Bread Winner

The book is rich with insight, alight with compassion

Jul 19, 2023

Once in a college lecture hall the guy sitting in the row in front of me began to snore loudly. The prof, miffed, stopped talking and looked pointedly up from his notes, the lecture hall silent, save for the student’s steady snore. Suddenly the sleeper awoke, jumped up, screaming, flailing in his chair. Turned out he dreamed he was skiing and thought he was about to tumble downhill. This is my only memory of Econ 101.

So, no surprise, I had [have] no interred in economics with its endless tables and bewildering acronyms. However, I was enthralled by Bread Winner: an Intimate History of the Victorian Economy by British historian, Emma Griffin. Ms Griffin is not content with the usual nattering about GNP and wages rising or falling etc. “Working class voices can shed light on large economic questions as well.” Indeed they can. Bread Winner asks the truly pertinent questions if we are to understand the past. Where did those wages go? Who spent them and how? How did the people earning those wages actually live? And though men were usually the ones earning the wages, Ms. Griffin turns her primary scrutiny to the women and children, the family. The book makes clear that even if, as the economists tell us, wages rose, the standard of living for actual people did not.

Her scope is both vast and deep.

Griffin’s sources for these families are some 662 autobiographies of working class people. Some are actually published, but most she exhumed from archives, libraries, obscure collections in record offices, heritage centers all over England. The work that she (and presumably her team) put into reading, assessing the experiences of so many disparate lives, truly boggles the mind. “Bread Winner picks up themes that historians have long wrestled with. But if the problem is old, the method I have pursued here is not.” True. Yes, there is a goodly amount of statistical processing (“twenty percent of these autobiographies reported…” and so on). But Griffin seeks to understand these lives, not simply codify deprivation. Bread Winner is rich with insight, alight with compassion for working class life in England.

The author delves deep into the particulars of ordinary people who lived through these events, and from those accounts derives universal observations about life in Victorian and Edwardian England. (The book ranges from about 1835 to about 1914.) Her scope is both vast and deep.

Domestic violence was rife, almost expected, evaded when possible, borne when not.

Overall, she describes a society in which working class women were kept penurious by virtue of being uneducated. Thus, any work women could do was unskilled and poorly paid—if it was paid at all. Many girls did not go to school, but were kept at home, unpaid drudges caring for younger siblings, and helping with housework. Without any possibility of income, women were also denied any possibility of independence. Those who did work outside the home could only be domestic servants, doing the same tasks for poor wages.

When these girls married, as most did, they found that motherhood usually followed swiftly upon marriage. They and the children who lived were dependent on their men. If those men squandered their wages on drink (the role of alcoholism is a terrible constant in these lives) or gaming, the families had no recourse, and no other resources. Alcohol also exacerbated domestic violence which was rife, almost expected, evaded when possible, borne when not. Still, most women stayed with their men. If the husband/father deserted the family altogether, the depths of destitution can hardly be imagined. And if a woman managed to free herself from an abusive husband, she had to wait until her sons could join the workforce, at the age of thirteen or fourteen when typically, education ended even for the boys.

Men were gifted with entitlements denied to the women and children.

In digesting and assessing these autobiographies, Ms Griffin found that being the breadwinner gifted men with entitlements denied to the women and children. He would get the best of the family’s food (an egg, or fish, or even a bit of meat, say while the rest of them ate bread and margarine or drippings). Being the breadwinner also entitled the man to retaining a share of those wages for his sole amusement, a few hours at the pub, say, or sporting clubs. Additionally, he could claim a certain amount leisure time, apart from the family, to enjoy those amusements. Certainly the husband/father was spared any sort of housekeeping responsibilities. Once the boys went out to work, and began to bring home pay, they too were spared the endless drudgery of housework.

Bread Winner, a book cover

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

All that thankless grind fell on the wife and the children. Ms. Griffin shows vividly just how arduous housework was, maintaining fires for cooking if not for heat, making bead, conserving bits of meat or fish, thinning soups. In urban areas there were myriad little shops where food already prepared could be bought, lightening the cooking burdens for some, even if the food did not improve their diets. Access to water and infestations of vermin were part of everyday housekeeping rituals, to say nothing of the ongoing woes, dirt and diseases spawned by poor sanitation.

