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It is now nearly forty years since John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall compiled their invaluable and much-used three-volume finding aid, The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (1984-1989), and established working-class autobiography as an important documentary source for exploring the lives of the working poor. Life writing now forms the basis of historical research into areas such as the emotions and domestic life that had hardly been imagined at the time that the annotated bibliography was produced. Yet as research into working-class autobiography has extended into new domains of enquiry, there has been less innovation in methodology. Historians typically use autobiographical material to pursue deep-reading strategies and unpack the meaning, experience, and identity of individual writers rather than generalize about working-class life more broadly. In this article I offer an alternative strategy: to take the autobiographical corpus and read it at scale in order to better understand fatherhood in Victorian Britain. Through a combination of intensive and extensive reading, I demonstrate that many working-class men failed to live up to expectations as breadwinners, and I explore the ramifications of that failure for the women and children with whom they lived.
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