Simanaitis Says

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YESTERDAY IN PART 1, Susan Pedersen’s London Review of Books article about Emma Griffen’s Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy yielded tidbits that Mum and Da weren’t particularly good at sharing Victorian working-class family life. Today in Part 2, Pedersen’s article and Griffen’s book suggest that where Mum and Da lived made a difference, as did demon alcohol.

Urban Versus Rural. Working-class life changed dramatically in the 19th century through the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. Pedersen cites, “Griffin’s most striking finding is that once the subsistence crises of the first half of the century were overcome, urban children were much more likely to suffer privation than rural children, with roughly a third of urban fathers failing to provide, compared to a tenth of rural fathers.”

Image of dinner in a cheap rooming house from Mayhew’s London; Being Selections from “London Labour and the London Poor, by Henry Mayhew, edited by Peter Quennell, Bracken Books, 1984.

Pedersen explains: “This was not because rural families were richer than urban families: On the contrary, they were poorer. But, precisely because of that poverty, rural families clung to an older, mutualist model of family life, with all their members pitching in and pooling resources. In cities, by contrast, men came to regard their wages as their own.”

“The Kitchen,” Fox-court, Gray’s-In-Lane, London. Image from Mayhew’s London.

Pedersen cites the problem of alcohol: “Small wonder working men were tempted to turn in to a warm and inviting pub with their mates rather than face a furious wife and a row of hungry faces in their damp and cheerless homes.  Rural men too would probably have liked a glass of ale at the end of a working day but, Griffin notes, often had to abstain for no better reason than that the nearest pub was three miles away.”

Gender and Aspirations. “In this corpus,” Pedersen notes, “men’s texts outnumber women’s two to one and are (big surprise) on average three times the length. Working-class men’s autobiographies also tend to conform to the template of the ‘upward climb’: two-thirds of their authors rose into the middle class (compared to a tiny fraction of ordinary working-class men) but only a third of working-class women autobiographers.”

“Mothers were different,” Pedersen notes. “Mothers fed you, sent you to school, decided when you’d go to work—and, if you were a girl, pulled you out of school when you were needed at home.… We now think that parents (especially mothers) should nurture their children’s personalities. These mothers had more than enough to do just keeping them alive.”

And Today. “Yes,” Pedersen writes, “men do more than they used to, but in May The New York Times reported that 45 percent of men thought they spent more time home-schooling their children than their female partners did, while only 3 percent of their partners agreed.”

Autobiographies don’t change all that much, it seems. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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