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  • Writing the Lives of the English Poor 1750s–1830s by Steven King
  • Susannah Ottaway
Writing the Lives of the English Poor 1750s–1830s. By Steven King (Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019) 463 pp. $120.00 cloth $36.99 paper

King has been studying poverty and poor relief in England for several decades.1 It is no surprise that Writing the Lives of the English Poor shows an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge of the social-welfare policies and practices of the long eighteenth century. In this book, such knowledge serves as a base for a focused, empathetic exploration of the writings of the poor who sought assistance from their parishes. King mixes the traditional methodology of a social historian—adept at categorizing and quantifying sources about poverty—with that of a literary [End Page 597] scholar concerned to parse epistolary rhetoric. The result is a work that offers significant new insight, particularly in its insistence that poor-law historians must focus not on account books and policies but on sources that reveal the process of negotiation that resulted in the obtaining of poor relief.

The source base for this work is extraordinary—a corpus of more than 25,000 items by, for, or about the poor, which comes from a wide range of parishes. A team of researchers transcribed "most surviving manuscript collections of pauper narratives and surrounding advocate and overseers correspondence for every county in England and Wales" (23). From this corpus, King creates a typology of pauper letters that identifies the function, tone, and characteristics for seven distinct forms of correspondence. The table in which he outlines this typology is clear, concise, and genuinely useful not only as a tool for understanding this work but also as a framework for any future studies of this genre.

In an unexpected move for a social and economic historian, King chooses to deploy his database lightly, usually dropping quantitative information sparingly into the text rather than making the data available in table or graph format. The absence of such material, although a little disappointing for quantitative historians, allows King plenty of space to include long excerpts from letters, which he unpacks meticulously to offer a clear analysis of the rhetorical strategies available to the poor under the Old Poor Law.

King's letters demonstrate that because the Old Poor Law was discretionary, malleable, and fluid, poor relief came through a process of negotiation among parish officials, the poor, and their advocates (which King assiduously displays in a tripartite world of parish letters). Letters from and about the poor drew from the same pool of language and values, and show that "common experiences and structures generated a shared linguistic register for both applicants and recipients" (117). Given the widespread availability of the material objects needed for writing, and strong evidence that the poor authored their own letters, King argues that "the timing of mass literacy . . . must be reined back firmly into the 1820s at the latest" (344). Engaging in processes of negotiation in which they used both stock images of deserving poverty and highly individualized life stories, paupers through their letters suggest that they, like their counterparts among the middling sort, were developing a more assertive and interior sense of self by the early nineteenth century.

Unlike his earlier work, which emphasized disparities among regional regimes in poor relief, King in this book shows broad consistencies across space and time, arguing against the current historiography that suggests a "crisis" in poor relief from the 1790s. Although not primarily focused on demographic, gender, or family history, King shows that old people were especially prominent in the corpus; 42 percent of the letters were written by people who were old or implied that they were. Older paupers were adept at using the many tropes that clearly demonstrated parish obligations to support the aged. Making good use of the considerable body of work [End Page 598] on eighteenth-century women's letter writing, King also demonstrates that correspondence from women—especially the 494 cases of wives deserted by husbands—used rhetorical vehicles that gave a "gendered colour" to their letters (292).

This important book will be valuable not only to...


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