Richard Benson, The Valley: A Hundred Years in the Life of a Family, (Bloomsbury, London 2014)
The author sets out his intention to write about ‘real people, places and events’. He had considered converting the ensemble of individual stories into a novel, but preferred the inconsistency of real characters to the neatness of preconceived plot lines. The people he writes about are not ciphers.
The story begins in Derbyshire in 1907 with a meeting between Annie Weaver and Walter Parkin, both drawn to spiritualism, and ends with the funeral wake for their daughter Winnie in 2002 at Highgate Club near Goldthorpe in the Dearne Valley of south Yorkshire. In between, Winnie meets and marries Harry ‘Juggler’ Hollingworth and it is their frequently dysfunctional relationship and the dynamics of the wider family they create that are central to the book. It is far from incidental that the subtext and context is the rise, decline and somewhat violent disappearance of the Dearne Valley pit communities in which these families struggle to make a living and to create a meaningful life around and in spite of that economic necessity.
There is no way the Hollingworth clan could be called typical of working-class life, in the same way that no pit village could be reduced to some sociological average. That is the beauty of Benson’s story. These are indeed real people inhabiting real places and causing as well as experiencing real events, some of which are harrowing in the extreme.
I have argued elsewhere about the value of longitudinal family studies in helping us to understand how people both shape the world around them (‘make history’ if you like) and are in turn shaped by the times and spaces in which they act . Benson’s book demonstrates the rich textuality of one such study. Imagine what we could learn from several parallel studies, and the myths and easy platitudes about working-class life that would be potentially blown away.
Benson illustrates how this can be effective for the past century, where memories are live and present. It would be much harder for earlier periods of history, particularly in terms of the insight we gain into family and neighbourhood dynamics, and above all the issues about gender power relationships around women. While the power and value might be less for studies attempting to go back into the 18th or 17th centuries, and the challenges greater, the opportunities for imaginative reconstruction remain.
Certainly, The Valley should provide inspiration for similar studies exploring other 20th century and perhaps 19th century communities – dockers, steelworkers, the motor industry, sweet manufacturing, farming, textiles and the service industries. One that immediately springs to mind would be the experiences of various immigrant communities over the past century. The Valley sets the pattern for deep investigation of working- class experience in the UK at the grassroots level, shorn of the agenda of professional sociologists and accessible to the widest possible public.
(1) Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean, Public History and Heritage Today: people and their pasts, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pbk edition 2012), chapter 11, ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’.