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Histories of the late Victorian working-class family focus overwhelmingly on mothers. When men feature in family dynamics, it is within the context of their obligation to provide. Despite the familiarity of this model of family life, it is problematic, not least because it is partial. Written from a women's history perspective, such analyses have inevitably, and understandably, focused on the ‘dark side’ of breadwinning and privileged women's experiences as wives and mothers. Further, they have tended to make husbands synonymous with fathers. Drawing on working-class autobiography, this article revisits the cliché of the ‘good provider’ to suggest that children could invest the normative paternal obligation to provide with intimate and individual meaning, reimagining breadwinning as an act of devotion that distinguished particular father–child relationships within a context of more general working-class values. It does not suggest that women were not oppressed by the breadwinner ideal, or that attachment to mothers and fathers was the same. Rather, it calls for recognition of the fluidity of a sexual division of affective labour whereby, in memory at least, fathers' obligation to provide could be deeply embedded within an understanding of the emotional dynamics of everyday life.

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School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, Samuel Alexander Building, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13
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I am grateful to Megan Doolittle, Daniel Miller, Michael Sanders, members of the Institute of Historical Research ‘Life Cycles’ seminar, and anonymous readers for the Historical Journal for feedback on verbal or written versions of this article. Financial support was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant ref: AH/I001875/1).

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1 The literature on breadwinning is vast. See Seccombe, W., ‘Patriarchy stabilized: the construction of the male breadwinner wage norm in nineteenth-century Britain’, Social History, 11 (1986), pp. 5376; Horrell, S. and Humphries, J., ‘The origins and expansion of the male breadwinner family: the case of nineteenth-century Britain’, International Review of Social History, 42 (1997), pp. 2564; Creighton, Colin, ‘The rise of the male breadwinner family: a reappraisal’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38 (1996), pp. 310–37; Creighton, C., ‘The rise and decline of the “male breadwinner family” in Britain’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 23 (1999), pp. 519–41; Janssens, A., ‘The rise and decline of the male breadwinner family? An overview of the debate’, International Review of Social History, 42 (1997), pp. 123; Lewis, J., ‘The decline of the male breadwinner model: the implications for work and care’, Social Politics, 8 (2001), pp. 152–70. For breadwinning and marriage, see Joanna Bourke's lively account of women's imaginative navigation of power dynamics within the family, Bourke, Joanna, Working-class cultures in Britain, 1890–1960: gender, class and ethnicity (London, 1993), pp. 6771. Ellen Ross's insightful analysis of working-class marriage notes that ‘good men’ were common but focuses on women's difficulties and resentments towards the ‘family’ wage, Ross, Ellen, Love and toil: motherhood in outcast London, 1870–1918 (Oxford, 1993), pp. 72–6. See also Roberts, Elizabeth, A woman's place: an oral history of working-class women, 1890–1940 (Oxford, 1995); Chinn, Carl, They worked all their lives: women of the urban poor, 1880–1939 (Manchester, 1988); August, Andrew, Poor women's lives: gender, work and poverty in late-Victorian London (London and Cranbury, 1999); Honeyman, Katrina and Goodman, Jordan, ‘Women's work, gender conflict and labour markets in Europe, 1500–1900’, Economic History Review, 44 (1991), pp. 608–28; and Megan Doolittle, ‘Fatherhood and family shame: masculinity, welfare and the workhouse in late-nineteenth-century England’, in L. Delap, B. Griffin and A. Wills, eds., The politics of domestic authority in Britain since 1800 (Basingstoke and New York, NY, 2009), pp. 84–108.

2 See C. Pateman, ‘The patriarchal welfare state’, in C. Pateman, ed., The disorder of women: democracy, feminism and political theory (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 179–209; Clark, Anna, ‘The New Poor Law and the breadwinner wage: contrasting assumptions’, Journal of Social History, 34 (2000), pp. 261–82; Levine-Clark, M., ‘The gendered economy of family liability: intergenerational relationships and poor law relief in England's Black Country, 1871–1911’, Journal of British Studies, 45 (2006), pp. 7289.

3 Warren, Tracey, ‘Conceptualising breadwinning work’, Work, Employment and Society, 21 (2007), pp. 317–36.

4 Pioneers in the field of the history of emotion call for an integration of emotion into existing fields of study. See Plamper, Jan, ‘The history of emotions: an interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns’, History and Theory, 49 (2010), pp. 237–65. For introduction to the history of emotion see Reddy, William, The navigation of feeling: a framework for the history of emotions (Cambridge, 2001); Bourke, Joanna, ‘Fear and anxiety: writing about emotion in modern history’, History Workshop Journal, 55 (2003), pp. 111–33; and Roper, Michael, ‘Slipping out of view: subjectivity and emotion in gender history’, History Workshop Journal, 59 (2005), pp. 5772.

