BOOK REVIEW: Rachel G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth Century Europe, 2005.

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.


Dr. Chris Upton Memorial Lecture

Monday 6th November – 5:30pm – Room 101 (Level 1) Library of Birmingham

To book your place at the lecture, please e-mail

Dr. Chris Upton’s Newman legacy still lives on today. A prolific writer, academic, historical consultant and reader in public history at Newman University, his passing on the 1st October 2016 was a sad day for all who knew him and his work.

Speaking on behalf of myself and every student that worked with him, Chris was truly one of a kind. Coming to Newman as a nervous, 18 year old undergraduate, Chris immediately took myself (and my entire year) under his wing. He was a beacon of light on many a stressed day.

He had a unique and joyous sense of humour which filtered its way through to every seminar, lecture, presentation or meeting he gave. This combined with his kind nature made him a vital part of the support system for many students here at Newman and also within the History department. His work was renowned amongst scholars and organisations within the West Midlands and further afield.

Upon leaving Wolverhampton Grammer School, he won a place at Kings College, Cambridge where he read Classics and English and completed his doctorate in Scottish Latin Poetry at St Andrews University. In 1980, he moved to Birmingham as a research assistant to Dr John Fletcher at Aston University. He then moved to archival work in the Archives and Local Studies departments of the Central Library and studied for a diploma in Librarianship and Information Studies at the University of Central England (Birmingham City University now). Following on from this, he became visiting lecturer at Birmingham University, became the chairman of the Birmingham Urban Studies Centre and was editor of the now defunct Birmingham Historian journal.

His flourishing career continued when he was awarded a fellowship at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Research in Humanities and became a regular contributor to the Birmingham Post. When he was appointed senior lecturer at Newman College of Higher Education (now Newman University) he thrived even more.

He continuously published articles for over 25 years spanning from Ancient Greek to Industrial Birmingham. He wanted to make history accessible for all and his love of local history led to the publication of arguably some of the most popular and well read books on the history of the West Midlands; A History of Birmingham (1995), A History of Wolverhampton (1998), A History of Lichfield (2002), and my favourite of his works Living Back to Back (2005).

His incredible knowledge was utilised by many in the heritage sector with whom Chris continuously cherished the opportunity to work closely with. The Ikon Gallery, Thinktank, Birmingham Museums to name a few, as well as his involvement in the recreation of the Birmingham Back to Backs with the National Trust.

His bubbly personality made him an asset for TV and he made appearances on the local news, Who Do You Think You Are? and in 2013 he was invited to be the historical consultant on the BBC’s Peaky Blinders for their first season.

This is just a whistle stop tour of Chris’ career and certainly does not do him complete justice, which is why even after his passing his legacy continues. In
November 2016, his dear friends at the Central Library held the first of what is to become an annual event; The Chris Upton Memorial Lecture. The overflowing room full of students, academic staff, friends and family, heritage workers and many more was a delightful sight to see.

I for one, owe my pursuit of post-graduate study to Chris as he was one (along with others within the History Department here at Newman) that repeatedly encouraged and supported me to continue my research. He inspired my love for local history, and was not only a brilliant mentor, but also a dear friend.

I’m sure I am not the only one that needs to thank Chris for his influential and inspirational work both at Newman and further afield, which is why I am writing this post, to invite you to join many of us here at Newman in celebrating the legacy of Chris on the 6th November 2017 at the Library of Birmingham.

– Sophie Allen

For further details about the lecture, please see the following post from the team at Library of Birmingham.

Post Grad Reading: A plea for mindful practice

In 2016, after conferring with loved ones, I abandoned a Masters in English Literature and apologised to tutors of my would-be PhD. I’d spent a week staring down an essay – comparisons of Heathcliff to Irish political agitators – to no avail. I could write. Mercy had spared me that indignity. But I couldn’t read, no more than when I was a toddler.

Allow me a second to elaborate. I could have read aloud any sentence, and you’d have given me a gold star for doing it. Yet, whatever semiotic faculties allowed me to harmonise words with ideas were gone. Reading English took me as long as reading Italian, which was never my forte.

