Helena Wojtczak, Women of Victorian Sussex: their status, occupations, and dealings with the law, 1830-1870 Hastings: The Hastings Press. 2003. Pp. x + 246. £.9.99 p/back. Illus. ISBN 1-904-109-0505
This is a charming and delightful book, a demonstration that work undertaken as a labour of love may make genuine scholarly contributions. It is a fascinating study of women in mid-nineteenth century Sussex, and one of the many things it reveals is the extent to which it is possible to find out about women of all social classes from a wide variety of the surviving records. Possibly one group of women who feature to a lesser extent than some others are those who followed that (probably seldom occurring in nature) definition of a lady as one whose name appeared in the public record (in particular, in the newspapers) only when she was born, married and died. Wojtczak is acute on the reasons for the under-representation of the public presence of women in the records: even when a married woman were running a business, legally the owner of the business (for example, the licensee of a public house) was her husband. Census records repeatedly under-described the number of married women gainfully employed. Nonetheless it is possible, given her meticulous research, to establish, for example, that the day to day running and management of a number of businesses which appear in legal and financial records as male-owned was in fact in the hands of women.
The book is perhaps particularly strong on women of this middling sort, somewhere between the respectable working and the lower middle classes, very much the kind of women who would, even if married, be engaging in some form of paid occupation that was neither the genteel expedient of women of somewhat higher social status nor the rough trades verging into criminality and prostitution of the lower echelons of the ‘lower orders’. They appear in newspaper advertisements and sometimes in news reports, if for example they were involved in legal action or (particularly in the case of public houses) became witnesses to affrays, in trade directories, in legal and local government records. These were not women engaged in industrial occupations: Sussex was a still largely agrarian county with, however, a vigorously developing service and leisure sector in its seashore towns.
However, Wojtczak does not neglect the ladies of leisure, those engaged in the genteel middle-class sectors of education and the more upmarket forms of retail in fashion and haberdashery, the vast number of domestic servants (still, at that period, the major employment sector for women) or the rougher element of fishwives and prostitutes. She also has a strong section on women and crime, both as victims and as perpetrators. In a final chapter she looks at a number of early feminists closely associated with Sussex.
The book is copiously illustrated with the results of Wojtczak’s delving into newspapers and other contemporary sources and she provides a number of useful appendices, including a list of the Sussex women who can be identified as having been engaged in various trades.
Some of the general comments on the position and status of British women during the period in question may be relatively familar to many women’s historians, but this book provides a valuable micro-study of the diverse lives of Victorian women which gives life to the broader picture.
Lesley A. Hall
Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine