This is the first of two books I intend to review that look at womanhood and working class experience. In beginning to prepare for the term’s worth of lectures, I inherited slides from the previous year’s version of this lecture which positioned this book along with Democracy in the Kitchen by Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey as landmark texts in the field. Published in 1986, Carolyn Steedman uses her own childhood (in South London in the 1950s) and her mother’s (Burnley in the 1920s – a town 20 miles north of Manchester) as case studies for psychoanalysis. Honestly, this approach leaves me dead cold. Neither the semi-frequent references to Freud’s work (particularly the case study of ‘Dora’) nor the figurative parallels drawn with fairly stories (The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen) assisted me with learning lessons from her story. However, I had been drawn into the story from the opening two-page vignette. Steedman writes of visiting her mother for the first time in nine years, two weeks before she died of cancer:
We’d known all our childhood that she was a good mother: she’d told us so: we’d never gone hungry; she went out to work for us; we had warm beds to lie in at night. She had conducted a small and ineffective war against the body’s fate by eating brown bread, by not drinking, by giving up smoking years ago. To have cancer was the final unfairness in a life measured out by it. She’d been good; it hadn’t worked.
Upstairs, a long time ago, she had cried, standing on the bare floorboards, in the front bedroom just after we moved to this house in Streatham Hill in 1951, my baby sister in her carry-cot. We both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: ‘This house isn’t fit for a baby’. And then she stopped crying, my mother, got by, the phrase that picks up after all difficulty (it says: ‘it’s like this; it should be light this; it’s unfair; I’ll manage): ‘Hard lines, eh, Kay?’ (Kay was the name I was called at home, my middle name, one of my father’s names).
And I? I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother. It is in this place, this bare, curtainless bedroom that lies my secret and shameful defiance. I read a woman’s book, meet such a woman at a party (a woman now, like me) and think quite deliberately as we talk: we are divided: a hundred years ago I’d have been cleaning your shoes. I know this and you don’t (pp. 1-2).
Steedman is efficiently telling of her intimate past and its shaping of her experience of always. The clarity of the imagery I constructed in my head when reading the childhood memories that are woven throughout this book was more educational in and of itself than the psychoanalysis, for the most part. In terms of theorists, there are many other than Freud referred to. Most helpfully I think were reflections and expansions on Gayle Rubin’s essay ‘The Traffic in Women’. To contextualise, Steedman’s parents were not married – her father had come away to London with her mother, but there had been another woman and child before. Steedman’s mother had attempted to seduce her father into marriage – in order to gain the stability, respectability and material benefits she felt owed to her (there is very little mention of love throughout the book). Steedman writes “years later it becomes quite clear… my mother set in motion my father’s second seduction. She’d tried with having me and it hadn’t worked’ (p.53). The relationship this has to Rubin’s work is Steedman’s assertion that her mother had “exchanged herself for a future” (p. 69): that women’s ownership of “their labour, and the babies they produce” (p. 69) alters the framework of patriarchal law – Steedman’s mother is both transacted and transactor. The circumstances of Steedman’s childhood meant that whilst her father was materialistically important (he paid the rent and bills, and gave her mother £7 per week for ‘housekeeping’), but functionally semi-absent and unimportant. The argument draws productively on Juliet Mitchell’s work to articulate the patriarch’s “presence even in his absence” (p. 77).
While considerably more time and detail is given to Steedman’s own childhood than her mother’s (due to drawing heavily on remembered anecdotes, and lacking first hand access to the latter), this does ultimately read as a book about her mother. Not a book written about a loving relationship – or, implication might suggest, an embittered or estranged one. Steedman writes in a cool and matter-of-fact manner about her mother’s frustration at having children not giving her what she had aimed for from the having. There is a continual emphasis on the ‘ordinariness’ of their lives, neither horrific (like a Dickensian representation of the workhouse) nor a heroic ‘salt of the earth’ pride of identity. Political analysis appears occasionally in the text, as Steedman reflects on her mother’s lifelong Conservative voting: “for the left could not embody her desire for things to be really fair, for a full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth, for a half-timbered cottage in the country, for the prince who did not come. For my mother, the time of my childhood was the place where the fairy-tales failed” (p. 47). In places like this, I could see how the narrative device of the fairy-tale did work, and tie things together. The use of quotation to open chapters is also extremely pertinent, my favourite being by Alice Schwarzer:
One can hardly tell women that washing up sauce-pans is their divine mission, [so] they are told that bringing up children is their divine mission. But the way things are in this world, bring up children has a great deal in common with washing up sauce-pans (p. 83).
There is also a brief but powerful reflection on state intervention in the validation of life in the 1950s: “I think I would be a very different person now if [free] orange juice and milk and dinners at school hadn’t told me, in a covert way, that I had a right to exist, was worth something” (p.122). This is deftly related back to the broader point that politics shapes the world of the child – and the argument that adults “consciously know and unconsciously manipulate the particularities of the world that shaped them” (p. 123). The book sugar-coats absolutely nothing – life can lack love, crush dreams. But we carry on anyway. I’m reminded of a quotation from my favourite play and mini-series, Angels in America. Fittingly, the character, Hannah Pitt, is talking to her daughter-in-law, and says:
At first it can be very hard to accept how disappointing life is, Harper, because that’s what it is and you have to accept it. With faith and time and hard work you reach a point… where the disappointment doesn’t hurt as much, and then it gets actually easy to live with. Quite easy. Which is in its own way a disappointment (Perestroika, p. 184).
Whilst the analytic style is, for me, rather obfuscating, There are some wonderful historical insights throughout. Maybe the freshness and originality of the work is lost to me due to it being older than I am – but at 144 pages it’s a quick and easy read. The value lies not in any particular theoretical perspective or analysis that can be applied to one’s own considerations of gender and/or class, but on hearing an underrepresented story in a (perhaps) unexpected way.