The story of Charlie Chaplin’s impoverished beginnings in south London is widely known, at least in outline: the mentally ill mother, the absent, alcoholic father, the workhouses and the schools for pauper children. By the time young Charlie was aware of the world around him, his father, a music-hall performer, had abandoned his wife to live with another woman, with whom he had an illegitimate child. Chaplin’s mother had two illegitimate children of her own – one born before she married Chaplin’s father, another after he had left her. Yet, as Emma Griffin so deftly shows in her remarkable new book, Chaplin’s story should be seen not as a morality tale but as an exemplary illustration of the new market forces of the capitalist, industrial age. Throughout society, from high to low, the nuclear family was the sole mechanism by which wage earnings were shared. Any breakdown of that unit could bring economic disaster for at least some of its members.
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