Karen Harvey


  • Professorial Fellow (Modern British History), History

Accepting PhD Students

PhD projects

I offer PhD supervision in several areas of eighteenth-century British history, particularly cultural and social history and the history of gender. I welcome collaborations with external partners. I am currently supervising PhDs including ones on women landowners in Shropshire, 1760-1860 (Sara Downs), black women in eighteenth-century England (Montaz Marche), curiosity in the eighteenth century (Jenni Dixon), women in seventeenth-century ballads (Eleanor Sutton) and experiences of separation in East India Company families (Anna Dearden).


Research activity per year

Personal profile

Research interests

I am an historian of the British long eighteenth century. I have ongoing interests in the body and sexuality, masculinity and material culture, as well as an emerging interest in digital humanities. I have considerable experience in public engagement and working with a range of partners, from schools to museums. My current major research project is the Leverhulme-funded 'Material Identities, Social Bodies: Embodiment in British Letters c.1680-1820' (2021-25) which uses thousands of letters by men and women to explore the relationships between the physical body, self and social identity, and experiences of ‘embodiment’. One article from the project was published in the Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies (2019), and another will be published in a Routledge collection (which I am co-editing) in 2022/3. Our project will produce an extensive public database, in partnership with archives in Britain and north America, which includes transcription and digital images of many of these letters.

Other recent research projects include the collaborative project with archaeologists The Material Body and a collection of essays from this project will be published with Manchester University Press in 2022/3. I co-organized the conference, Pretty Ugly: Early Modern Beauty, 1400-1800 in January 2019, and am editing a book on beauty in the Enlightenment for Bloomsbury. Another conference, Socially-Engaged Public History: Practice, Ethics and Politics, took place in January 2019, drawing on my public history work with a range of partners. More recently, the conference Epistolary Bodies explored letters and the body in the eighteenth century. A book arising from the conference is contracted with Routledge.

My most recent book, The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder (Oxford University Press, 2020) is a social history of Mary Toft, who took part in a monstrous birth hoax in 1726 during which Toft appeared to give birth to 17 rabbits. The project is about the experiences and emotions of Toft and the people around her, and also situates the case in the context of early-eighteenth-century politics.

A second edition of my collection, History and Material Culture was published in 2018.

My previous books include The Little Republic (OUP, 2012), in which I reconstructed men's experiences of the house, examining the authority that accrued to mundane and everyday household practices and employing men's own concepts to understand what men thought and felt about their domestic lives. My first book, Reading Sex (CUP, 2004), examined ideas of gender difference in eighteenth-century erotic culture. 

I am committed to the public understanding of the History and public engagement in this area. I have developed relationships with many public partners in projects that support teaching, disseminate current research and lead to co-produced research between academics and other groups. This includes a community project with Sheffield Visual Arts Group and Museums Sheffield, 'Art and Craft in Sheffield: Our history in 100 Objects', and a project with staff and residents at Roundabout, a charity for homeless youth, on their refurbished eighteenth-century hostel. Hostel residents produced displays and a short film about the hostel, having visited archives and other historic sites. I have supervised several AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Awards, and was in the supervisory team for 3 PhD students working between the University of Sheffield and Chatsworth on the history of servants: From Servants to Staff: The Whole Community in the Chatsworth Household 1700-1950. Most recently, I am developing a public engagement programme arising from the Leverhulme project which includes collaborations with schools, adult education and the National Literacy Trust.


I joined the University of Birmingham as a Professorial Fellow in 2017. Creating and contributing to research cultures and communities has been central to my role. I was Director of the Birmingham Eighteenth Century Centre from 2017-2021, of which I remain an active member. I am also a member of the Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies. As a historian of the British long eighteenth century, I also look forward and therefore my work also intersects with the interests of the Centre for Modern British Studies. I am founder member of the Centre for Material Culture and Materialities (established in 2022) and of the university-wide Mental Health Humantities network. I am co-convenor of the Departmental seminar and recently (in 2022) organized the Department's conference, What is History For?

Before arriving at Birmingham, I worked at the University of Manchester (on the project 'Women, Work and the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1840') and the AHRB Centre for the Study of the Domestic Interior (at the Royal College of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Royal Holloway). I then worked at the Department of History at the University of Sheffield from 2003-2017, where I was promoted to Professor in 2015. At Sheffield, I served on all departmental committees, was Departmental Director of Learning and Teaching (2014-16) and Director of MA Programmes (2009-2012), Assistant Director of Learning and Teaching for the Faculty of Arts (2009-12), represented the Faculty on two university's project groups and served on the University Senate (2012-15). 

I have held fellowships at the Clark Library, UCLA, the Huntington Library and the Australian Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. My research on eighteenth-century Britain has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, The Wellcome Trust and The Pasold Research Fund. I am a regular contributor to international network conferences, particularly the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS), the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) and the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS). I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a member of the AHRC's Peer Review College. 


Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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