Landscape for a [Good] Woman

I will have to admit that I enjoyed Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line a bit more this time around. In particular, I appreciated his insight into the history of history, in Germany and elsewhere. I like being able to explore the background of history and it is one aspect of our class that I am enjoying most readily. I also appreciated the fact that Eley gave a bit of background to Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman as I read Eley prior to reading Steedman. Eley laid the foundation for what I was about to read and I approached Landscape for a Good Woman with a basic understanding of what I was going to experience. Eley writes, “Steedman is better described as a historian who understands the theoretical and philosophical implications of doing historical work. She pushes edgily on the boundaries of what historians think they do, but she manages to combine social and cultural history without turning the results into some risk-free and reassuring middle way…This is what we should take away from reading Steedman’s work: between social history and cultural history, there is really no need to choose (180-181). Thus, I began reading Landscape for a Good Woman with an eye towards both social and cultural history.

And Steedman did not disappoint. In fact, what I experienced in reading Landscape for a Good Woman was not quite what I had expected. I fully expected a purely biographical account but this book is far from it. Instead, Steedman weaves her own story in with discussions of class, motherhood, feminism, childhood, and other analyses. What results is an interesting rollercoaster ride through Steedman’s life and mind.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Steedman is blunt and at times, coarse in Landscape for a Good Woman. She is unapologetic about the way she presents her own life and that of her mother. And as a result, her writing is at times captivating, the history she tells is both personal and impersonal, both social and cultural. For example, concerning her mother she writes, “There was nothing we could do to pay back the debt of our existence. ‘Never have children dear,’ she said; ‘they ruin your life.’ Shock moves swiftly across the faces of women to whom I tell this story. But it is ordinary not to want your children, I silently assert; normal to find them a nuisance” (17).

Furthermore, in discussing her father near the beginning of her book Steedman writes, “A father like mine dictated each day’s existence; our lives would have been quite different had he not been there. But he didn’t matter, and his singular unimportance needs explaining. His not mattering has an effect like this: I don’t quite believe in male power; somehow the iron of patriarchy didn’t enter my soul. I accept the idea of male power intellectually, of course (and I will eat my words the day I am raped, or the knife is slipped between my ribs; though I know that will not be the case: in the dreams it is a woman who holds the knife, and only a woman can kill)” (19).

Wait, what? What did I just read?

This is precisely what about Steedman is so captivating and yet so confusing. She often looks back on her childhood fondly, admiring her mother and father at varying times. And yet, there are other times in which (like above) she is blatantly displeased with the choices and actions of her parents and with their effects on her childhood (among other things). What results is a confusing and sometimes difficult story to follow. And yet, I still enjoyed this book to some extent. I enjoyed Steedman’s honesty and a look into a time and place quite different from my own. And also an approach to history that I am not quite used to experiencing. However, I still found myself somewhat confused by the end of the book. What precisely was Steedman attempting to accomplish? What was her purpose for examining her childhood? What was her argument (if there was one)? Perhaps I got too caught up in the stories at hand to be able to understand Steedman’s writing on a deeper level. I am hoping my colleagues will be able to answer my questions and that we will be able to traverse this landscape together through our upcoming discussion next Tuesday.