5 Tosh, John, ‘What should historians do with masculinity? Reflection on nineteenth-century Britain’, History Workshop Journal, 38 (1994), pp. 179202. See also Tosh, J., A man's place: masculinity and the middle-class home in Victorian England (New York, NY, and London, 1999); Gordon, Eleanor and Nair, Gwyneth, ‘Domestic fathers and the Victorian parental role’, Women's History Review, 15 (2006), pp. 551–9; Sanders, Valerie, The tragi-comedy of Victorian fatherhood (Cambridge, 2009); Olsen, S., ‘The authority of motherhood in question: fatherhood and the moral education of children in England’, Women's History Review, 18 (2009), pp. 765–80; Bailey, Joanne, ‘A very sensible man: imagining fatherhood in England, 1750–1830’, History, 95 (2010), pp. 267–92. See also Francis, Martin, ‘Tears, tantrums and bared teeth: the emotional economy of three Conservative prime ministers, 1951–1963’, Journal of British Studies, 41 (2002), pp. 354–87.

6 Gillis, John, A world of their own making: myth, ritual and the quest for family values (Cambridge, 1996), p. 179. There are a few exceptions, mostly focused on the twentieth century. See Fisher, Tim, ‘Fatherhood and the British Fathercraft Movement, 1919–1939’, Gender and History, 17 (2005), pp. 441–62, and King, Laura, ‘Hidden fathers? The significance of fatherhood in mid-twentieth-century Britain’, Contemporary British History, 26 (2012), 2546.

7 This is the classic social history line on family and household economy. See Roberts, A woman's place; Bourke, Working-class cultures; Davies, A., Leisure, gender and poverty: working-class culture in Salford and Manchester, 1900–1939 (Milton Keynes, 1992); Ittmann, Karl, Work, gender and family in Victorian England (London, 1994); Seccombe, W., Weathering the storm: working-class families from the industrial revolution to the fertility decline (London, 1993).

8 Andrew Walker also makes this point, noting that Chinn's index entry for ‘father’ takes readers to pages on men's general role in households. A. Walker, ‘Father's pride? Fatherhood in industrialising communities’, in T. Broughton and H. Rogers, eds., Gender and fatherhood in the nineteenth century (Basingstoke, 2007), pp. 113–25.

9 For use of autobiography as empirical evidence of childhood see Humphries, Jane, Childhood and child labour in the British industrial revolution (Cambridge, 2010).

10 Ross, Love and toil, pp. 3–10.

11 See for instance, Bryson, Elizabeth, Look back in wonder (Dundee, 1966), p. 29, and Foakes, Grace, Four meals for fourpence: a heart-warming tale of family life in London's old East End (London, 2011), pp. 1525, 37–52.

12 See, for example, Foley, Alice, A Bolton childhood (Manchester, 1973), pp. 34, 8; Woodward, Kathleen, Jipping Street (London, 1983), pp. 67; and Lawson, Jack, A man's life (London, 1932), pp. 1416.

13 Vincent, D., Bread, knowledge and freedom: a study of nineteenth-century working-class autobiography (London and New York, NY, 1981), pp. 6286.

14 To the workers of the world: an appeal for personal religion by eight members of parliament (London, 1913), p. 34.

15 Hackett, Nan, ‘A different form of self: narrative style in British nineteenth-century working-class autobiography’, Biography, 12 (1989), pp. 208–26, and Gagnier, Regenia, Subjectivities: a history of self-representation, 1832–1920 (Oxford, 1991), p. 139.

16 Morrison, Herbert, An autobiography (London, 1960), pp. 1112, 16–17.

17 Foakes, Four meals, pp. 26–36.

18 See Miller, Daniel, A theory of shopping (London, 1998).

19 Taylor, Lord, Uphill all the way: a miner's struggle (London, 1972), p. 4.

20 Aldred, Guy, No traitor's gate! The autobiography of Guy A. Aldred (London, 1955), pp. 13, 22.

21 Lawson, Man's life, pp. 9–11.

22 Roper, Michael, The secret battle: emotional survival in the Great War (Manchester, 2009), p. 23.

23 Taylor, Uphill all the way, p. 4.

24 See Candace Clark, ‘Emotions and micro-politics in everyday life: some patterns and paradoxes of “place”’, in T. Kemper, ed., Research agendas in the sociology of emotions (Albany, NY, 1990), pp. 305–34.

25 Gagnier, Subjectivities, p. 144.

26 Lawson, Man's life, p. 13.

27 Ibid., pp. 9–10.

28 Gagnier, Subjectivities, p. 161.

29 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the philosophy of history’, xii. See Eagleton, T., Walter Benjamin, or towards a revolutionary criticism (London, 1981), p. 147.

30 Jackson, T. A., Solo trumpet (London, 1953), p. 38.

31 See Gosling, Harry, Up and down stream (London, 1927), pp. 620; Christie, A. V., Brass tacks and a fiddle: reminiscences (Kilmarnock, 1943), p. 14.

32 Grossek, Mark, First movement (London, 1937), pp. 119–21.

33 See especially Andrews, Elizabeth, A woman's work is never done (Dinas Powys, 2006; orig. publ. 1967), pp. 814.

34 A prime example is the pathetic music hall song, ‘Don't go down the mine, Dad’, printed on Bamforth postcards and performed in magic lantern shows. See, for instance, Slater, Lilian, Think on! Said Mam: a childhood in Bradford, Manchester, 1911–1919 (Manchester, 1984), p. 47; Screening the poor, 1888–1914, curated by Martin Loiperdinger and Ludwig Vogl-Bienek (DVD-ROM, Edition Filmmuseum, 2011); and British Library sound recording at (accessed 10 May 2012).

