for example; many in slums that are now demolished. But I had an astonishing amount of information about their lives, their work, their neighbors, their travels, their illnesses, loves, and religious beliefs. Innumerable records can be accessed—many online—including over forty years of a British census and parish registers, state records, local government materials, to state only the most obvious, which give us endless insights even if they must so often be read against the grain (I spent some thrilling hours looking at the sanitation committee minutes for the burgeoning naval town of Portsmouth, which taught me why some areas became slums. Only the “best” streets and avenues were cleaned by private contractors in the days before it was a council or corporation responsibility. An argument, if ever there was one for publicly owned services.)

I had no diaries and few letters, no “ego-documents,” as historians sometimes call them. But being a literary critic, I am particularly skeptical about all written sources, particularly about the ways they constitute an idea of the self and a sensibility. Our letters are often a kind of theater or a duet, narrating and dramatizing, say, a love affair or a dull day. Diaries are a different kind of performance; we tell ourselves what we already know; they are at once too much and too little. They are great deceivers, as Leonard Woolf argues in his selection of Woolf’s diaries that give a picture of her, he maintains, as a person far gloomier than she was in day-to-day life. My own diaries, written at tedious length over the decades, are pretty airless. History with a capital “H” doesn’t feature much, but they certainly show an enormous investment in the idea of a self—did that change over time?

I return to my question. Whether it is the life of the person or of the group, we still ask why are we writing the life? And for whom? And where? Writing and recording lives is always in a context that shapes what we can do and what we can’t say. It is not a one-way traffic but may have huge effects on knowledge but also on the wider world, of which that knowledge is always part. Family history, the apparently bland and much-scorned, poor relation of the historical profession, is a good case in point. In Turkey recently the population registers went public, and the system crashed as scores of people rushed to find out about their ancestors and where they had come from.[2] This mattered to them personally, but it rapidly also created deep unease. It revealed that scores of Turks had Syriac, Greek, Jewish, and Armenian forbears, who converted to Islam, and thereby gave the lie to the idea of a pure Turkishness that the current government is promulgating. In a climate of political repression and persecution, this was a very risky thing to learn. Family history is always part of the national story, or part of its unraveling.

• •

Finally, let me return to Minna in her sixties giving occasional piano lessons to local school children. Social and economic forces set limits to our lives, but there is always contingency, times when chance, the wild card, intervenes. One of her pupil’s examiners for piano was a young composer, Justin Connolly. Idle chat led to his politely asking to see Minna’s student work. He was so taken with it that thanks to a gift from Minna’s son (for she was an old-age pensioner by now), he gave her lessons and then arranged for her to continue with another composer, Oliver Knussen.

Minna now opened her ears to modern music, to Bartok and Stravinsky; she embraced the “new”—new to her—musical language of Schoenberg and Webern, and she began writing music again. A string quartet at seventy, a wind quintet, then a symphony, nearly half an hour of music, which took her five years—and she felt rejuvenated. Her symphony was premiered by the BBC at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in her eightieth year. As Minna Keal, composer, she became exceptional. She graciously accepted a Royal Academy Fellowship from Diana, Princess of Wales, loathing monarchy, but delighted with the honor from other musicians and her old college. She was taken up by the media because of her unusual career and sometimes treated as a “Geriatric Phenomenon,” featured in books on how to live your old age, invited onto radio and TV. In 1992 BBC 2 devoted a television documentary to her (titled “A Life in Reverse”). It showed her buying a ticket to London at her local station and beaming when the conductor told her he had seen her on the chat show hosted by Terry Wogan. “I’m almost famous,” she replied, with a laugh.

Reviews and articles said almost nothing about Minna’s Communism, as if it were an embarrassment or aberration. Yet how did shy little Minnie Nirrenstein become Minna Keal if not through the politics which had energized her, modernized her, educated her? She was writing a second string quartet when she died at age ninety in 1999. All her music was performed and recorded—but have you heard of her? And is the music what makes the life or the life that makes the music? If Minna had lived to seventy only, would her life be worth writing? Are the intervening years merely a filler? What constitutes biographical value? And what kind of biographical evidence or source is music, that most ephemeral of forms?

