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Alison Light (born 4 August 1955) is a writer, critic and independent scholar. She is the author of four books to date, the most recent, A Radical Romance, was awarded the 2020 Pen Ackerley prize, the only prize for memoir in the UK. She has held a number of academic posts and is currently a (non-stipendiary) Senior Research Fellow in History and English at Pembroke College, Oxford. She is also an Honorary Professor in the Department of English, University College, London and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Department of English, Edinburgh University. She is a founding member of the Raphael Samuel Archive and History Centre in London.
Light grew up in Portsmouth, U.K., and read English at Churchill College, Cambridge from 1973 to 1976, where she was awarded a B.A. and was a University Scholar. She worked as a school teacher, a cleaner, a researcher for the National Association for Gifted Children, and as a studio manager at the BBC, before taking an M.A. and D.Phil. at Sussex University in 1991. She also taught for the Workers' Educational Association, at the Open University and as a lecturer in English at Brighton Polytechnic from 1984 to 1990. She published her first reviews and early fiction in the feminist magazine, Spare Rib and was for several years a member of the editorial collective of Feminist Review, an academic journal of the British women’s movement. Her first academic article on romance fiction in 1984 helped open up the field of British popular culture to serious study and has been much anthologised. Her first book, Forever England: Literature, Femininity and Conservatism between the Wars is related to interwar studies and studies of ‘Englishness’. It argued that it was impossible to understand ideas about English character in the period, or the changes within literary culture, without recognizing the extent to which the female population represented the nation between the wars. Her coinage, ‘conservative modernity’, to describe British culture in the period, has been taken up by other scholars.
In 1987, Light married the socialist historian, Raphael Samuel, with whom she worked closely. From 1984 to 1995 she was a member of History Workshop Popular Literature Group which organized several national workshops in Britain held at Ruskin College, Oxford, including 'The Future of English' (1991), involving over two hundred policy-makers, schoolteachers and academics teaching English. In the 1990s Light also wrote reviews and articles regularly for the New Statesman and the film magazine Sight & Sound. She held a full-time Lectureship in English at Royal Holloway College from 1991 to 1995 and a Research Fellowship in the Department of English at University College London from 1995 to 2003 where she also lectured in twentieth century English and American literature.
After Samuel's death in 1996, Light assembled and donated his papers to create the Raphael Samuel Archive, now held by Bishopsgate Institute in London. She was also a member of the initial team which established the Raphael Samuel History Research Centre, now flourishing as a partnership public history centre of University of East London, Birkbeck and Queen Mary colleges, London University, and the Bishopsgate Institute. Light also donated materials relating to Samuel’s mother, the composer Minna Keal (1909–99), a pupil of William Alwyn at the Royal Academy of Music and a Communist activist, whose first symphony was performed at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 1989.
Light edited a posthumous volume of Samuel’s essay, Island Stories (Verso 1998), adding over three hundred footnotes and a biographical preface on his writing methods; and published a collection of his essays from New Left Review, The Lost World of British Communism (Verso 2006). In 2003 she was given a personal Visiting Professorship at the University of East London and from 2006 to 2009 was appointed a Research Professor (part-time) attached to the History Centre, based in the School of Cultural and Media Studies.
In 2006 she took up a personal Chair as Professor of Modern English Literature and Culture (part-time) at Newcastle University, where she taught courses on modernism but also developed work on life writing. She published an edition of Flush by Virginia Woolf, with introduction and notes for Penguin Classics (2005) and gave the annual birthday lecture for the Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain in 2007. Light’s second book, Mrs Woolf and the Servants (Fig Tree/Penguin 2007; Bloomsbury USA 2008), was both an original study of the servants who worked for the Bloomsbury circle and a social history of domestic service. It won second prize at the Longman History Today Awards and was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize.
Light has since lectured in the US, Canada and France and in 2012 was invited to take up a visiting Fellowship in the History Department at the Australian National University. She has been a Visiting Professor at Newcastle and at Sheffield Hallam University where she helped establish a special collection of materials: 'Readerships and Literary Cultures 1900-1950'. In 2019 she was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. She has often broadcast on BBC radio and television; in 2012 she was consultant for a three part BBC 2 documentary series, Servants: the True Story of Life below Stairs, in part a response to the hugely popular Downton Abbey series. Aside from her academic reviews and articles, she has also written for The Guardian, the Independent, and the London Review of Books.
In 2014 she published Common People: the History of an English Family (Fig Tree/Penguin) which uses her own family history to explore the lives of the working poor and to reflect on the search for ancestors. It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in Non-Fiction and acclaimed by the Times (UK) as 'part memoir, part thrilling social history...but above all a work of quiet poetry and insight into human behaviour. It is full of wisdom'.
Her latest book, A Radical Romance: A Memoir of Love, Grief and Consolation was published in 2019. Among the very favourable reviews, The Guardian critic praised it for having 'all the complex shades and colours that we expect in fiction' adding, 'A Radical Romance is more than just some summing-up: it is a work of art.' In August 2020 A Radical Romance was announced winner of the 2020 PEN/Ackerley Prize.
In 2005 she married John O'Halloran.
- Light, Alison, 'Returning to Manderley': Romance Fiction, Female Sexuality and Class', Feminist Review, 16, 1984; reprinted in Feminist Literary Theory, (ed.), Mary Eagleton, (Blackwell 1986); Feminism and Cultural Studies, (ed.) Morag Shiach, (OUP 1999); British Feminist Thought: A Reader, (ed.), Terry Lovell, (Blackwell 1990); translated: 'Zuruck Nach Manderley', Karen Nolle-Fischer, (ed.), Mit Verscharftem Blick (Frauenoffensive, Munich 1987)
- Light, Alison, Forever England: Literature, Femininity and Conservatism between the Wars (Routledge 1991); Light, Alison, 'Conservative Modernity', New Formations, 28, 1996
- Light, Alison and Raphael Samuel, 'Art and Power', History Workshop Journal, Spring 1996; Light, Alison, 'Doing the Lambeth Walk', in R. Samuel (ed.), Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity (Routledge 1989)
- "Raphael Samuel History Centre". Archived from the original on 29 October 2012. Retrieved 29 August 2012.
- Light, Alison, Obituary of Minna Keal, The Guardian, Wednesday 24 November 1999
- Samuel, Raphael (November–December 1985). "The lost world of British Communism". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (154).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Samuel, Raphael (March–April 1986). "Staying power: the lost world of British Communism (part II)". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (156).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Samuel, Raphael (September–October 1987). "Class politics: the lost world of British Communism (part III)". New Left Review. New Left Review. I (165).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Light, Alison, Preface, Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell, (Verso, 2003); Light, Alison, ‘Biography and Autobiography since 1970’, Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature (edited P. Nicholls and L. Marcus), (Cambridge University Press, 2004); Light, Alison, Preface to Daphne du Maurier, The Rebecca Notebooks and other Memories, (Virago, 2004)
- "Light wins 2020 PEN/Ackerley Prize". Books+Publishing. 2020-08-21. Retrieved 2020-08-23.