Friday, 9 October 2009

Round About a Pound a Week


In my wrap-up post for Persephone Reading Week, I mentioned that one of a number of Persephone Books that I subsequently wanted to read was Round About a Pound a Week by Maud Pember Reeves. Reading reviews written by Verity and Swati inspired me to read a title from the catalogue that hadn't previously appealed. I usually don't read much nonfiction, mostly because of a preference for fiction and also a fear that it will read as dry and specialised. I am, however, making a conscious effort to read more nonfiction and as one of my book groups reads an equal proportion of nonfiction to fiction, I decided to suggest Round About a Pound a Week when my choice of book to read came around for this month.

A Fabian Woman's study of forty two low-income families in Lambeth, South London, between 1909 and 1913, Round About a Pound a Week, is an illuminating historical document of working-class families (with the husband the sole breadwinner) who lived below the poverty line. To say that their poverty was abject by today's standards would be accurate although reading it one had to think how difficult it was for those families in the slums who had no income at all, let alone a low one; to say that conditions were stark for the families studied is an understatement. The findings of the study were that "round about a pound" a week was what these families had to live on and once that extends to rent, fuel, and food there isn't much -if anything- left for health-care, clothes, and luxuries (and their luxury items were items such as milk and sugar that we take for granted let alone alcohol, books and any other form of escapism/entertainment). Often these families had no space for more than one bed each for adults and children (large families being abundant in low-income households) let alone space for a board-game or a book; forms of entertainment were in little supply and it is observed in the reading that large families and lack of entertainment may correlate (also the requirement of additional heat).

The stark reality of how the working-classes lived during the early twentieth century is eye-opening. One hundred years on things are far improved although there are still so many families in the UK living below the poverty line and a distinct class system still exists. At least we now have a free health-care system and a drastically lower infant mortality rate. Many accounts of the loss of babies in the families studied were poignant and shocking. Families were also proud and paid funeral insurance each week to ensure that they did not endure the shame of a pauper's funeral for their dead child. One family's dead baby was buried in a family grave including seven other coffins of varying sizes; images such as this one proves why Round About a Pound a Week made such an impact upon publication.

Reading this historical study provided me with more of an insight into the period, an insight that had recently been widened by reading The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. Although I was not a fan of Byatt's book as a novel, I can recognise its sheer scope in historical detail. Two of the poor characters from her large cast, Peter and Elsie, came from a low-income family where they shared a bed with their other siblings including a dead one as there was nowhere else to keep the body before the funeral. It was detail like this that remained with me from an otherwise negative reading experience and this detail was heightened by reading Round About a Pound a Week and the interesting, shocking, and poignant life stories. The Fabian study went a long way to influencing Liberal reforms and a century later we have to appreciate how lucky we are, even in an uncertain economic climate.


11 comments:

verity said...

I didn't realise that this was your bookgroup book. Looking at that beautiful sampler makes me really covet the Persephone edition. I think the accounts and detail in this book are hugely insightful, and books such as these had such an important role in bringing about social reform. I wonder very much whether we should be repeating such studies today, although our definition of poverty has surely changed, and the expenditure considered excessive would not be on pianos but on televisions. Absolutely one of the best books ever written in my opinion.

Jeane said...

I have heard of this book but not yet had a chance to read it- my public library doesn't carry a copy.

Vintage Reading said...

I don't read a great deal of non-fiction either, but I like your review of this Persephone title. I'm planning a visit to the shop at half-term so I'll look out for this title.

Paperback Reader said...

Verity, I wouldn't go as far as saying that it was one of the best books ever written but it was an exceptionally insightful and beneficial study that was groundbreaking in its time and made a huge impact. I think a similar study has its place in present-day society. This generated an extensive and interesting discussion at book group whilst we guiltily ate a meal that cost a good three month's worth of rent/fuel/food/insurance for an entire family a century ago! There is nothing like some perspective.

Jeane, I was lucky that my library had a copy, especially as it was only reissued by Persephone this time last year.

Vintage Reading, enjoy your visit to the shop. This is certainly different from other Persephone titles but each have something special to offer and this provides a unique historical insight.

Darlene said...

Being a huge fan of social history I'm quite sure that I would really enjoy this book. I'd love to hand out copies to people who complain about the smallest of things...like 'oh, my leather car seats aren't heated'.

softdrink said...

This is one of the Persephone's I have my eye on...I'm glad to hear it's a worthwhile read.

Paperback Reader said...

Darlene, it does put our trivialities into perspective; we do have it so much better and should be thankful of what we have, even if it is meagre by our own standards.

Jill, it's definitely a worthwhile read and most illuminating and interesting, especially if you have any interest in societal history.

Danielle said...

I really want to read this. I want the lovely Persephone edition, but as I am not buying books right now....I'm lucky as the library where I work has an older copy of this.

Paperback Reader said...

Danielle, I was lucky enough to borrow a Persephone edition from my library as I am also on a no-buying kick.

Samantha said...

I really want to read this one. I was mad at myself for not ordering it when they had the three-for-two birthday special on - but I don't think I would have been satisfied unless I could have purchased about 50 of the Persephones at that time!

Paperback Reader said...

Samantha, there are too many Persephones that tempt me that it is impossible to narrow it down when ordering - I want them all! Are you participating in the Persephone Secret Santa that Book Psmith is hosting?