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The Radical Soldier's Tale

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Carolyn SteedmanEdit

Carolyn Kay Steedman is a British historian specializing in 19th and 20th (and occassionally 18th) century history, particularly through themes of Victorianism, working-class experience, family, police, social history, domestic service and construct of self-identity. She is currently Professor of History at the University of Warwick. She is a critical historian of her own historical position, dramatically displayed in Landscape for a Good Woman, and engaged with how subjects understand themselves as historical and cultural beings.

Her work in The Radical Soldier's Tale displays her own interest in reading deeply within the text without falling prey to vain content readings or historical over-contextualization. The text, for Steedman, navigates between a world and a private consciousness, and must be understood within such complexity.

The Radical Soldier's Tale: John Pearman, 1819-1908 [1988]Edit

In her introduction to The Radical Soldier's Tale, Steedman offers her own "reading" of how to read John Pearman's diaries and accounts of experiences soldiering and policing in the 19th century.

John Pearman's MemoirEdit

Steedman is interested in understanding his diary as a supplement, not simply a representation, of Pearman's historical reality. Steedman describes Pearman's diary as an expression of resistance--as a policeman, he did his work well, received a proper commission, but could not be considered mundane in his thought despite engaging in the policing occupation. Steedman writes: "To be resentful and angry in small and uninscribed ways is one form of resistance, thought the labour movement and socialism have not given such strategies much more recognition than have the official canons of bravery and honour. It means only that you don't give in, that you stay alive and resentful until the end, no matter what the exigencies of life prevent by way of action from you [...] getting by, doing the best you can with what life hands out to you, is one form of resistance" (2-3). Steedman argues that this resistance is often understood as the "special pleading" associated with women's literature:

"What has been described is a style of writing that is produced by being ill-at-ease in the world as it is; a distorition that matches the distortion of what it is that is observed and expressed in the writing. What a study of this radical soldier's and policeman's tale may suggest in the end, is that resistance to dominant ideas and dominant policitical forms will not always look heroic; and it may at the same time provide for the edgy realisation that out very notion of heroism is defined by what those dominant forms have said is a proper and fitting set of feelings for people in John pearman's position to hold" (3).

Steedman is suspicious of the "simple virtue and simple honour from uncomplicated men" sought by other editors of the military memoir genre. Similarly, simple goodness is a pursuit of those who wish to represent the domestic virtue of working class people. Steedman notes that the soldier himself represents himself a "a figure who is used in some way, by other people, or by social forces [...] it has been to do with powerlessness, and the situations that the powerless get into, those places where people can do things to you, and with you, as if you were not properly human" (8).

MethodEdit

Steedman choses to analyse his text from the perspective of developmental linguistics, which "allows the written word to yield up just a little more of its producer across the years--his way of thought, his frame of mind--than other analyses of content can" (8). Steedman pursues Pearman's narrative shifts, points of dislocation in attitude toward discipline, and is opposed to simple and uncomplicated interpretive frames. Steedman argues that we must distinguish between conservative practice and conservative principle, for Pearman's text proves they are not essentially intertwined.

Steedman pulls from Dominick LaCapra to consider the historian's tendency to over-contextualize because they lack a means for sensitively addressing the problematic relationship between text and context. In this mode, historians presume that context is "the reality to which the text might lead" (21). Rather, Steedman argues that "no amount of contextualization will reveal the complete meaning of what he wrote; and that wilst contextualization will certainly help us, as readers of the text, to interpret it, the evidence that it presents lies as much in the writer's organization and presentation of its content in written language, as it does in an account of republicanism and radicalism in the 1870s [...]" (21). This requires the historian to see her subject as intellectual being. In small part, Steedman desires to make "a reconstruction of a state of mind from a century ago by using the written errors of a text" (23).

However, Steedman recognizes the limitations of such techniques: "If such a description is to be at all useful historically, then it must help us see more clearly how people used the information--social, political, emotion--that they were presented with in the past, and how they went about thinking through ideas. So in this way, we should come to see a text not just as a literary object to be analysed in more or less conventional ways, but also as a place of mediation between a culture and an individual mind" (24).

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