Bread Winner An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy Emma Griffin

Publication date:
28 Apr 2020
Yale University Press
320 pages: 235 x 156mm
32 b-w illus.
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The forgotten story of how ordinary families managed financially in the Victorian era—and struggled to survive despite increasing national prosperity

“A powerful story of social realities, pressures, and the fracturing of traditional structures.”—Ruth Goodman, Wall Street Journal
“Deeply researched and sensitive.”—Simon Heffer, Daily Telegraph, "Best History Books of 2020"

Nineteenth century Britain saw remarkable economic growth and a rise in real wages. But not everyone shared in the nation’s wealth. Unable to earn a sufficient income themselves, working-class women were reliant on the ‘breadwinner wage’ of their husbands. When income failed, or was denied or squandered by errant men, families could be plunged into desperate poverty from which there was no escape.
Emma Griffin unlocks the homes of Victorian England to examine the lives – and finances – of the people who lived there. Drawing on over 600 working-class autobiographies, including more than 200 written by women, Bread Winner changes our understanding of daily life in Victorian Britain.

Emma Griffin is professor of modern British history at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of five books, including Liberty's Dawn and Blood Sport.

"[A] compelling re-evaluation of the Victorian economy. . . . Bread Winner is a book with the personal and domestic at its heart, telling a powerful story of social realities, pressures, and the fracturing of traditional structures. . . . The great strength of this book is the assurance with which the author moves from the intimate to the general and back again, using eyewitness recollections as a lens through which the reader can examine a society in flux."—Wall Street Journal

“Deeply researched and sensitive without being sentimental”—Simon Heffer, The Daily Telegraph ‘Best History Books of 2020’

“[T]his book brings the trials and tribulations of the 19th century to life.”—History Revealed

“Griffin’s extraordinary collection of more than 650 autobiographies allows her to paint a richly textured portrait of these [working class] lives.”—Helen McCarthy, History Today

[A]n enthralling read and fluently written… What makes the book often heartbreaking is the picture it gives of an era where so many lives were blighted by the sheer struggle for survival.”—Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph

“[I]n her remarkable new book…Griffin [mines]…documents with resourcefulness and acumen, unerringly digging out tiny fragments that, when fitted together, enable her to create a brightly coloured mosaic of a society that has all too frequently been depicted in the black and white of charts and statistics.”—Judith Flanders, Literary Review

“Griffin's work is genuinely revisionist - of an economic history too reliant on quantitative methods…[and] shows - not just that the male breadwinner norm was damaging to children's wellbeing and women's equality, but also that this truth is still news to many. I hope against hope that this book might open their eyes.”—Susan Pederson, London Review of Books

“Griffin has a deep empathy for her subjects and a concern to develop a comprehensive bibliography of working-class autobiography. She has an eye for detail and a skill for building patterns in a way that makes the book accessible.”—Erika Rappaport, Cercles

“A detailed, well-thought-out contribution to economic and social history that does an excellent job of bringing the domestic into focus, and it is full of stories worthy of Thomas Hardy.”—Jad Adams, New Statesman


“Griffin's pioneering research shifts our attention from the generalities of economic growth to the realities of lived experience. Her humane and human book is an outstanding contribution to the history of Victorian Britain.”— Martin Daunton, author of Wealth and Welfare

“Bread Winner is a love affair with life-writing. The extraordinary voices of the poor, the ambitious, the mobile and the utterly insignificant of Victorian Britain are brought together to tell us how they got by in a precarious world.”—Lucy Delap, author of Knowing Their Place

“A sobering – and important – account of the human dimensions of economic life … Makes a powerful case for why attention to the family is indispensable to any understanding of the Victorian economy.” —Deborah Cohen, author of Family Secrets

“Griffin's startling re-evaluation of the Victorian family, powered by the voices and experiences of the poor themselves, is both rigorous and moving in its human detail and searching analyses.”—Peter Mandler, author of The English National Character