Carolyn Steedman

Carolyn Steedman is the author of Landscape for a Good Woman and An Everyday Life of the English Working Class, among other books. She is an emeritus professor of history at Warwick. Poetry for Historians is due in the spring.

Middle-Class Hair: A New World for Women

Carolyn Steedman, 19 October 2017

In my summer birdcage of reading and rereading I only cried once. It wasn’t the novels that provoked tears, but a government report. I am used to crying over government reports. Various 19th-century commissions of inquiry into child labour in libraries around the country are stained with my tears. I cried over the Robbins Report because I found for the first time something I had always known: ‘The trials that their parents had to undergo are in themselves sufficient reason for the country to exert itself to meet the needs of their children.’ A government report compiled in the spirit of social justice! I love the state because it has loved me. My tears were tears of acknowledgment.

Wall in the Head: On Respectability

Carolyn Steedman, 28 July 2016

‘All I can offer​ is my years of lived experience,’ Lynsey Hanley wrote at the end of Estates: An Intimate History (2007). Her account of growing up on the vast Chelmsley Wood housing estate south-east of Birmingham in the 1980s (she was born in 1976) was an offering to policymakers, architects, planners and politicians: if they knew what it was like they might consider ways and...

Vomiting in the marital bed

Carolyn Steedman, 8 November 1990

During the protracted legal upheaval of the Reformation in England, the law of marriage remained as it was before. For Roman Catholic Europe, the Council of Trent in 1563 ushered in a new strictness, and control of wedlock by the Church, but on this side of the Channel pre-Tridentine canon law remained the law of the land until the Marriage Act of 1753. An extraordinarily contradictory mishmash of ecclesiastical and common law governed the making of marriage in Early Modern England. There was contract marriage, a form originating in the 13th century, when Innocent III decreed that the free consent of both parties was the sole essence of marriage, so that a valid and binding union could be made by an exchange of words between a man and a woman (over the ages of 16 and 14 respectively) before God, in front of two witnesses, and expressed in the present tense. The hinge of many an early 18th-century novel is here explained: it was hard lines for a young woman who had not grasped the tense system of her native grammar, and who did not know that intention – vows expressed in the future tense – constituted no contract at all. Such marriages – where the tense was the right one – were recognised by ecclesiastical law, but carried no property rights in common law.


Carolyn Steedman, 4 February 1988

There is the idea of the story-taker, the necessary collaborator in the act of telling, the one who listens, shapes the narrative by assuming that there is something there to be told, who takes the story, not as appropriation, but as part of a deal, so that the outcome – an entity, a story – might be placed there, in the space between the listener and the teller. The presence of the story-taker wards off the question ‘So what?’ According to William Labov, a story-taker from a tradition quite different from the one George Ewart Evans represents, a sociolinguist rather than a folklorist, that is the response that every good narrator is continually evading: ‘when the narrative is over, it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say “so what?” ’’

Diary: Tory Ladies

Carolyn Steedman, 4 June 1987

It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that my Conservative-voting mother ever caused me real embarrassment. She came from a line of Lancashire weavers, Liberal, then strong Labour voters. There are not many roles offered by the Labour movement to women, but the grittily romantic weaver-heroine is one of the few: dawn-rising, clogs on the cobbles, six looms managed, babies fed at the side door of the mill, money brought home, food to the table, doorsteps worn down by scrubbing: women worked to the bone. She arrived at adolescence and school-leaving age as the Lancashire cotton trade went into severe recession. She never went into the sheds, and worked at a series of unskilled jobs for the rest of her life. She always voted Tory.

Ode on a Dishclout: Domestic Servants

Joanna Innes, 14 April 2011

Carolyn Steedman’s is a distinctive, probing, inquiring voice. Personal, but not solipsistic. We never forget, reading her books, that there’s a mind in charge, but not one...

Read more reviews


Patrick Parrinder, 20 August 1992

What do a story written by primary schoolchildren, a study of 19th-century policing, a biography of Margaret McMillan and an account of a working-class childhood in South London in the Fifties...

Read more reviews

Light and Air

Ken Jones, 5 April 1990

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...

Read more reviews


Raymond Williams, 17 April 1986

The simplest autobiographies are those which are ratified, given title, by an achieved faith or success. Among these, what passes for success has come to predominate. It is then not surprising...

Read more reviews

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences