Landscape for a good book

The date on this post, and in the URL, is out by nearly two weeks because it took me a while to finish.

View east from Beinn a'Chochuill
Reading books the David Gange way

The weekend before last I headed for the hills, inspired by some former colleagues of mine at Birmingham. David Gange, first of all: I’d just read his lovely long blog post about not being able to get to the Scottish mountains recently, and since the weather forecast was perfect I had to make the most of it. (David was busy doing other things this weekend, like chatting to the Brazilian minister of education, and posing for photos on a Saõ Paulo rooftop.)

David’s the reason I own a bivvy bag in the first place. He’s also the reason why I packed some history books in my rucksack: his own formidable breadth of reading has partly been accumulated thanks to his ability to carry sackloads of heavy (in both senses) books up mountains and, at the end of a long day’s walk, settle down to read for most of the night, by the light of a headtorch if necessary. I’m still getting to grips with this combination—a short trip to Mull with Giorgio Agamben in December only went ‘well’ because the weather turned so bad I was stuck in a cottage for almost all of it—but I figured I’d at least have the train journey there and back.

The other inspiration came from two posts that appeared on the Modern British Studies Birmingham blog in December. As part of a series of ‘Desert Island’ posts, staff were asked to name the most thought-provoking book they’d read; and on the basis of that, the postgrad-led reading group there chose their first book. I got around to buying a copy of that last week. So as well as packing a book I have to read for a somewhat overdue review, I brought along Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a good woman. It’s very short, but I was still surprised that I got through all of it: partly on the train, but out on the hillside too, a long chapter sitting with my back against a rock at the top of Beinn Eunaich and a lot more once I’d pitched my bivvy bag a couple of miles along the ridgeline by the summit cairn of Beinn a’Chochuill and was waiting for the sunset. In another post David argued that ‘ideas acquired in distinctive atmospheres embed themselves in the mind and develop differently from those read-up-on in familiar surroundings’, and this should do it. I finished it on the train home.

sunset from beinn a'chochuill
It was worth waiting for

Thought-provoking indeed. Steedman’s book is about her own childhood, and her mother’s, and their relationship. But it’s not a memoir, or not just. Steedman wrote the book out of a sense that social histories of working-class Britain had failed—or hadn’t even tried—to explain how working-class women (in particular) develop in childhood a sense of self, and a sense of their place in the social and political world: influential historical and cultural studies produced by men like Jeremy Seabrook or Richard Hoggart were interested in class, not individuals, still less individual women, and there was no place in their pages for a Conservative-voting working-class woman like Steedman’s mother—angry, secretive, dominant within her family and a confident wage-earner outside it; filled with a longing for something, material or otheror for Steedman as the daughter of such a woman.

Steedman set out to make a history that could account for women like her mother, and explain a childhood like her own, using tools borrowed from psychoanalysis. But she recognized that while this methodological toolkit could help, using it carried its own problems—because the empirical base against which psychoanalytical theory was first devised and tested represented a narrow and privileged slice of the Viennese haute bourgeoisie of the decades around 1900. So the book uses psychoanalysis to stretch and remake the social history of the English working class, but uses the lives of working-class Englishwomen in the early and mid twentieth century to stretch and test some of the classic tropes of psychoanalytical theory against a quite different empirical basis. Feminist theory makes a third side of the triangle.

This is all way outside my own areas of empirical or methodological expertise as a historian: I don’t research or teach British history, nor childhood; the subjects I’ve studied so far, and the sources I’ve used, don’t immediately offer much traction to psychoanalytical techniques. So, unlike those former colleagues of mine (modern British historians all), I couldn’t set Landscape for a good woman against a body of historiographical literature that was familiar to me, and see where it had come from or how it had shaped the field over the following thirty years—though I did do a bit of reading around once I was back in Glasgow. A quick look on Google Scholar shows that the book has been cited by other scholars—in all sorts of fields—over a thousand times. Reviews when it came out give a sense of how the book quickly marked out a place for itself, with people recognizing it was important even if they were uncertain what to make of it: a very positive review by Julie Abraham in the Women’s Review of Books; one with some important reservations by Hettie Startup (quite a name!) in the Journal of Oral History; and a really interesting one by Raymond Williams in the LRB, with praise and questions:

[I]t would be an evasion to give it only the simple acknowledgment and welcome which it deserves. What it most deserves, for its exceptional openness and honesty, is hard questioning: against some of its implications and seeking to develop others.

Some later, longer articles put the book in a wider context: in the relationship between feminist history and psychoanalysis, by Sally Alexander; as an instance of feminist autobiography in the 1980s, by Regenia Gagnier; or among historians on the autobiographical frontier, by Jeremy Popkin.

There beneath the blue suburban skies
Mass car ownership, ‘right to buy’, and double glazing transformed these streets

But before I did this reading-around, when I was still on the train back from Taynuilt, I’d already realized that it wasn’t as a historian that I read this book. I read and responded to it (strongly), first, as the child of a mother, and grandchild of a grandmother; and, second, as a product of the same history, though a generation further on. My mother is almost exactly the same age as Carolyn Steedman, and followed a comparable trajectory as an ‘eleven plus’ working-class child in the 1950s—though when she applied to Sussex in the early 1960s she didn’t get in, and I’m not sure if she realizes how keenly the disappointment still comes across in her voice over fifty years later when she mentions it. (She went to a teacher training college instead.)

And my grandmother—my mother’s mother—was born only three or four years later than Steedman’s mother (1917 rather than 1913), about forty miles away, in a different part of south Lancashire: her name, Agnes, like that of Steedman’s mother, Edna, dates her to the generation. She lived much longer, and she never migrated to London as the unmarried partner of a man who left a wife and child behind, but she did grow up in the industrial northwest in the 1920s and leave school for uncertain employment between clerical work in the Jacob’s biscuit factory, the service sector, and marriage.

Jacob's Biscuit Factory 1927
The Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, Walton, in 1927, a few years before my grandmother went to work there

There are other parallels, too. Certainly it was my mother’s complex and difficult relationship with her mother that most shaped her sense of herself and her place in the world (something I could say about my relationship with her, though I’m a son). It surprised me, looking back at the Desert Island Books page, that one of the people who suggested Landscape for a good woman said ‘Not discovered through work, this was given to me by my mum’—the two of them must have a good relationship for such an uneasy book about mothers and daughters to be given by one to the other.

It’s one of the marks of how strongly the book affected me—one of the marks of a good book—that I could immediately think of several people I wanted to give copies to, and discuss it with: my mother (though I’m a bit hesitant about that); a friend whose relationship with her mother has become increasingly difficult since she had children of her own; another friend, a historian, whose powerful and path-breaking research on contemporary Algeria has an inner (which is not to say hidden or unacknowledged) psychological motor, a need to understand the unhappiness of her father and his generation of her family. The relationships are somewhat different—the brothers and sisters were more numerous, the sibling relationships perhaps more intense, and the key parental figure a monumental paterfamilias—and the setting, Algeria at the end of the French colonial period and through the early decades of independence to the ‘black years’ of the 1990s, is much bleaker and more violent. But some of the questions are the same, and many of the methods could be the same too.

I’ve spoken to all of them about the book in the last two weeks. Now I need to send them copies, and see what they think once they’ve read it. And then I’ll need to head back into the hills with my own copy in the top of my rucksack again.

Landscape 3
It was cold in that bivvy bag





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