Representing the “hungry forties” in image and verse: the politics of hunger in early-Victorian illustrated periodicals

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Following a journey to Ireland in 1847, the Quaker William Bennett expressed his fear that the British public was becoming inured to accounts of extreme hunger, noting disconsolately that the word “STARVATION . . . has now become so familiar, as scarcely to awaken a painful idea” (132). His concerns were not without foundation. During the 1840s, a decade that has come to acquire a special connection with “hunger” in historical discourse, column upon column of newsprint was dedicated to the topic, as a catalogue of contributory factors – bad harvests; prolonged economic depression; protectionist policies, such as the notorious Corn Laws; an austere Poor Law (dubbed the “Starvation Act” by its opponents); and, from 1845, a catastrophic famine in Ireland – combined to politicise questions of access and entitlement to food. Given this context, it is hardly surprising to find that hunger figured as an insistent, though contentious, issue within early-Victorian print culture, generating a mass of commentary and debate. As Peter J. Gurney has pointed out in a recent article on the politics of consumption in the “Hungry Forties,” “the struggle over the representation of scarcity was particularly acute during this crucial period,” as depictions of want were strategically deployed by newspapers associated with a variety of competing factions and interest groups, especially those, such as the Chartists and the Anti-Corn Law League, who were keen to instigate political reforms (101).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)421-449
Number of pages29
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2012


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