Absence makes the heart grow fonder: manly labouring men 1790s-1850s

This is a procrastinating activity: a blog post on the representation of working men, which I’ve written instead of preparing the paper I’m supposed to deliver in a week’s time on the relationship between self-control and the manly body. Ah well, both relate to my overarching project, so – at least this exercise has some relevance, as well as being fun.

I’m back at one of the cultural motifs that I’m repeatedly drawn to in my work on masculinity – the man leaving or returning to his home. I’ve written about the ‘returning labourer’ and the sailor’s ‘farewell’ and ‘return’ in this blog as well as in my book where it was men’s specific role as fathers that particularly interested me. The depictions continue to fascinate and haunt me and I realise that from the 1790s and into the 1850s these affecting images of humble men were very popular. George Hicks’s The Sinews of Old England, 1857 (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons), is a particularly appealing example.

Sinews_of_old_england 1857 wikimedia commonsStanding at the neat cottage door, here he is – the labouring man – off to do another day’s work. Fairly noble eye on the horizon, pick on his shoulder, adoring wife in his arms, cute toddler at his feet emulating his father. Unbroken by work, young, healthy, with a whole, manly body; all set off by the white shirt sleeves rolled up.

These depictions can be read in several ways. They idealised the gendered spheres of home: the man active in the public sphere, the adoring wife waiting in the domestic sphere. Often, such labouring families embodied the strength of the nation. Hicks’s title Sinews of Old England evokes a description of the navy in one autobiography, for instance, as ‘the sinews and power of old England’ and must have had great resonance for a society that had experienced the Crimean War. (1) The representations were also part of the romanticisation of labour in the first half of the nineteenth century. They also had a social impact as well as cultural power. Karen Walker argues that by the later nineteenth century the labouring man was deployed to sell products, and motivated nostalgic planners of garden cities in their aim to create model communities.

I’m interested in the part these images had to play in disseminating ideas about masculinity – the question of how people learned about being manly or unmanly is becoming one of the key features of my book. They certainly sentimentalised men’s hard labour, in the process making the working-class man less threatening by valorising his work ethic for his family. In fact, the labouring family at their cottage door shows how the home was politicised in several ways. (3) The handsome, happy (2), working man was a conservative motif in form and imagination, reassuring elite viewers that he was unlikely to rebel. Yet, his image was still potentially radical because working men could use appropriate its positive imagery of manly (and temperate) physical strength, economic independence and ability support a family for themselves – to demand their own political voice. I’m hoping to explore the images of men on objects produced and consumed by working men from the 1790s to the 1850s to suggest that the notion of being manly was not solely a middle- or upper-class aspiration or measure of masculine identity in this period. There are some great examples on early trades union emblems and banners, for instance (The People’s History Museum, Manchester, here I come …)

I also think the departing labouring man was not simply a motif of gendered power and agency contrasted with the restricted woman who stands alongside him variously adoring him as in Hicks’s watercolour, shedding a tear at his departure, or busying herself in domestic duties of home and family. For these men were also constrained by their manly identity. Idealised as the centre and support of home and family, which provided them with much of their manly identity (I appreciate there were other masculine identities which could run counter to this), yet they were always depicted on their threshold. (4) If they were not leaving or returning, their presence in the domestic was only temporary. In effect there is an aspect of self-sacrifice in these images. Nostalgic almost from their inception, they evoke loss or the desire to re-attain something – whether a place by the fireside with children at one’s knee, or the self-sufficiency of an imagined labouring past (as Hicks’s title Old England illustrates), or simpler times when the ‘moral economy’ prevailed.

Therefore, at the heart of what appears to be a straightforward, celebratory depiction of separate spheres lies tension – the difficulty of fulfilling gender roles across these supposedly distinct spaces. It was men’s absence that made the heart grow fonder in this cultural motif. At a time when men’s identity was predicated on the domestic these depictions are largely of separation. As I’ve written in this blog already here, I think that the emotions stirred by such visual and material culture – here not just love, pride, but also – and often – at the same time, loss and nostalgia, went some way to ‘fix’ the gender identities in people’s minds and sense of selves.

These images of manly working men conveyed both the rewards of that manliness, but also its ambivalence. Thinking about it, my paper for next week is about the costs of being identified as unmanly, so perhaps I have a way to write about it now.

(1) Men and times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, including journals of travels in Europe and America, from 1777 to 1842. For an exciting project on masculinity and the Crimean War see: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/english/people/hollyfurneaux

(2) Indeed ‘smug’ is one of the keywords used by the Bridgeman Art Gallery in its search terms for this image. http://www.bridgemanart.com/en-GB/asset/198566/hicks-george-elgar-1824-1914/the-sinews-of-old-england-1857-w-c-bodycolour-with-gum-arabic-on-paper

(3) Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling, Home, chapter 4.http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KUWo6tLcuWAC&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq=alison+blunt,+home,+chapter+4&source=bl&ots=u8kBuCzUyo&sig=-YURb92tjlV4O08uZYblIHld1ck&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Oe50U7HkK8TpPLjggZgG&ved=0CFcQ6AEwBg#v=onepage&q=sinews&f=false

(4) for the centrality of domesticity to men’s identities, see John Tosh, A Man’s Place. There is evidence to suggest that this was not restricted to middle-class men, or a feature of the early to mid-Victorian era.


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