Simanaitis Says

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A RECENT ARTICLE in the London Review of Books enriches my understanding of Victorian life (I suspect this interest is a byproduct of my Sherlockian enthusiasm). “Mothers Were Different,” by Susan Pedersen, LRB, November 19, 2020, is a book review of Emma Griffin’s book Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy. 

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy, by Emma Griffen, Yale University Press, 2020.

Griffen’s sources are autobiographies written by working-class British men and women living between the start of the 19th century and the First World War. Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits on these, as identified by Susan Pedersen in her review.

Victorian Family Life. Pedersen writes, “There was only one template for 19th-century working-class family life, Griffin tells us: ‘a father who was the breadwinner; and a mother who was, primarily, the homemaker’…. In her 650-plus autobiographies, Griffin found only three wives of fully employed men who kept working throughout their marriages, and just one (yes, one) wife who earned more than her working husband—which made the husband resentful and destroyed the marriage.”

Image from the Financial Times, April 25, 2014.

What of Women Losing their “Better Halves” to Death or Desertion? “Unfortunately,” Pedersen notes, “they entered a landscape in which women’s wages were low, women’s jobs scarce, and women’s absolute and sole responsibility for managing their household unquestioned, even by the women themselves.”

“And,” Pedersen continues, “if marriage could curtail women’s modest earnings or freedoms, bereavement was an economic disaster, sending widows scrambling to find some, any, employment compatible with their domestic work (selling baked goods, taking in sewing or washing, renting out a room) as well as, if possible, a replacement spouse.”

Meal Time. Pedersen writes, “Respectable working-class families tried to put a roast on the table on Sundays – and to make it stretch to stews and meat pies for a few days after that—but children remembered that their fathers ate the best (or all) of the meat, while they ate the onions and gravy. Fathers sat down to a kipper or a boiled egg at breakfast (and gave one favoured child the top); their dependents ate porridge.”

“It’s true, of course,” Pedersen says, “that many men were doing hard manual labour: They needed those hearty meals. But these behaviours were also about status. Even men in sedentary jobs ate eggs and bacon while their children ate bread and dripping.”

Tomorrow, Pedersen examines other issues: rural versus urban, demon alcohol, gender, and aspirations. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

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