So, I saw a doctor. She asked what name she should write on the antidepressant prescription. I suggested she progress our cosy little consultation past the sixty second mark. The doctor obliged, all but checking he watch with a sigh. We chatted further, and I left with sleep medication and an unsurprising diagnosis: low mood. It’s a euphemistic evasion I suspect invented by medical insurers. Ensuing psychiatry suggested as such.

I still have depression, and, over time, I realised that I’ve always dabbled with the noonday demon. The difference was that I was newly equipped. To name something is a powerful act, even if it doesn’t seem so immediately. To name something – cancer, MS, schizophrenia – is to make something not ourselves, a vital act in every sense of word. These diseases attack us with the very parts of our psyche that mediate our experience of them. They cannibalise our epistemology, if we’re being pretentious. To name them is to disarm them to a small but necessary degree.

But why expound this on a postgraduate blog? Well, the odds of being the only human whose mental health roughs up the reading process are pretty slim. There has been a morbid failure to address this throughout the comity of academia, which is bizarre. Surely, no one should be more aware than the humanities of the experience of reading and the mental landscapes on which it occurs. Surely, poets and philosophers should warn students that nothing can ravage these landscapes more than melancholia and disease, no less the importance of tending them with mindfulness and self-love.

Let’s examine an obvious case: the sensation of depression. At its most dull, it can be mere lethargy or inertia. At its worst, the ‘I’ that acts on the world falls so far behind the ‘me’ that experiences it that you feel at a great distance from reality itself. Under these conditions, how can you hope to read Dickens or Joyce when these processes – memory, empathy, reference, ironic thought, the appreciation of beauty – all require fluent communion between these selves? Between you the object and you the subject? How is it possible to even think?

The best scenario here is that you don’t want to read. The worst case, as in my own, is that you can’t. With patience, however, you can recover. You will recall that I began this essay with a thanksgiving that I never stopped writing altogether. The very notebook in which I drafted this piece is littered with whiny lists and existential aphorisms. I suppose we’re all cliches in the end.

Writing has a reputation for being less passive than reading, even though the latter is most rewarding when done proactively. This short-formed thought of mine may have been enough to save me. To cull the anxiety that would stop me scribbling. The problem was that reading became so passive that I was intellectually inert, so there was, at the time, no hope of me restoring my mental landscapes. Happily, realising the importance of this dichotomy between active and passive offers a potential solution..

Mindfulness. With a capital M. Another word thrown around with dizzying imprecision. Many assume it means concentrating more or learning to empty the mind with meditation, and these are things mindfulness can achieve. Yet it would be more thorough to say that mindfulness is the practice of living deliberately, practically and mentally. I won’t go into its methods and so forth too much, as it’s best that people seek out their own resources, but I will show how it applies to reading.

The next time you read, have a pencil to hand. Summarise or annotate with your own reflections. Make yourself part of the process. In short, exercise the part of you that does things. The ‘I’. The subject. This, rather than the you that experiences things. The ‘me’. The object. That part only needs to self-love to stay in shape, which is easy work so long as you have a healthy ‘I’ to administer it.

It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Even if you have to spend twenty hours trying to understand three pages, as I once did, you will have practiced mindful reading. You will have exercised the mental muscles you flexed so impressively as a book-devouring child. Meditation and colouring in, for example, can help with this, as can taking notes while you watch films.

For me, depression was and still is the objectification of myself. The decline into sheer passivity. I wasn’t an ‘I’ anymore. I was just a ‘me’. I believe this self-objectification could explain why sufferers sometimes feel like passengers or even imposters in their own heads. It happened to me, because my facility to doing rather than experiencing life became flabby and toneless.

I can now read again. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but, by summarising every page I ever read, I’ve recovered my connection to the flow of language and its nuances of meaning. I still have depression, but I know all its moves, and, after years, I’ve more or less made it my bitch. I’m even beginning another Masters this year.

So, here is some advice from lessons hard-learned: no matter how healthy or in despair you are, practice being deliberate, accept your own pace, seek all the help you need, and be as lovely to yourself as you can. Nurture the mental landscapes across which your selves commune. Oh, and turn off that fucking phone. There’s nothing worse for the soul than Twitter.

– Phillip Sutcliffe-Mott (@tobeormotttobe)


Liverpool John Moore’s University 13th-14th July 2017 Keynotes: Deborah Cohen, Jane Hamlett and Helen Rogers.