• •

I have been sketching Minna’s life because I am currently trying to include it in a memoir of my marriage to her son, my first husband, the historian Raphael Samuel, who died before she did, in 1996.[3] Minna and I were very close, despite, or perhaps because of, the forty years between us. I have been thinking about inspiration and idealism, including political idealism, and of the life as exemplum, now a seemingly unfashionable notion. Since those moderns like Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf had such fun at the expense of what they took to be Victorian mawkishness, the saccharine and sentimental, all those lives made holier than thou, literary biography has steered clear of what might smack of hagiography.

Yet despite all the debunking, the appetite for role models and exempla survives. Biography is the bastard child of the saint’s life. Like its sister, the novel, it began with the secular—the life, faulty, foolish, and recognizable—warts and all. No miracles, no martyrdom beyond the ordinary pains of the human, though these biographical subjects were often extraordinary people, poets and artists who suffered from alcoholism, disease, or drugs, but not the outlandish slicing off of body parts or exotic deaths. The saint’s life was meant for a mediation. Only saints could emulate Christ, but they could prompt us to be better; their miracle tales were aspirational as well as inspirational. Saint Francis seeing all animals as his kin; Saint Martin, the Roman soldier who gave half his cloak to a beggar: we could not hope to imitate Christ, but we might try to copy the saints.

I think that the need for an intelligible life still matters enormously to people, and according this dignity, the dignity of a life worth knowing, is what many of us want to do. Humans seem to need to learn from lives and not only learn about them. We want to hear about the good life, not just the enviable life.[4] That tension—between being and having, if you like—feels for many of us like an opposition and is perhaps even more acute in a hyper-consumerist, capitalist world. Thinking about the quality of everyday lives decenters those other narratives of accumulation, as well as the Whiggish notion of progress: it focuses us on what is generated in a day-to-day life. But that’s why, probably, I am interested in writing about forms of idealism at the moment, in these lives and in my own.

Let me end, though, with a provocation. Do we not need obscurity? We live in an extraordinary age of self-exposure. The social media, the Internet, blogosphere, and twittersphere, but also the surveillance by corporations and the state, who harvest the personal data of individuals—all are spotlights on the biographical, on the self, on individuals and groups. They are part of the creation of a new social value that has been called “the publicity of the private,” if you like, “the private publicly consumed.” [5] In fact, those categories of private and public have been, and are being, so profoundly transformed, they may soon no longer make any sense. Such transformations raise political questions about the control of information but also ethical questions and legal issues for life-writers and researchers. If to be obscure is to be in the shade, out of the glare of scrutiny, I wonder if we will see a new valuing of the state of being in the margins. There are political and personal advantages in obscurity.

I understand that “obscurity,” as Woolf used it, was an appealing literary concept and often a condescending one. It sat very comfortably with a conservative, consoling version or vision of the social order. It sounds accidental, but we know that at its worst obscurity can mean obliteration—the deliberate erasure from the records. In a gentler modulation, the obscure is also the enigmatic, the ambiguous and complicated. It suggests that which cannot be understood straightaway and may always remain unintelligible, even at times, incomprehensible—in our selves and to others. What I take from Woolf’s “Lives of the Obscure” is also that sense of obscurity, a sense which might be cherished in our attempts to write the lives of others: a respect for their ultimate unknowability, for what cannot be labeled or plumbed. After all, a life does not need to be witnessed or recorded to be a life.

• •

* This is a version of the talk given as the opening plenary at a conference on “Everyday Matters: Writing Obscure Lives” held at Wolfson College, Oxford, on May 5,  2018. My thanks to the convenors, Dr. Katherine Collins and Dr. Kate Kennedy for the invitation to speak, and to Professor David Lynn, the editor of the Kenyon Review, for the opportunity to publish.


[1] Michel Foucault, an interview with Stephen Riggins, reprinted in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (London, 1997).

[2] https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/02/turkey-turks-become-obsessed-with-genealogy.html

[3] A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation will be published by Fig Tree/Penguin Press in 2019.

[4] This distinction is explored by Adam Phillips in his essay “On Success” in On Flirtation (London, 1995).

[5] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (London, 1984).

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