These are stories of women and children, left destitute, dirty, barefoot, and barely educated. Children reduced to picking through the garbage in gutters looking for food. Children’s shoes routinely pawned on Monday, redeemed on Saturday. As the reader comes upon the same names, the stories seem to deepen. We develop empathy for these writers, as one would for characters in a novel. We are alert to the poignancy in their narratives, though it is mostly unstated, camouflaged under forthright, unembellished, unimpassioned prose.

Ms. Griffin treads into a whole new kind of history

In the last section, “Life” Ms. Griffin treads boldly into a whole new kind of history. She inquires into the emotional life portrayed in these narratives. What constituted a happy home? A good mother? A good father? She finds that a different set of standards prevailed 150 years ago than the ones we use now, bearing out the oft-quoted, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

Griffin gives readers the wherewithal to imagine

At the end Ms. Griffin explores how working class women edged their way toward citizenship, that is, participation in life outside the confines of the family. Not surprisingly for many impoverished women, the suffrage movement gave them the tentative chance to emerge from narrow domestic spheres. Women banded together in various ways, and in doing so offered each other solidarity even though suffragettes were reviled by society in general and men in particular.

And then came the Great War, four years of military misery, incompetence and death. When in 1914 their men marched off (many of them never to return) women stepped out of their hovels and into the factories and workplaces. Bread Winner is a wonderful book, not simply for its depth and scope, but because Griffin gives readers the wherewithal to imagine what those pay envelopes must have felt like, once placed into these women’s hands. The clink of a few coins, prelude to the possibility of independence. Their lives would never be the same.



  1. Patty Stephenson

    Very interesting. I will look for it.

  2. Roe Grave

    This book sounds fascinating. I have just read “The Diary of a Farmer’s Wife 1796-97”, which someone gave me second-hand as it’s no longer in print. Neither my friend nor I are sure whether these are genuine diary entries which have come to us via a young girl who got to know an elderly lady who introduced her to the diary of her mother. The other option is that it is a work of fiction. Whichever is true, this tells of a well-to-do farmer’s wife from the borders of Wales and England, who was able to earn a little bit of money for herself by selling eggs, etc., and who had other ladies working with her to keep the house and farm. Whichever is true, it’s an interesting account, revealing the life of a farmer’s wife at the turn of that century.

    • Laura Kalpakian

      You might want to have a look at the work of John Bennet who in the 1980’s published a series of books (PLENTY AND WANT, USEFUL TOIL) that used working class autobiographies in an interesting way and reduced many lost voices.

  3. Victoria Doerper

    Love your Random Reader. Your summary and insights make me want to read this book, even though I’m more drawn to science than history. Fascinating to get a glimpse of The Bread Winner through the eyes of someone so knowledgeable and wise. Thanks for this one.

  4. Dick

    I love your take on college Economics, My experience exactly! I
    managed to avoid the subject entirely … enjoying the quip about the “Three-handed economist”: On the one hand… on the other hand … on the …. (You get the idea. 😂)


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

laura kalpakian

The Random Reader

I am a passionate reader. Always have been.

As a kid, and later as a university student, I followed a ritual on going to the library. After I’d selected the books I needed, I always chose one more, a random book that had nothing to do with what I was researching, or even perhaps what I was interested in. I plucked it from the shelf, and checked it out.

Admittedly, these were not math books or science books, fields in which I have no talent and little interest. They were (and are) all sorts of history, fiction, memoirs, collections of letters or journals, old cookbooks, biographies, some lit crit, the usual suspects. Some of these random titles flowered into unlooked-for enthusiasms. Many were books I later bought just have them nearby.

So the Random Reader is just that: books plucked from the shelves, randomly revisited, re-assessed.

Read On


To The Lighthouse

To The Lighthouse

To The Lighthouse is an unequaled, exquisite cocktail of temporality and mortality.

Pin It on Pinterest