Light and Air

Ken Jones

  • Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan 1860-1931 by Carolyn Steedman
    Virago, 343 pp, £16.99, February 1990, ISBN 1 85381 123 8

In these unfriendly times, Margaret McMillan, once the subject of such biographies as The Children’s Champion and Prophet and Pioneer, occupies some unvisited pantheon of educational reform. The order of precedence set out in the title of Carolyn Steedman’s book is sign enough that she has no intention of re-establishing the McMillan cult. She has produced instead something much more awkward and interesting. Childhood, Culture and Class is less a life than a set of interconnected essays, which approach the themes and particular difficulties of McMillan’s work from a succession of unpredictable starting-points. Denying the reader the usual shape and satisfactions of biography, it offers through narrative, textual analysis and speculation both a timely questioning of McMillan’s achievements and a meditation on the oblique connections between a public life and its private sources, between political argument and figures of rhetoric whose force arises from their roots in the deepest, shared hopes and disappointments of a propagandist and her audience.

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