This book, this Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman…I loved it with a love reserved for few other books really. For its lyricism and beauty, the sharp insights about mothers and daughters, about how we are classed and gendered, about how we just might break free of this yet never break free…the pain of all of it. The complexities of all of it, and the complexities of our own inner lives too often flattened by words like working-class, woman, mother. I loved this book for an ability to share a world with her briefly and watch her theorise so beautifully from there, there, this complex, working class landscape. This place usually only the object of theory, the ‘problem’ for theory.
She manages it so beautifully, you long to try but feel pretty certain this is a high wire act not to be emulated lightly or without years of training. She opens so:
Death of a Good Woman
She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel. The rest of the house was dark and shrouded. Through the window was only the fence and the kitchen wall of the house next door. Her quilt was sewn into a piece of pink flannelette. Afterwards, there were bags and bags of washing to do. … She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death. (1-2)
This conflicted moment of loss is the beginning. Not the lovely quote from John Berger which follows, describing how we carry our biographies with us.
The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical. (John Berger, About Looking)
A fascinating history of Norwood — though how could it not be? It is hard to imagine the importance of parish boundaries these days — especially as borough boundaries cross them willy nilly. But apparently they used to be preambulated every couple of years, by all of the men and boys of the parish led by the vicar, and apparently the boys used sometimes to be whipped at each marker so they would remember where they were! There was much drinking, and if the vicar were not bold the boundaries could be changed. In 1560 the timorous Vicar Richard Finch of Croydon was turned back from some disputed woods by the fierce men of Penge and they succeeded in changing the boundary…
Norwood itself is a contraction of North Wood, named so by the Saxons. It was still a hamlet in 1800, it’s first public house the Woodman. The woods of Norwood and Lambeth were home to gypsies, recorded by Pepys on 11th August, 1668 when his wife went to see them for a fortune telling, and Byron apparently skived off of his school in Lordship Lane to visit those living in Dulwich woods, but the Croyden and Lambeth Inclosure Acts in the early 1800s changed that to some extent, as did their inclusion in the Vagrant Act.
There is a chapter on the brilliant Mary Nesbitt, companion of Earl of Bristol, Augustus Hervey who left her their house at Norwood when he died. Possibly beginning adult life as a prostitute, she was the widow of a banker, and became the center of a large social circle that included Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, and played some kind of role in British machinations after the French Revolution. The book calls her ‘a woman of intrigue’, ‘conspicuous in the late revolution’ but no details! Gah! She died in 1835 at 90, the house became first a fashionable hotel, and then a convent school (!).
There is a bit on atmospheric railways! How cool are they? Moving through the displacement of air rather than a flow of electricity, in silence and speed though the materials weren’t up to the challenge — leather cracking and falling apart. It’s pumping stations were apparently architecturally brilliant (though I take that with a grain of salt).
Beulah Spa, All Saints Parish church and its ongoing controversy over the number of bodies in — and allowed in — the churchyard. A remarkably nonjudgmental remark on a major landowner whose wealth came from his Opium Clipper(!). He includes this brilliant description of Lambeth from Punch (no date however! But before Crystal Palace was built):
The purlieus of London are not to be described. The mind sickens in recalling the odious particulars of the immediate neighbourhood of the bridges. The hucksters and Jew furniture-showps, the enormous tawdry gin palaces, and those awful little by-lanes, of two-storied tenenments, where patent mangles are to let — where Miss Miffin, milliner, lives on the first floor (her trade being symbolised by a staring pasteboard dummy in a cap of flyblown silver paper) — where the street is encumbered by oyster shells and black puddings, and little children playing in them…
You emerge from the horrid road at length on a greenish spot, which I am led to believe is called Kennington Common; and henceforth the route becomes far more agreeable. Placid villas of cockneys adorn each side of the road — stockbrokers, sugar-brokers — that sort of people. We saw cruelty vans (I mean those odious double-barrelled gigs, so injurious to horseflesh) lined with stout females with ringlets, bustles, and variegated parasols. The leading stout female of the party drove the carriage (jerking and bumping the reins most ludicrously and giving the fat horse the queerest little cuts with the whip): a fat boy, resplendent in buttons, commonly occupied the rumble, with many children…
The villas gave each other the hand all the way up Camden Hill, Denmark Hill, etc; one acacia leans over to another in his neighbour’s wall…one villa is just like another; and there is no intermission in the comfortable chain. But by the time you reach Norwood, an actual country to be viewed by glimpses — a country so beautiful that I have sen nothing more charming… (99-100)
Of course, there is so so much on Crystal Palace. Brought to Norwood both for its beauty, and because Leo Schuster, the Director of the Brighton Railway, owned much of the property it is built upon. It’s hard to imagine what it looked like and what it meant — even with pictures. The impact it had on the world of music — Schubert and Schumann were really introduced there and made popular names in the face of dislike. The director August Manns was a key figure in searching out and recovering Schubert’s work from obscurity for which I love him immensely. He helped introduce Arthur Sullivan to the world as well.
Nor did I know the role that the Crystal Palace once played in the history of aeronautics, beginning with ballooning, moving on to dirigibles and the earliest British airplanes. A very readable history is presented here that captures some of that early excitement…and sadly, to its decline, and then spectacular incendiary end in 1936. The ruins now are even more remote from its former grandeur, but I rather love them like that. Especially in the mist. The liberal interpretations of dinosaurs are amazing, as is this, my favourite of the illustrations:
It ends with a note on the founding of the Norwood Society to protect and preserve, to keep some of the past alive in the face of development, constant development. That never seems to change.
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.