Rebecca Whiteley

Dr. Rebecca Whiteley is a British Academy Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham. An art historian by training, her research works on the intersections between visual and material culture, medical history and social history. She recently published her first book, Birth Figures: Early Modern Prints and the Pregnant Body, a history of early modern midwifery books, their illustrations and their users. More recently, Rebecca has been focused on the nineteenth century, the material culture of obstetric education, and the entanglements of medicine and sex. She is currently researching her second book, which will explore nineteenth-century anxieties around sexuality and impropriety in the medical encounter through an investigation of visual culture across genres: medical illustration, satirical print, and pornography. She is also working on a global history of the obstetric phantoms of Shibata Kōichi. She also is recipient of the NCSA Emerging Scholars award for 2023 for her essay “Spratt’s Flaps: Midwifery, Creativity, and Sexuality in Early Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture,” published in British Art Studies in February, 2022.

What nineteenth-century play, opera, symphony, or theater performance would you want to see, and why?
Not quite any of these, but certainly a major performance, I would love to visit the 1851 Great Exhibition. What an incredible way to see what the Victorians thought was best about themselves. As someone interested in museums and collections both in the nineteenth century and today, I find the Victorian interest in ‘public’ exhibitions and ‘improving’ knowledge fascinating. Of course, we know a reasonable amount about this event and the architecture of the ‘Crystal Palace’, but it was surely one of those phenomena that would have been totally electric and deeply emotive to actually experience.

If you could eat or drink anything from the nineteenth century, what would it be, and why?
Victorian food doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me. I find it fascinating in terms of ideas around nutrition and health, but I’m not tempted to eat like a Victorian! So, for its sheer cultural importance, I’d say Coca Cola. It’s such a great example of how the experience of consuming a food, stimulant or drug is shaped not just by its chemical makeup but by its cultural identity. What would it be like to casually sip on a mixture of sugar, caffeine and cocaine and to experience it as a health tonic?

If you could go on a weeklong road trip with anyone from the nineteenth century, who would it be? Where would you go? And what would you do along the way? 
Perhaps this is a cliché, but Jane Austen, 100%! I’m not exactly desperate to hang out with most of the people I study, I don’t think we’d get along. But Austen’s wit and gentleness strike me as so sympathetic even at a distance of two hundred years. In this fantasy scenario, I’m assuming that I have the wealth and status to enable two women to go on a fabulous holiday without any men interfering or getting huffy. If that’s the case, then we’re going wherever Jane wants to go!

If you could own a business in the nineteenth century, what would it be, and why?
I would be a midwife, of course! Those women were really bossing it in a century when the opportunities for women to earn an independent and respected living were so contracted. The medical rhetoric in this period suggested that midwives were ignorant, incalcitrant, dangerous practitioners who needed to be phased out in favour of doctors supported by ‘properly’ trained and subordinate nurses. But, in actuality, midwives were very often respected professionals both within their communities and within medical systems. Some midwives had medical training and managed maternity hospitals. Others had large caseloads in the community, working as entrepreneurs, or funded by maternity charities. Behind the public vitriol, many doctors trusted and collaborated with midwives. But records about how these midwives worked, what they knew about the body, and how they reconciled official obstetric knowledge with their own experience, are very few. Just think of the lost medical cultures I could discover by working with and talking to these women!

What is your favorite nineteenth-century material object that you own?

I have two answers for this one: Firstly, when I was an undergraduate, I found all the plates from an edition of Gustave Doré’s Les Contes de Perrault in a charity shop. I bought two from Little Red Riding Hood and one from Bluebeard (which I was writing my dissertation on at the time). When I moved into my first grown up flat with my partner I mounted and framed them, and they have adorned every living room of our itinerant academic lives since then. They express so many of my interests: prints, books, fairy tales, feminism (go read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber). I love them dearly and I keep promising myself that one day I will write about them properly.

Secondly, when I was writing my PhD thesis on early modern midwifery manuals, I went to visit my grandparents and my grandmother handed me a little red book in an organza bag. She said it belonged to her sister, my great aunt, and that she thought I would like to have it. It turned out to be a copy of the infamous guide to sex and reproduction Aristotle’s Masterpiece that was in continuous publication from the late seventeenth to the mid-twentieth century. My great aunt’s copy was published around 1900 and she found it in her mother’s room when she was a teenager in the 1940s. She stole it because she was curious, though she didn’t find it particularly informative. This little snippet of family history is so personal, and yet also so expressive of the universal desire for knowledge about the body. I love having this link to my family history and my academic work all encapsulated in one object.

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