Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Round About a Pound a Week, by Maud Pember Reeves


Pages: 217
Original date of publication: 1913
My edition: 2008 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: I was in the mood for reading another Persephone
How I acquired my copy: the Persephone shop, September 2011


In 1909, Maud Pember Reeves and the Fabian Society conducted a social experiment in one of London’s poorer neighborhoods (in Lambeth Walk) to explore the daily lives and living conditions of those people. Round About a Pound a Week is a report of that venture, in which Pember Reeves outlines what she and her coworkers found. They focused on poor, working-class families, but she is quick to point out that the subjects of her study weren’t the poorest in London.

The book is divided into chapters that explore in (sometimes excruciating detail) housing, furniture, budgets, food, children, and attitudes to marriage. For example, Pember Reeves gives the exact breakdown of several families’ budgets. Interesting to note is how much these families spent on burial insurance. Pember Reeves does proselytize a little bit in her conclusions, but many of her observations are very astute and foresee the rise of child welfare and minimum wage laws.


In the introduction, Polly Toynbee compares the wages of the average manual laborer in Lambeth Walk in 1913 to their contemporaries today, and finds that not much has changed in 100 years—many people still live far below the official poverty line. Round About a Pound a Week is a fascinating social history; despite the minute breakdown that Pember Reeves gives on budgets and expenditures for her subjects, I really thought this book was really fascinating.

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