Last week we attended Rethinking the Institution in the Long Nineteenth Century at Liverpool John Moores University. The conference was organised by Kate Taylor, a PhD Scholarship student at LJMU researching English female inebriates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Kate did a fantastic job of organising a stimulating programme with some noteworthy keynotes.

Jane Hamlett’s opening keynote discussed the intersection between institutional worlds and the domestic and the role of agency. Hamlett questioned by the study of institutions is ‘fashionable’ and how domesticity is used in shared spaces. Hamlett’s work has already been a huge influence in the field, leading on from her book  At Home in the InstitutionMaterial Life in Asylums, Lodging Houses and Schools in Victorian and Edwardian England. It was a pleasure to hear Jane speak and further understand how she has inspired research on domesticity in institutional spaces in the long nineteenth century. 

Image result for jane hamlett at home in the institution

Helen Rogers opened day two with her keynote speech on the use of lyrical history to make it “possible to do more than examine prisoners as subjects of power”. Helen has written extensively on her presentation topic at her blog: Rogers aims to reconstruct institutions from the inside in her upcoming book Conviction: Stories from a Nineteenth-century Prison. It was wonderful to see a renowned academic encourage blogging and public engagement within academia and her investigative style into the history of institutional inmates is truly innovative.

Throughout the two days a series of inspiring PGRs and ECRs presented some fantastic research. They covered institutions from all perspectives, from all levels and across the full breadth of the country. Some common issues that arose such as; the agency of inmates, domesticity in the institution, how class affected institutionalization, educational needs and ideas of discipline, to name only a few. The full range of research varied widely but each individual presenter inspired the room with their passion for their research.

Ending the conference on a high note was Deborah Cohen’s reading group discussing a section from her iconic and influential text, Chapter Three: ‘Children who disappeared’ from Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide. This discussion tied together some of the key issues raised throughout the presentations regarding researching institutional spaces in the long nineteenth century.

Image result for Family Secrets: The Things We Tried to Hide

On a final note, a huge congratulations is in order to Kate Taylor for successfully organising such a productive and inspiring conference. It was a wonderful room full of active scholars with supportive ideas for each others research. It was a pleasure to attend and we hope to see you all again at future events.

Conference Delegates:

Dr Jane Hamlett from Royal Holloway University of London (Keynote): @JaneHamlett

Dr Helen Rogers from Liverpool John Moores University (Keynote): @helenrogers19c

Prof Deborah Cohen from Northwestern University (Keynote): @DeborahACohen

Dr Leonard Smith from University of Birmingham

Susan Woodall (PhD candidate) from Royal Holloway University of London: @susan_woodall

Dr Laura Mair, Hope trust PostDoc research fellow at the University of Edinburgh: @LauraMMair

Natalie Mullen, AHRC funded PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster: @nmullenhist

Cara Dobbing (Phd Candidate) from University of Leciester: @caradobbing

Kate Taylor (PhD scholarship candidate) from Liverpool John Moores University: @katetaylorfc

Dr Emily Cuming (Lecturer in English) Liverpool John Moores University

Dr Rob Ellis from University of Huddersfield: @RE_histories

Jamie Nightingale (PhD Candidate) Royal Holloway University of London: @nightingale_jam

Dr Stef Eastoe from University of Roehampton: @StefEastoe

Dr Steve Taylor from University of Leicester: @Steve_J_Taylor

Catherine Sloan (PhD Candidate) from University of Oxford: @cgsloan/ @histchild

Gillian Almond (PhD Candidate) from Queen’s University Belfast: @historicasylums

Rachel Hewitt from the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare Glasgow Caledonian University:  @florencethePC

Dr Lucie Matthews-Jones from Liverpool John Moores University: @luciejones83



The Victorian literature of the mad sexy body : The Context of a Phd Thesis.

This article was written by Zoe Chadwick for the Liverpool Hope University ‘What’s your context’ research competition and won runner up at their Post-Graduate conference on 6/9/17. She discusses the Victorian approach to sexuality, mental illness and extreme bodies using three Victorian fictional texts. “It was the Victorian tendency to record, label and list anything […]