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 that most are either written by ghosts or by the equally ghostly figures of acknowledged reputations. Many of the harder kinds of achievement are too full of other kinds of content, to say nothing of contradictions and uncertainties, to pass easily into a Life. A memoir of some event or experience is one thing; the composition of what can be seriously taken as a whole life experience quite another.
Within these difficulties, in one of the byways of Modernism, autobiography is beginning to be widely used as a deliberately uncertain, self-exploratory form. Record and narrative are not renounced, but their threads are loose, within a different intended effect. The difference from fiction of the same apparent kind is, however, still crucial. Always, within the autobiographical form, a figure can emerge from the cloud of uncertainty to say, offering a special kind of conviction: ‘this is what I know (now know) happened’ or at least ‘this is what (I now believe) I actually felt.’ The massive shift, as popular forms, to biography and autobiography can then in part be understood as a response to the corresponding but unsolved difficulties of Modernist fiction. The last threads of an attested verisimilitude are not cut.
The most available apparent form for this kind of writing is a model derived from psychoanalysis, in which the nominal self of the account is temporarily divided into an uncertain object and an analytic subject. This is strongest when the analytic subject has access to other evidence than simple memory – for example, in the records and recollections of others. The degree of admission of real others is often an evident lifeline: not an overriding but at least a moderately verifiable account. Yet taken seriously it is full of surprises, which in the end decide which side we come down on: authentic and therefore open self-exploration, or that more widely shared self-absorption which is the main communicative link of internal, inner-directed autobiographical writing. It is a matter in the end, I suppose, of which projection of the self – uncertain object or analytic subject – is really the ghost.
Yet there is also another available form: a model of self-accounting drawn from history or from critical sociology. Here the analytic subject has seriously verifiable general evidence, but its forms can be so strong that the uncertain object is merely placed within them: made representative with only marginal personal evidence. This form has been especially important in our own period because of the preoccupations of class. There has been a demand for accounts of class formation and class transition supported by the substance of individual experience. Even the strangest of us, within this form, can be made emblematic, by others if not by ourselves. Yet what becomes apparent, as the diverse accounts come in, is that even the true generalities of class formation and class transition are crossed by specific circumstances of different kinds: both the specifically personal, as in family situation, family size, the characters of parents, siblings and neighbours, and the specifically social, in types of settlement, forms of local culture, orientations towards work and education. If we then add, as must now be the case, the specificities of gender, as a radical factor within the other diversities and complexities, the very strengths of the earliest examples, which have become models, can become obstacles. For the most available analytic subject is then not even our own ghost.
These points are one way of introducing the questions and uncertainties which both provoked Carolyn Steedman’s book and in some important ways survive it. At an intellectual level, but one supported from her own experience, she wants to challenge the accounts of working-class childhood which have been written by men, within a particular mode. She has especially in mind Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, which she describes as representing a ‘passivity of emotional life in working-class communities’, where ‘the streets are all the same; nothing changes.’
More sharply, Carolyn Steedman also chal-challenges Jeremy Seabrook’s Working-Class Childhood, where a similar passivity is also the lost solidarity of the ‘old working class’, by contrast with post-war ‘materialism’, but which in the very form of its analysis ‘denies its subjects a particular story, a personal history, except when that story illustrates a general thesis ... All of Seabrook’s corpus deals ... with what he sees as “the falling into decay of a life once believed by those who shared it to be the only admissible form that life could take”. I want to open the door of one of the terraced houses, in a mill town in the 1920s, show Seabrook my mother and her longing, make him see the child of my imagination sitting by an empty grate, reading a tale that tells her a goose-girl can marry a king.’
‘The child of my imagination’: that again is the uncertain object, in what is offered as the story of two working-class childhoods, her own and her mother’s. Yet in context, and in this strand of the book, the challenge is still primarily intellectual. She is rejecting a version of working-class culture which has also been challenged, by men as well as women, on more general social and political grounds. Rhetorically, however, she rejects a masculine mode, in which ‘the sons of the working class ... put so much effort ... into delineating a background of uniformity and passivity.’
Yet her most significant challenge is broader, or at least the question that initiates it is broader. She relates the ‘refusal of a complicated psychology to those living in material distress’ not only to what she calls (misleadingly because too generally and flatly) ‘cultural criticism’ but also to ‘the positioning of mental life within Marxism’. This is little developed, theoretically, and is based on what seems very limited reading, but the general challenge is clear and important. She argues convincingly that ‘a notion of consciousness as located’ – solely or primarily – ‘within the realm of production’ reduces even the class-consciousness, let alone the whole lives, of most women and all children. In fact, she might have added, following a wider perspective on this heavily contested area, that it reduces the consciousness and lives of many men, who were all also (it has sometimes to be noted in following some styles of contemporary women’s writing) children.
More positively, on the basis of these challenges, she is concerned to emphasise and value a kind of radicalism which she sees as neglected by the solidarities of production and as misrepresented and maligned by the retrospective accounts of a passive, undemanding ‘old working class’: ‘I take a defiant pleasure in the way that my mother’s story can be used to subvert this account. Born into the “old working class”, she wanted: a New Look skirt, a timbered country cottage, to marry a prince.’ Of course this is an element in her attempt to understand and relate to the specific life and development of her mother, on which more must be said. Yet since she offers the point as general, it is worth some general reflection.
