Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Class, Subjectivity, Desire: Two Autobiographies

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Class, Subjectivity, Desire: Two Autobiographies

Article excerpt

Department of English

Concordia University

Montreal (Quebec)

In this article the author studies two works -- Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth and Carolyn Kay Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman -- to address issues of working-class women's autobiographies, and how the representations of working-class experiences can be foregrounded within parameters dominated by privileged classes. The writings of Smedley and Steedman demonstrate that though individual subjectivities are shaped by the social, the social can itself be challenged and reshaped.

Dans cet article, l'auteure etudie deux ouvrages - Daughter of Earth par Agnes Smedley et Landscape for a Good Woman par Carolyn Kay -afin d'examiner les questions concernant les autobiographies de femmes de classe ouvriere, et comment lesrepresentations des experiences des femmes de classe ouvriere peuvent etre mises au premier plan a l'interieur des parametres domines par les classes favorisees. Les ecrits de Smedley et de Steedman revelent que l'element social peut etre defie et remodele malgre le fait que celui-ci influence les subjectivities individuelles.

"To enter the arena of subjectivity does not mean abandoning the political." (Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman, p. 114)

Narratives of Life, Loss and Longing

Autobiographies, by their discursive nature, are inescapably elegiac. A life narrative, after all, is an account of that part of a mortal's finite lifetime that has already been spent, used up, irrevocably lost. Two compelling working-class autobiographies (one American, the other British) -- Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth (1929) and Carolyn Kay Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (1987) -- literally open in the shadow of death. For Smedley, it is the contemplated death of the self: "What I have written is...the story of a life, written in desperation. There have been days when it seemed that my path would better lead into the sea" (pp. 7-8). For Steedman, the death at her narrative's origin, as the title of her first chapter announces, is the "Death of a Good Woman" -- her mother's: "She died like this. I didn't witness it" (p. 1; emphasis added).

Life, then, out of death, and life writing arising from the ashes of loss and despair. But these are no metaphysical miracles. Smedley and Steedman choose auto/biographical writing (the second life in Steedman's title is her mother's) as a means of defiance and resistance: so that they can tell of struggles shaped by a particular class experience, and, by the telling, further the cause. Smedley writes:

To die would have been beautiful. But I belong to those who do not die for the sake of beauty. I belong to those who die from other causes -- exhausted by poverty, victims of wealth and power, fighters in a great cause. A few of us die, desperate from the pain and disillusionment of love, but for most of us "the earthquake but discloseth new fountains." For we are of the earth and our struggle is the struggle of earth (p. 8).

The pain and shame of poverty, the defiance and struggle born of it, also mark the inception of Steedman's narrative. One might understand Steedman's absence at her mother's death-bed as a refusal to "witness" her death because the daughter had already witnessed -- "a long time ago," in that same house -- another kind of dispossession. She had seen her mother crying,

standing on the bare floorboards in the front bedroom just after we moved to this house in Streatham Hill in 1951, my baby sister in her carrycot. We both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: "This house isn't fit for a baby." And then she stopped crying, my mother, got by, the phrase that picks up after all difficulty (it says: it's like this; it shouldn't be like this; it's unfair; I'll manage): "Hard lines, eh, Kay?"....And I? I will do everything and anything until the end of my days to stop anyone ever talking to me like that woman talked to my mother. …

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