35 Edwards, Wil, From the valley I came: reminiscences of the author's life up to 1926, with special reference to his mother (London, 1956), pp. 48, 34.

36 Taylor, Uphill all the way, p. 4.

37 Muir, Edwin, An autobiography (London, 1954), pp. 90–3.

38 Strange, Julie-Marie, ‘Fatherhood, furniture and the interpersonal dynamics of working-class homes, c. 1870–1914’, Urban History, forthcoming.

39 Kirkwood, David, My life of revolt (London, 1935), pp. 52–3.

40 See Clark, Candace, Misery and company: sympathy in everyday life (Chicago, IL, and London, 1997), pp. 229–33.

41 Kirkwood, Life of revolt, pp. 52–3.

42 For discussion of the plurality of emotional communities, see Rosenwein, Barbara, Emotional communities in the middle ages (New York, NY, and London, 2006), and Rosenwein's discussion of ‘emotional communities’ (as distinct from William Reddy's ‘emotional regimes’) in Plamper, ‘The history of emotions’, at pp. 252–4.

43 Dermott, Esther, Intimate fatherhood: a sociological analysis (London, 2008), pp. 2542.

44 Bryson, Look back in wonder, p. 89.

45 Llewellyn, Michael, Sand in the glass (London, 1943), p. 84.

46 Southgate, Walter, That's the way it was (Oxford, 1982), p. 12.

47 This tension was played on by a conservative press who portrayed men as selfish and starving their children. See Croll, A. J., ‘Starving strikers and the limits of the “humanitarian discovery of hunger” in late-Victorian Britain’, International Review of Social History, 561 (2011), pp. 103–31.

48 Jones, Jack, Unfinished journey (New York, NY, 1937), pp. 65–9, 72.

49 Ibid., pp. 64–77.

50 For example, Baldry, George, The rabbit skin cap: a tale of a Norfolk countryman's youth (Ipswich, 1974), p. 57; Stamper, Joseph, So long ago (London, 1960), pp. 21, 107–8; Harris, Harry, Under oars: reminiscences of a Thames lighterman, 1894–1909 (London, 1978), p. 39; Citrine, Walter, Men and work: an autobiography (London, 1964), pp. 1318.

51 Loane, M., From their point of view (London, 1908), pp. 155–6.

52 Jones, Lewis, Cwmardy: the story of a Welsh mining valley (Cardigan, 2006; orig. publ. 1937), pp. 137–66.

53 Britten, Barnabas, Woodyard to palace: reminiscences (Bradford, 1958), pp. 191–2.

54 Lax, W. M., His book: the autobiography of Lax of Poplar (London, 1937), p. 89.

55 Kirkwood, Life of revolt, p. 24.

56 See for instance, Campion, Sidney, Sunlight on the foothills (London, 1941), pp. 2938; Ratcliffe, George, Sixty years of it: being the story of my life and public career (London, 1935), pp. 5, 35.

57 Eldred, John, I love the Brooks: reminiscences (London, 1955), pp. 86–8.

58 A notable exception is Armstrong, Chester, Pilgramage from Nenthead: an autobiography (London, 1938).

59 For feckless dads as motors to ‘good’ fathering, see Royce, James, I stand nude (London, 1937), and Shaw, Sam, Guttersnipe: an autobiography (London, 1946). Other writers' contrasted their father's faults with their peers' fathers to suggest a blueprint for fathering. See Garrett, V., A man in the street (London, 1939), p. 72, and Roberts, Robert, A classic slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (London, 1971), p. 117.

60 Jones, Unfinished journey, pp. 127–35.

61 Dayus, Kathleen, Her people (London, 1982), pp. 1113.

62 Aldred, No traitor's gait, p. 13.

63 Eldred, I love the Brooks, pp. 162–3.

64 Steedman, Carolyn, Past tenses: articles on writing, autobiography and history (London, 1992), pp. 2140.

65 Ross, Love and toil, pp. 166–94.

66 Eldred, I love the Brooks, pp. 161–5.

67 Gillis, A world of their own, p. 196.

68 Indeed, anthropological research into post-Soviet Cuba demonstrates how female breadwinners appropriate state ideologies of ‘struggle’ to express individual agency, claim personal virtues, and narrate a particular sense of self. See Anna Pertierra, ‘Creating order through struggle in revolutionary Cuba’, in Daniel Miller, ed., Anthropology and the individual: a material culture perspective (Oxford, 2009), pp. 145–58.

69 See for instance, Keating, Joseph, My struggle for life (London, 1916).

* I am grateful to Megan Doolittle, Daniel Miller, Michael Sanders, members of the Institute of Historical Research ‘Life Cycles’ seminar, and anonymous readers for the Historical Journal for feedback on verbal or written versions of this article. Financial support was provided by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant ref: AH/I001875/1).

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