MA Victorian Studies student Natasha Ami Wiseman has reviewed Rachel G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe, (2005).
This book is Rachel Fuchs attempt to bring attention to the lives of the poor people of Europe during the nineteenth century. Fuchs aim is to provide a social and cultural history of the destitute and convey the extraordinary difficulties they faced, paying particular attention to the textures of women’s everyday lives. She believed that historians of the mid to late twentieth century concentrated on industrial development and political issues and merely portrayed the poor as weak, passive victims or lazy vagrants. According to Fuchs information in this area was insufficient in portraying the true diversity of the lives of men and women. She wanted to provide a social and cultural history of the poor, depicting the texture of their everyday lives, providing a human face to poverty and reclaiming poor men and women of Europe from anonymity. Therefore allowing us to sufficiently be able to answer the question of ‘who were the poor and what did it mean to live in poverty during the nineteenth century?’
Choosing to pay particular attention to the women of this period and focus on the importance of gender allows Fuchs to attempt to present a more in-depth understanding of relationships and distribution of power. She attempts to show their strength as they structure a life and set of relationships within a ‘climate of calamities’ (Pg. 5). By acknowledging how the poor negotiated power within a complex web of structural and discursive family constructs, combined with the fact historical studies of women and sexuality have flourished over the past few decades allows Fuchs to furnish us with new perspectives and allow us to successfully understand how a woman’s role was vital in a families survival and far more poignant than we have previously been led to believe.
Ever mindful that much of the information on poor women comes to us through sources penned by propertied men, Fuchs still manages to portray the hardships women faced successfully, especially with the issue of pregnancy and child birth in Chapter 2. This is by far the most harrowing section, particularly for a female reader of the twenty-first century. Her frank descriptions of the way hundreds of thousands of newborn babies were abandoned (Pg.46) and how desperate mothers would become wet nurses for the bourgeoisie and would have to watch their own babies die so that the infant they were being paid for lived is heartbreaking yet compellingly vital in enabling Fuchs to achieve her aims of depicting the texture of the poor’s everyday lives. Most importantly though it provides that essential human face to poverty. The fact that this information comes very early on in the book also feels like a strategic move that is extremely beneficial.
This book is ambitious, given the range and scope of the subject it is addressing, but by pointing out very early on that this is a book intended for the none specialists and is a basic summary of the issues involving women and gender history. You go into reading the book with no misconceptions of what it may contain. It is nevertheless a highly informative and accessible overview of the experiences of poverty. Its fluid way in which it is written and organised enhances it success and mirrors her statement that poverty is a fluid and unstable construct (Pg. 9). It is organised around five main themes which all aid the development of the concept that the poor lived in a climate of calamities marked by economic and social forces beyond their control (Pg. 5). It is comparative and highlights both the subtle differences and similarities between societies and cultures.
During the long 19th Century European women and men of all countries undoubtedly experienced dramatic and enduring alterations to their daily lives. The developments regarding the revolutions and industrialisation are documented well and by the end of the book you have a clearer understanding of what happened. Fuchs tends to only insert dates where they are specifically needed thus highlighting their relevance, which works well, however with so many subheadings certain material feels repeated several times as spheres overlap. Some areas are also very brief and you are left questioning their relevance. Fuchs claims that diversity is one of the major characteristics of the 19th Century (Pg. 17). However it is difficult to agree with this statement when reading the book. It is awkward to be able to distinguish any significant differences between specific countries. In actual fact this book seems to highlight how European countries overall followed the same journey, experienced the same hardships, challenges and developments, just not at exactly the same time.
Fuchs use of sources comprises of few working class autobiographies, dossiers and police archives which provide a glimpse into the lives of poor men and women. She cleverly decided to limit herself to using key books only written in English because subject area is so broad and the historical literature is more prevalent for England, France and Germany so understandably the book focuses on these areas.
19th Century European culture revolved around the importance of the family and the woman’s pivotal role within it. The poor were not poor through choice which was the dominant ideology of the nineteenth century. They were not simply shiftless and lazy. The women were not weak demure creatures controlled by their husbands. Instead they were strong versatile beings that developed a culture of expediencies in a climate of calamities, aided by their own agency, community connections and systems of exchange.
Overall Fuchs has achieved her initial aims easily. She has more than successfully portrayed the complex nature of what it meant to live in poverty during the nineteenth century. Her frank and honest tone throughout, but especially regarding the lengths that women had to go through to ensure their family’s survival are truly eye-opening. She has not romanticised facts in any way. It is a solid introduction to the issues involving women’s and gender history that accurately portrays that class and poverty were not fixed constructs, but rather a fluid category that people moved in and out of depending on time, location and economic factors. She has effortlessly achieved her aim of increasing knowledge and understanding of a previously brief area of history.