Working Class Childhoods


College 10


Paper 2


The cultivating environments of Jeanette Winterson’s and Carolyn Steedman’s personalities were amazingly similar, and much of their adult lives are parallel as well. Both wome n came from working-class English families. Both had marginal, passive fathers. Both families did not place high value on education, yet both women educated themselves anyway. Both found it necessary to flee their family lives, and both women felt compelled to write and publish their stories.


While the social circumstances that both women grew up in were very similar, and the factual parallels of Steedman’s and Winterson’s lives are astounding, their attitudes about their lives, or “interpretations” of their pasts are extremely different from each other. Many of their similarities are attributable to their social circumstances, but the key to their differences lies in the emotional aspects of the mothering each woman received.


The first and perhaps most important difference in Steedman’s and Winterson’s accounts of their lives is the weight each author gives to social class as an influence on their family dynamics and childhoods. For Steedman it is the main theme of her book; she explores how working-class status changes the traditional psychoanalytic “rules” of the family. Winterson on the other hand virtually ignores social class, although it is evident from her descriptions that she did grow up in a working-class family.


Steedman’s mother had a high level of class consciousness. She endlessly complained about her financial situation, what she could be and what she should be, etc. According to her, their poverty was the sole cause of all their troubles. It is easy to see why Steedman, as an adult, might want to explore the effects of social class on a family.


Winterson’s mother however did not give a lot of attention to their social class. She considered her family lucky, not necessarily for their financial endowment but because they were going to heaven. She looked at other families (for example, Next Door) and considered hers much better off. She even organized charities for the “poor,” while she probably could have benefited from some charity herself. Winterson’s mother had no self-pity, unlike Steedman’s mother. She was not very class conscious, perhaps because to her, religion created more critical classes of people; people were either “saved” or they were “damned.” It is easy to see then how Winterson could just overlook social class as a major influence on her development and instead focus on religion.


The second major difference between the two women’s interpretations has to do with an idea that Steedman introduces in Living Outside the Law. She says that working-class women come to understand that while they don’t own anything, they own themselves, and they can use themselves and their children as objects of exchange, “. . . as a traffic with the future” (69). Both Steedman’s and Winterson’s mothers did this, but the major difference between them is the futures their mothers were trading their children for. Steedman’s mother attempted to use her children as leverage for a marriage proposal at first, and then to guarantee Steedman’s father’s presence and financial support: “. . . we represented different stages of endeavour to my mother” (71). Winterson’s mother however had a more grandiose vision for her future. She adopted Jeanette with the idea that if she produced a God-fearing person, a missionary even, she would be sure to go to heaven.


The difference in their childhoods then was that a a fairly early point in Steedman’s childhood her mother realized that the exchange had failed; the children were not enough to influence Steedman’s father into marrying her mother. As the object of a failed exchange, Steedman grew up knowing that she was not needed and not wanted. For Winterson’s mother the failed exchange was not apparent until Jeanette had reached young adulthood, when it became obvious that her “unnatural passions” weren’t a phase. This implies that Winterson was not aware of being a failure all throughout her growing up. Indeed, she says, “I cannot recall a time when I did not know I was special” (3). Even after if became apparent that Jeanette was not going to be her mother’s salvation, it didn’t necessarily mean her mother would be prevented from