Tag Archives: Mayhew

Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)

A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.

I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.

I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)

Labour should read more I think.

The Weaver’s Daughter

I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,

she writes

weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)

The lesson redefined:

What was given to her, passed on to all of us, was a powerful and terrible endurance, the self-destructive defiance of those doing the best they can with what life hands out to them. (31)

But we can do better now, can’t we. Can cry and rage at the structures of assumptions surrounding class, men keeping women in their places even as they thought they were helping. Can acknowledge how many of those structures have changed, the new freedoms we have through the struggle of earlier generations. But there still remains so much stigma, though it might not be voiced so clearly as this:

I found a reference written by the local doctor for my mother who, about 1930, applied for a job as a ward-maid at the local asylum, confirming that she was clean, strong, honest and intelligent. I wept over that, of course, for a world where some people might doubt her – my – cleanliness. I didn’t care much about the honesty, and I knew I was strong; but there are people everywhere waiting for you to slip up, to show signs of dirtiness and stupidity, so that they can send you back where you belong. (34)

A Thin Man

On a father, and the shifting silhouette of men. I could not stop thinking about this paragraph when I first read it, still remember it and overlay a different vision of city streets sometimes when I am out walking.

When I look in the mirror, I see her face, but I know in fact
that I look more like him. A real Lancashire face. He was a
thin man. I knew his height, five foot ten, but he never
seemed tall; he shrank in later years to not much above my
height. The silhouette of men has changed completely since
the 1950s, and it is this above all else that has altered the
outlines of city streets; not the shape of the buildings nor the
absence of trams and the growing sleekness of cars, but the
fact that men no longer wear hats – broad-brimmed felt
hats, tipped slightly over one eye. (49)

The desire for things…

I love the respect this offers for lives of such hardship, leading to such constrained desires. Looking ahead this is surely again our future.

But here, on the other side of the Atlantic, there is no language of desire that can present what my mother wanted as anything but supremely trivial; indeed, there is no language that does not let the literal accents of class show, nor promote the tolerant yet edgy smile. (113)

And this brings us back to politcs, to the drives underlying who people listen to, and how they vote.

Women are the shadow within modern analyses of working-class Conservatism, and theories of deference have been wedded to ideas about women’s isolation from the workforce, and from those formative experiences that produce class-consciousness in men, in order to explain their position.37 Yet my mother was not ‘isolated from industrial culture’38 in her growing years; indeed, the argument here has been that it was a political and industrial culture that helped shape a sense of herself in relationship to others. The legacy of this culture may have been her later search, in the mid-twentieth century, for a public language that allowed her to want, and to express her resentment at being on the outside, without the material possessions enjoyed by those inside the gate. But within the framework of conventional political understanding, the desire for a New Look skirt cannot be seen as a political want, let alone a proper one. We have no better ways of understanding such manifestations of political culture than they did in Burnley in 1908, when they used to say dismissively that ‘a motor car or carriage would buy a woman’s vote … at any time’.39 (121)

And this most poetic distinction between her own reality and that of her mother due to the welfare state:

I think I would be a very different person now if 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. My inheritance from those years is the belief (maintained always with some difficulty) that I do have a right to the earth. (122)

Histories

The last section I loved centred around a story from Mayhew about a young girl selling watercress he meets and speaks to. In comparing Mayhew’s reporting of her narrative to Freud’s own storytelling, well, it says so well what the issues are with both:

Using these two accounts, we may suddenly see the nineteenth century peopled by middle-aged men who, propelled by the compulsions of scientific inquiry, demanded stories from young women and girls; and then expressed their dissatisfaction with the form of the narratives they obtained. (130)

Slam, right? But at least the form of Mayhew’s work allows something of people’s own voices to come through. We think. It feels so. In comparing these upper middle class Freudian stories with the little watercress girl’s, Steedman writes:

In the little watercress girl’s account, the baby was both a source of love and affection, a means of play and enjoyment (she spoke of the warmth of a small body in bed at night, the pleasurable weight of her baby sister on her hip, the smiles of infancy); and at the same time the baby was also a source of income and adult praise for earning that income. The baby represented economically what the watercress seller had been in her turn, when she was a baby, and what she was now to her mother: a worker, a good and helpful little girl, a source of income. In this situation her labour was not an attribute, nor a possession, but herself; that which she exchanged daily for the means of livelihood, for love, and food and protection. It was in the face of this integrity of being that Mayhew felt undone. (136)

From Mayhew:

The little watercress girl who gave me the following statement, although only eight years of age, had entirely lost all childish ways, and was, indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman. There was something cruelly pathetic in hearing this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves, talking of the bitterest struggles of life, with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all. I did not know how to talk with her. …

It will, honestly, bring you to tears this life. The question is how this can exist in the same world with all these other lives that have usually been at the centre.

In the narrative terms that Freud can be seen to have laid down in ‘Fragment of an Analysis’, the little watercress girl is a person in mental health, in possession of her story. But it is the story itself that does not fit: all its content and its imagery demonstrate its marginality to the central story, of the bourgeois household and the romances of the family and the fairy-tales that lie behind its closed doors: no different culture here, not a place where they have forty-three terms for the eagle and where a woman cannot be conceived of as a swan; but the arena outside the gate, the set of metaphors forged out of the necessary and contingent relationship between all the big houses and the Clerkenwell rooms in which the child grew up. The marginality of her story is what maintains the other’s centrality; there is no kind of narrative that can hold the two together (though perhaps history can): an outsider’s tale, held in oscillation by the relationships of class. (139)

and then this

She was free, and she was not free. Her father didn’t matter he didn’t represent any law: he was just a ‘father in law’. The law, the distant functioning world, was the gentleman who stopped her once in the street, not to pity her, but to ask why she was out so early, and who gave her nothing. It was the inexorable nature of the market, the old women wholesalers, some kind, some not. She was free; she was hungry, meat made her feel sick, she was so unused to it. She had integrity; and she was very poor. Her matted and dirty hair stood out wildly from her head, she shuffled along to keep the carpet slippers on her feet; her life slipped away into the darkness, as she turned into the entrance of her Clerkenwell court. (139)

You love this little girl, and she breaks your heart. Steedman reaches for something here and brushes it with her fingertips. I’m not sure quite what it is, but it feels so important and something that I too have reached for.

I know that the compulsions of narrative are almost irresistible: having found a psychology where once there was only the assumption of pathology or false consciousness to be seen, the tendency is to celebrate this psychology, to seek entry for it to a wider world of literary and cultural reference; and the enterprise of working-class autobiography was designed to make this at least a feasible project. But to do this is to miss the irreducible nature of all our lost childhoods: what has been made has been made out on the borderlands. I must make the final gesture of defiance, and refuse to let this be absorbed by the central story; must ask for a structure of political thought that will take all of this, all these secret and impossible stories, recognize what has been made out on the margins; and then, recognizing it, refuse to celebrate it; a politics that will, watching this past say ‘So what?’; and consign it to the dark. (144)

Steedman, Carolyn (1986) Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago.