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.
Griffin’s intriguing idea was to study wage-earning and the nuclear family not through the conventional lens of economic theory, but through that of family life, as described in 662 working-class autobiographies written between 1830 and 1903. These documents range from one or two handwritten pages to published works and records