12,169 book reviews and counting...

Bread Winner Reviews

Bread Winner by Emma Griffin

Bread Winner

An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy

Emma Griffin

4.00 out of 5

3 reviews

Imprint: Yale University Press
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 3 Apr 2020
ISBN: 9780300230062

The forgotten story of how ordinary families managed financially in the Victorian era--and struggled to survive despite increasing national prosperity

4 stars out of 5
Kathryn Hughes
4 Jul 2020

"An intimate history, from darning to dinners in the gutter"

Griffin’s point is not to demonise working-class men, but rather to point out the ways in which the role of “bread winner” could be as oppressive to a man as it was to his dependants. Many autobiographers report a father’s drinking becoming heavier in response to overwhelming pressure – the death of a child, an industrial accident, a local downturn in trade. Griffin is also exquisitely alive to the fact that, while memoirists may find it just about acceptable to mention a father’s drinking, there are all kinds of incidents that may feel too shaming to get a public airing. Stories of a mother who leaves, or gets sent to the asylum, or has an extra baby with the lodger may simply be impossible to share, especially with the grandchildren for whom so many of these accounts were touchingly written. 


4 stars out of 5
Judith Flanders
14 Jun 2020

"a brightly coloured mosaic of a society that has all too frequently been depicted in the black and white of charts and statistics."

Such extracts bring into focus a world very different from our own, although the reader might wish for Griffin to step back intermittently and provide more background material and, especially, more analysis. For example, she notes that hunger appears to have dropped steadily from the 1830s. Yet the decade that followed is known to historians as the ‘Hungry Forties’. How does that fit in? She does not say. Her reliance on the autobiographies, too, means that the reader finds points repeated several times across chapters. This, however, is a small price to pay for a work of great originality. 

4 stars out of 5
12 Jun 2020

"an enthralling read and fluently written"

Despite the title, the book’s focus is really on the working-class women who managed the heroic task of coping with an inadequate portion of the family income, while looking after an ever-increasing number of children, in a society where the only form of welfare was the dreaded poorhouse. “Bread Maker” might have been a better title. Although Griffin seems to pooh-pooh the statistics and graphs of traditional economic history, there were times when I found myself wishing for a few figures.