Writing about life writing: Women, autobiography and the British industrial revolution

Emma Griffin

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Few historical problems have attracted so much attention over so many years as the social consequences of the British industrial revolution. For the most part, historians presumed that working people produced very little historical evidence that could be used to contribute to our understanding. However, projects to catalogue and encourage the use of the nation's scattered, yet extensive, archive of working-class autobiography have revealed that such evidence does, in fact, exist. The insertion of working-class autobiography helps to offer a new perspective, one which suggests a more positive interpretation of industrial life than historians have usually been willing to admit. Yet there remains a problem with the archive. During the industrial revolution, life-writing was a male art form. Women only started writing autobiographies in any number around 100 years after the conventional periodisation of the industrial revolution. This article surveys the autobiographical writing during and after the industrial revolution – around 1,000 items in all – in order to rethink the relationship between economic growth and social change. It confirms that industrial growth improved the position of working men in society, but concludes that female perspectives on this change are far more ambivalent.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-23
Number of pages19
JournalTransactions of the Royal Historical Society
Early online date5 Sep 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • Industrial revolution
  • working-class
  • autobiography
  • life-writing
  • standard of living
  • working class
  • industrial revolution
  • women

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