Personal Accounts and Identity
In Landscape of a Good Woman, Steedman gives us a personal view of her mother and her own relationship with her mother. The tension that exists between mother and daughter in the work is undeniable. It made a little uncomfortable with how honest and straightforward she was with her writing and examination of the two lives. I wondered why she would make such a personal story and relationship public. Steedman’s biographical approach to research is one that is new to me and I think rather a unique approach. It does come with some potential dangers, personal bias being he most obvious. I wonder if she, or anyone else for that matter, is too close to her subjects to look at them with a neutral eye? For Eley, the Holocaust and Nazism are examples of a subjects he was very interested in and perhaps very personally invested. At the minimum, these topics led him towards research in these areas. Often subjects that I take a personal interest in are the hardest to look at objectively. Writing about a personal relationship with a family member, especially one as close to you as a parent, comes with its own set of obstacles you may wish to avoid. Steedman intimately knows her subjects which offers her a view that no outsider could hope to obtain, but I am not sure I could express myself as openly as she does. She lets her story present the evidence which is good and is perhaps the only way to tackle a subject as close to her as this.
I agree with Eley that “she pushes edgily on the boundaries” of historical work.(180) In doing so she successfully demonstrates the power of an autobiographical work in the historical field. Eley also points out that Landscape is “more epistemological” than it is “therapeutic.” (173) I’m not sure I completely agree with this statement. If I remember correctly Steedman even mentions that this work “freed her” to concentrate on other areas of interest to her. This makes the autobiography a release for her, I think it helped her as an individual and a historian. Steedman’s story was a case study for her to examine the servant class of Britain and tell a more complete version of the past in doing so. I suppose if it also allowed her to settle some personal issues with her mother that makes it even more valuable to the author. This is just one more way that the work presented a new way to present history to readers. I think in this sense an autobiography is a good way to present a microhistory of a subject, examines the historical meaning, and places it in a historical context.
I believe that Steedman used the book as a means of reflecting on her childhood and trying to analyze what occurred, now that she has some distance from the work. Her approach is definitely a unique one, but she often comments that whatever she is stating is a reconstruction, rather than what really occurred, i.e. “But I don’t remember the oddness, it’s a reconstruction” (44). However, I agree that it is a fine line to walk–can we ever be truly aware of what we KNOW versus what we RECONSTRUCT in the years and decades following events in our lives? But I definitely agree that it would be very difficult to be so open and honest, trying to make sense of her childhood and her mother’s life with such an audience “watching”.
I agree with you that “an autobiography is a good way to present a microhistory of a subject, examines the historical meaning, and places it in a historical context.” It is interesting that I found Landscape of a Good Woman is also a required reading for the class about narrative and interpretation in other schools, both history and non-history department.
Also, I agree that there are indeed that there may be biases. And I think this may be a kind of strategy do deal with the issue of trueness – she shows her story and also shows her potential bias, without pretending being objective in this story.
David–I’d be interested to hear your opinion of Steedman’s microhistory as compared to that of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s in A Midwife’s Tale. Personally, I was far more comfortable with Ulrich. I think this was because I liked the distance Ulrich had from the original source material; instead of analyzing and telling her own story, Ulrich was analyzing and telling someone else’s story.
Steedman’s “sharing” of her personal life is what makes the book (in some ways) so gripping and in another way difficult to figure out “why” am I reading this? The idea that you have about not being able to be objective, especially when you are engaged in the subject matter, is, in my opinion, spot on. I suffer from the same problem, as when I get so engrossed in a reading (especially one that I am able to make a personal connection) I find myself thinking about how can I really be objective in the end.