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  • Landscape of a historian

    Posted on October 12th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    This week I read Landscape for a Good Woman before A crooked Line, and I think it might not be a good idea. Not only because Eley provides the background of Landscape for a Good Woman, but also because compared with most academic books, Carolyn Steedman takes a very special way, an autobiographical approach. I thought it was just a book about two women. It was unexpected that she describes “we’d known all our childhood that she was a good mother; she’d told us so…”(p.1) and “she lied to me though when, at about the age of eight, I asked her what she’d done, and she said she’d worked in an office, done clerical work(p.33). There is so much tension between her and her mother and I even feel that she discloses herself “too much” for me. Sometimes a vivid story is attractive but a true story is moved and shock! Landscape for a Good Woman is this kind of true story that makes me a little uncomfortable with. I was naïve that I were prepared to read a story about working-class life which is full of tension and ambiguity as she describes, but were not prepared to read a private story about a mother and a daughter, even these stories are not “private” at all.

    However, I think this uncomfortableness brings the success of Landscape for a Good Woman, since it marks that Carolyn Steedman is so “honest”. Through the two true lives of her mother and herself, she comes across the line between social history and cultural history. It is truly to “let the evidence speaks for itself”, and thus she avoids to let the boundary between disciplines cut the life experiences to fit the field of a discipline. Furthermore, while she is telling the stories, she doesn’t pretend to be objective. Once again, she is honest in showing her position. There is “I” everywhere in this book. She values her private story and successfully raises a feministic narrative into a legitimate position of academic field.

    I am curious about her so I googled her. And I found she discloses herself on her page as well, just like she is sitting next to me and talking. (Her page: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/people/staff_index/csteedman/) She is the first one I know who (and I don’t know if she will be the only one) says “…so I’m now free to move on to new projects and new ways of doing and writing history” and “but will I be able to write it, now that I’m free to do so? Watch this page!” For me, the reading this week is not only to know autobiography as an approach to do research, but also to know a very distinctive style of Carolyn Steedman as a historian.


    14 responses to “Landscape of a historian” RSS icon

    • Hungyin,

      Thanks for the link to the page on Carolyn Steedman. She does have a very personal style. It still amazes me, probably because I was taught to never, ever, ever, ever, ever use I in a paper, to see a book so replete with the pronoun I. I too found it very uncomfortable to read at times, especially when she tells us about her mother’s thoughts on having children and the admonition to not have any. As a mom, my heart ached for her. I can’t imagine saying that to any of my children. Having said that, though, I appreciate the way in which she pushes boundaries, but for very specific and solidly analytical reasons.

    • Hungyin,
      I was also struck by the amount of tension existing between Steedman and her mother, and also the candor in which she wrote about their relationship. When I first read it I thouht it was too private of a memory and personal story to tell even if it was used in a greater context than just a personal narrative. After reading several posts and re-examining the book, I think it is a unique and effective way to look at a historical topic. The style was different than most historical narratives and she places her personal story in a larger context. I found it to be a fascinating way to look at a social/cultural history.

    • Thanks for including the link to Steedman’s faculty profile at Warwick! I hope she does finish “Poetry for Historians.”

    • Hi Hung-Yin,

      I was also a bit uneasy with Steedman’s style at first, but Eley’s contextualizing it by discussing how it was written at a time when historians were coming to grips with “the collapse of grand narratives” was helpful (174). I agree with your that her honesty is part of what makes the work effective in accomplishing its goals.


    • I did the same thing, and had the same thought–I wish I had read Eley first, and then read Steedman. Instead, I spent most of Landscape for a Good Woman trying to figure out what I was reading. I’m still not sure I fully believe in autobiography as a historical writing, but that may be because I’m so uncomfortable with it.

    • Hung – yin, I too (and I don’t just want to be the next guy to jump on the bandwagon) found myself wishing that I had read Eley first, as it would have made Steedman’s work make more sense to me I believe. When I read Steedman’s account of her relationship (or lack thereof) in some cases, I found myself wondering why exactly are we reading this? Then after finishing the book, and contemplating the discussion that we had in another one of my classes about a book that was almost wholly incorrect, yet it was still in the scholarship of the subject, I realized, or at least think I realize why it was important to read these works. I find that these give us another point of view, or another take on different styles of writing that are both engaging and yet somehow fill a gap in the historiography. Even though this book was difficult for me to read (as there were a lot of similarities to my life in a way) it still provided a glimpse into yet another “way” of “doing history.”

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