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.
October 12, 2014 @ 8:10 pm
I know! I saw that quote too! It just sort of jumps out at you. Like WHAT??? And her grammar and use of punctuation… Amazing. Is this an illusion to the power of women? of mothers? I’ve read it a few times. Tried hard to take into account the punctuation and am still not sure. Illusive passages always open themselves up for interpretation, and I think authors do that on purpose. And interpretations are what Steedman is really attempting in her autobiographical work. Her organization and purpose is so different, it took me awhile to ease into it. The thing I really took from her work, though, was her place and time in history as Eley describes it. She uses Marxist theory (which is beginning to wane in the mid 80s), while at the same time criticizing it, and also employs feminist theory, a new “kid on the block” so to speak in the mid 80s as well as Freudian psychoanalysis – and probably other things I didn’t pick up on. And, Laura, she started out as a Primary-School TEACHER :). I really appreciate all those people who are teachers and are dedicated to become teachers.
October 13, 2014 @ 9:57 pm
I wish I had read Eley’s pages regarding Steedman before reading “Landscape.” I think I would have looked at the work differently and perhaps have looked for a bigger meaning in her captivating style and narrative. I cannot remember ever reading something like Steedman for a history class, and this made it hard for me to place it in a historical context. I think she uses her and her mother’s story to examine the the servant/working class and gender. Claire’s post helped me see how the story fit into a larger historical context and to see past the brutal honesty of her writing and narrative. I still think the book helped Steedman deal with her relationship with her mother and childhood, but I don’t think that takes away from its historical relevance. I’m not sure I answered any of your questions so maybe we will see some more ideas on the blog! Thanks!
October 13, 2014 @ 11:04 pm
I, too, enjoyed Eley more this time around, as the chapters gave context within which I was able to place Steedman’s work.
I THINK I can help answer at least one of your questions. I believe Steedman was trying to accomplish two things in tandem. I believe she was attempting to make sense of her own childhood and her mother’s life, while simultaneously arguing that her mother’s life and the household Steedman lived in do not necessarily fit within the conventional “working class”. Rather than constituting the traditional working class household in which the patriarch defined the family’s class, Steedman’s mother instead defined the class position of their household. I found this aspect of the reading particularly interesting (if, in fact, I read this correctly). I look forward to seeing what everyone else thought of her work in class!
October 14, 2014 @ 7:31 am
What Carmen said re: Steedman’s objective! Also, Laura – I love the structure of this post. You ease your reader in as you gracefully back into your enagagement with Steedman. Nicely done.
October 14, 2014 @ 10:21 am
“…Steedman weaves her own story in with discussions of class, motherhood, feminism, childhood, and other analyses.”
I think this was an awesome aspect of her writing, especially considering our exploration of social and cultural history recently. Doesn’t get more authentic than a straight up autobiography, that she manages to analyze like a historian in the process. I was really impressed — and maybe it’s just me, but I surprisingly didn’t see huge biases in her writing; she seemed to be relating more to the reader than herself, if that makes sense.