The Tidy House by Carolyn Steedman - review by Jenny Uglow

Jenny Uglow

A Childish Hand

The Tidy House


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The Tidy House is an elaborate and absorbing account of the way three eight-year-old working-class girls wrote a story in the long hot summer of 1976; why they wrote it, how they wrote it and what it meant to them. Carolyn Steedman was their class teacher. Although she tries hard to keep her book as impersonal as possible, weighting it with a mass of references and footnotes and the ‘evidence’ of transcripts and tape recordings, she cannot disguise her surprise and delight at the girls’ exploration of the use of writing, nor can she hide her despair at the inevitable crushing of hope – for pupils and teachers – in schools such as her own. The angry American accounts of this process, she says, are written by men:

I have thought of this as I have wept in the ladies’ lavatory and not said anything in the staffroom, and as I have lain awake at night contemplating all the mild and genteel methods by which working-class children are led to see out of what kind and painful necessity it is done! – that really, they aren’t very clever, really, can never be like their teacher’s own children, at home …

Her despair is intensified by the fact that most of the teachers are ‘women, like me’. The urgent tone of the whole book stems from this combination of excitement and frustration as Steedman is fascinated both by the way children struggle to understand their future in society, and by the way they use writing in their development. Both interests fused as she watched Carla, Lindie and Melissa compose The Tidy House. It is an episodic, highly ironic story couched in ‘the tjmeless present’ of dialogue, about two young couples and their experience of parenthood. Mark and Jo are childless, Jamie and Jason have a three-year-old called Carl, who snivels his way through the story, stopped by cries of ‘shut up’, or smacks, or l0p’s for an ice-cream, or by being dumped with his nan so the adults can talk in peace. Jo spoils Carl and is criticised by Jamie, so she decides to have a child herself ‘in competition’ . The middle of the story is hot with elliptical descriptions of sex and visits to the doctor. Jo gets her just deserts, twin boys, while Jamie who longs for a girl – and dreams of naming her Julie Oeanie in the typed version) – is also burdened with another boy, Darren, who makes Carl’s life ever more miserable. By the end tension rules, jealousy, noise, short tempers abound and there is no time for any independent life for Jo or Jamie:

… but Darren kept pushing the twins over/ and making them cry/ so Jamie had to sit him on her lap/ until it was time for the twins to go to bed/ then she would put him down./ So it went on like that.

At first reading this seems merely a grippingly realistic account of life around them, a refreshing reminder that the perceptions of children are not misted over permanently by romantic stereotypes of nuptial bliss. Observers are frequently bemused by the way teenage girls, whose actual experience of family life may be very tough, continue to flash engagement rings with pride. This little story shows the girls trying and, I think, failing – to deal with that very problem, as Jo persists in her desire for a child despite the evidence of the dreadful Carl, (‘Tomorrow he goes to school./ Thank God for that.’), because ‘her life will be different’. It also contains a wistful letter to an absent sister, Jane, who has escaped to America – oh, land of fantasy – but whose life, outside the estate, is mysterious beyond conception.

After she has introduced us to the story and described the conditions under which it was written, most of Steedman’s book is taken up with what might loosely be termed ‘background material’; a ‘history of attitudes to little girls as writers, an account of writing as language development and a history of working-class little girlhood.’ These chapters are extremely interesting and offer many original insights but they also act as ways of constructing an adequate ‘interpretative device’ for the girls’ story. In ‘Domestic Education and the Reading Public’ the author points to the way adults have responded to the· cult of the child (usually little girls) in three waves in the publication of children’s writing; in the 1850’s following the Wordsworthian idealisation of innocence, in the 1890’s with the growth of scientific child study, and between the wars in the flurry of sentiment which followed the publication of Opal Whiteley’s Journal of an Understanding Heart. Detailed analyses of nineteenth-century diaries demonstrate how styles of writing in themselves inculcate particular social attitudes, ‘the child was shown how to weigh and place domestic detail in temporal sequence … to mirror social life in her words and confirm its solid existence.’ But still, she suggests, children also wrote to play with the possibility of changing that solid world, to reject as much as to embrace principles. The chapter also helps the reader of The Tidy House to gain ‘a sense of the difference in individual psychologies that growing up in different classes of society imposes.’

Steedman turns from literary history to a more technical examination of the role of writing in child development, a previously neglected area, and in it an important step towards self-consciousness, in relation first to both form and content, ‘It offered them the chance to play with the sound patterns of their first language and also to deal with the systems of social meaning that underlay the words they wrote.’ Furthermore it gave a sense of power, the ability to alter sequence and consequence, and, in using dialogue, enabled them ‘to analyse the way in which the words of adults altered events and to envision for themselves possible changes in circumstances.’

Finally before returning her readers to the story, she asks them to conjure some sense of linguistic and experiential continuity in the lives of working-class girls in the past two centuries by comparing the lives and words of Carla, Lindie and Melissa to those of the little watercress seller and others interviewed by Mayhew around 1850 and the Children’s Employment Commission of 1862. One could quarrel about the usefulness of such a bold link across so great a period but Steedman writes acutely and movingly, marshalling her ‘evidence’ to show how girls of eight or nine, in desperate circumstances, without knowledge of any precise terminology, can have a considerable awareness of the family as a social and economic unit, and of the complex tiers of obligation and reciprocation which bind them to their mothers.

I found it hard, not having the advantage of ‘several years and many readings’, to keep a balance between these detailed individual studies and The Tidy House itself. But this is a book which will repay rereading and certainly the accumulated arguments of the central chapters do add to the final analysis of the story, in which we see how the girls question through narrative and through the use of metaphor and symbol, the ‘official version of motherhood in our society’ which ‘trails glory and fulfilment’ . The author plays with psychoanalytic explanations but her own position is clearly a materialist one, which views The Tidy House as ‘a historical fragment’, a work specific to class and time, which ‘operated as an abstraction of meaning from circumstances’.

The book ends by successfully linking together its material, cultural and linguistic concerns, and finishes, as it began, with an attack on the underlying assumption that the world of experience explored by the girls in their story is ‘not worth taking seriously’. Steedman declares:

The difference between the self-socialisation of Elizabeth Moulton Barrett and the children who wrote The Tidy House is that the culture and society to which the first child referred in her writing arc seen as belonging to the mainstream of literary and social history, whilst the underlying system of meanings with which Melissa, Carla and Lindie performed exactly the same task, which was to grow up and become women, have scarcely yet been entered into the record books of our society.

Her own detailed and illuminating study should serve as a provocative first entry.

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