University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Goblin scullery maids, ghostly miners and cannibal sailors: my experience of studying for a PhD at the University of Portsmouth

Dr Eilís Phillips followed three years of undergraduate study at the University of Portsmouth with a three-year PhD on Victorian monsters, supervised by Dr Karl Bell, Reader in History at the University.  Her work is an inspiration to many, not least to my own students studying ideas of the monstrous in the 17th century Civil War context.  Impressively, while studying with and teaching at the University, Eilís has combined her academic studies with regular performances as a musician at many locations in Portsmouth and the surrounding areas – ed.


My PhD was a three-year, CEISR-funded interdisciplinary project which used an approach based in History – grounded in historiography – but explored theories from other fields such as Cultural Studies and Monster Theory. I studied the increased popularity of monstrous stereotypes for working-class people in nineteenth-century writing, as created and propagated by journalists and middle-class authors. I split my chapters into different monstrous archetypes and these covered a range of monsters. For example, I looked at the ways in which perceptions of spatial environments as monstrous could affect the human beings who lived and worked within them. Victorian London is a key example of this phenomenon, as many reports described the city as a sentient and malicious force for evil, hell-bent on corrupting its inhabitants. I also examined stories of Satanic arsonists, goblin scullery maids, ghostly miners and cannibal sailors. Sometimes, authors would use these comparisons in satirical drawings or as derogatory analogies. In other cases, the reports would draw upon popular folklore and fairy tales and even Gothic literature in order insinuate that working-class people were spiritually, and even genetically monstrous. In these accounts I found interesting contradictions and anachronisms. Just as elites were mocking those poorer than themselves for purportedly backwards ‘superstitious’ beliefs, at the same time they were creating their own brand of contemporary folklore partly pieced together from these stories, using them to produce monstrous identities.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Francisco Goya, c. 1799

Overall, I discovered that this proliferation of negative stereotypes operated as a ‘monstrous economy’. It was a network of ideas, memes and characteristics which authors for newspapers, books and reports traded back and forth. The central motivation underpinning this booming trade was a desire to mitigate a sense of middle-class guilt and of culpability in the suffering of workers and the poor in Victorian society. As greater awareness grew amongst affluent readers of the sufferings of working-class life – such as the plight of miners toiling in life-threatening conditions underground – so concerns about wealthy society’s role in such hardships became a source of angst which needed a catharsis. By depicting the working class as monsters, authors could position the wealthy as kindly benefactors of a monstrous working class whose hardships in life were portrayed as pre-determined and deserved. This act stripped workers of their humanity and worked to absolve middle-class readers of any social guilt over their suffering.


Eilís in character

In terms of my personal PhD journey, I should say that every PhD experience, like every individual, is unique. That is part of what makes undertaking one so challenging, and exciting. Whether you are able to choose your own topic, or are working on a project whose parameters have been outlined by someone else, ultimately the direction the research takes is shaped by you, and your decisions and discoveries. That can be a daunting prospect; it offers the researcher a lot of freedom but it can also cause you to constantly question your own judgement. As an historian, you might wonder if you have chosen the right sources, or even if you’re making the ‘right’ argument. It’s important to remember that having doubts, and continually re-evaluating your progress are a necessary part of undertaking any kind of critical research. The PhD is an experiment, and one which teaches you as much about your own approach to solving problems and encountering enigmas as it does about the research question you are focused upon answering.

I was extremely lucky to have an incredible supervisory team who supported me at every step of the process. A huge part of what makes a PhD engaging can be the discussions you have with your supervisors. There were so many times throughout my PhD when I would find myself encountering a knotty problem in my research, but by talking things over with Karl Bell (my First Supervisor) I’d be able to see things more clearly and would come away feeling enthusiastic about my research again. In general, I found it extremely helpful to talk to my supervisors and Faculty colleagues about academic life. It’s important to surround yourself with morale support and find other researchers with whom you can share ideas and experiences with. Attending seminars, spending time with other postgrads, and chatting about our shared challenges made things easier. Overall, it was a huge undertaking and took a lot of personal willpower and determination, but it has given me an immense sense of achievement. I still find my research topic fascinating and I am looking forward to continuing my research in whatever form it takes.


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