There is indeed an extraordinary muddle, now very damaging politically, in those accounts of the ‘old working class’ which celebrate, by contrast with their post-war successors, the lack of what is called materialism’. The term is taken from a tendency in conservative thought, ultimately with a religious reference. But within that perspective, both the collective movement of defence and of aspiration for better living conditions, and the many millions of private desires within and beyond that movement, were alike condemned: almost always, in practice, by the already comfortable. It doesn’t then help if the distortions of one kind of retrospective account, emphasising only a decent, self-denying solidarity and excluding more private ambitions, envies and fantasies, are to be matched by the elevation of these private desires to the status of a more authentic radicalism. Carolyn Steedman never goes quite that far, but others are doing so: indeed it is a central rationalisation of the rejection of socialism, in the enchanting name of a generalised ‘desire’, by a whole group of French intellectuals.
The class factor in what is blurred as ‘materialism’ is relatively simple. The disadvantaged come to learn, almost always in practice before principle, that their best chance of getting material benefits, over a range from subsistence through comfort to pleasure, is by combining as and where they can. Always, within this, there are diverse private ambitions, but the ethical test – of course often difficult to apply – has to do with the relation of any of these to the common project. The fiercest condemnations, often now seen as ‘moralistic’, are in practice of those short cuts to affluence which can be seen either as careerism or as personal collaboration with enemies of the class. To present the class ethic as if it were in practice and exclusively ‘the map of an upright and decent country’ is to ignore the pressures, the complications, the specificities, of many actual lives. But what happens if, responding only to these difficulties, we dilute the principle of ‘an upright and decent country’: for example, that immediate post-war world, which Steedman convincingly celebrates, in which, through the common action of the Labour movement, the poor got a health service and a generation of children got better care than ever before in history?
This is where the mode of autobiography and the mode of intellectual and historical argument cross, with real difficulties for both. For it is not only Steedman’s radicalism – her robust and welcome assertion that poor people justifiably want things they see others much like themselves enjoying, and that this is not to be put down by anyone as some shameful ‘envy’ – which follows from this general intersection. It is also, and more influentially, the now rampant politics of the Right, which seeks to substitute such individually-shaped desires for the difficult practices of common and sharing provision: a substitution made easier, ironically, both by the reduction of radicalism to individual desire and by the retrospective melancholy of accounts of the ‘old working class’, where what is always being said, falsely, and by way of excuse as often as exhortation, is that the ‘upright and decent’ project has been lost.
In an autobiography it comes down to the question of how the story is told. Steedman is acutely conscious of this. Her book hesitates, theoretically, before, during and after the simplest narrative: to significant effect, at least for one kind of reader. Yet the theoretical questions cannot be separated from the aching personal questions, in approaching a life as close as that of a mother. There are ways of telling and reflecting on a story, but also, it sometimes seems, of avoiding it: the quick transitions between uncertain object and analytic subject become elements of a deeper hesitation.
Thus, in a straightforward narrative mode, we read: ‘It was two weeks before her death that I went to see her that time, the last time: the first meeting in nine years, except for the day of my father’s funeral. The letter announcing my visit lay unopened on the mat ...’ The mother ‘looked like a witch’: a ‘Lancashire face’, and ‘the illness made her thinner and gaunter.’ It is a situation, a moment, which produces, in this reader at least, a longing, even an envy, for a fully developing narrative: that mode which the Modernist hesitation interrupts or displaces. Has the displacement, then, anything to do with those nine years? And is that a theoretical or an autobiographical question? Why do I track this moving narrative through its reflective and fragmentary revelations, until its substance can give perspective to the intellectual arguments? ‘I was really,’ Steedman writes, ‘a ghost who came to call.’ The local and passing observation indicates all the central questions about this hesitant autobiographical exploration of two lives.
To pull out the bones of the story is of course to simplify it. What does it mean to say, summarily, that the mother grew up in a poor Lancashire mill town, working in its marginal trades, and that she went away to London with a man who was leaving a wife and a child, and who later in effect moved away from her, so that the new family was technically illegitimate, and within the terraced streets of South London, in part for these reasons, avoided family and neighbours and the ordinary habits of community? That in London, eventually, the mother became a manicurist, serving rich women? That there was then both radical resentment and a kind of envy, so that it can be said (but pushing the period back) that ‘she learned selfishness in the very landscape that is meant to have eradicated it’? Is that ‘selfishness’ too abrupt, too conceding a word for what is more sympathetically and convincingly described as ‘a profound sense of insecurity and an incalculable longing for the things she didn’t have’? Isn’t her precise social situation, so clearly evoked, one of the specific areas in which, relatively isolated and exposed, desire narrows to the immediately or visibly attainable, the older common longings impatiently pushed away? Isn’t the highly educated daughter then committed to doing more than admitting her mother’s ‘desire for the things of the earth to political reality and psychological validity’, as if that were a contrast to the real project of her class?
I put these questions to this book because in its problems as much as in its complicated substance I believe it to be important. It can be recommended for elements which I have not discussed, notably the chapter on ‘reproduction and refusal’ which explores, through her relations with her mother, profoundly physical questions, in ways that compel attention. But its central theme is how we understand and try to relate to each other once we have admitted the diversities and the pressures of our actual rather than our projected lives, and it is one that confronts us with the formal problems of that hybrid of autobiography and argument which is now so clear a consequence of the shifting class relations of our time and within these, shaping the mode, of the specific situation of the intellectual from a working-class family. We are already in a position to separate some versions of this form from others, just as we need urgently to separate different kinds of ‘working-class novel’. Landscape for a Good Woman is pulled and strained within these crucial divergences, and it would be an evasion to give it only the simple acknowledgment and welcome which it deserves. What it most deserves, for its exceptional openness and honesty, is hard questioning: against some of its implications and seeking to develop others.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.