Sorrowful spaces: more on the material culture of emotions

The interface between material culture and emotions is something that I am thinking a lot about. I wrote a blog post on the house as an object and a space that materialises emotions – ‘The voice of the house’. Here I ask whether more public and communal buildings and spaces also generate or encapsulate meaningful emotions in individuals, which go beyond the religious or civic and are linked to family and life events. One such is the cathedral.

Obviously the sacred space of a cathedral or church has religious meaning. Its function is to evoke awe. And it generates a range of emotions such as joy or grief, depending upon the life-cycle service or ceremony conducted there. Yet it seems to me that such a communally-used building and space can also symbolise moods and feelings that do not only originate in faith.

My example is Mary Robinson, the beautiful author and actress, born in Bristol around 1756/8 who charmed and seduced her way through leading men of the day, only to reinvent herself as a lady of letters, dying all too early in 1800. She started her memoirs a couple of years before her death; a successful attempt to rebut scandal and reconstruct her public identity.

Mary Robinson

Mary spoke the cultural language of her time – a voice that reverberated with finely-tuned feeling; the very best example of sensibility as the capacity to feel deeply. Often this was conveyed by being sad and melancholy. Indeed, Mary used her birth place and environment of her early years to create a melancholic, Gothic self-identity as persuasive as that of the best graveyard poets.

Her memoir begins with a description of her birth place: the Minster House, its back supported by ‘the antient cloisters of St Augustine’s monastery’, faced by a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green [or College-Green], its west side bounded by Bristol Cathedral. As she declares,

A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful medication can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.

Mary thus linked the house and its environs with her personality.

Minster House

Sharon Setzer has explored this in ‘The Gothic Structure of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs’ (Eugene Stelzig (ed) Romantic Autobiography in England), showing how Mary evoked the Gothic cathedral in order to construct her identity as contemplative (not dissipated).

Mary conjured St Augustine’s Cathedral three times in her Memoir: at her birth in 1756(?), and two visits in 1773 and 1777. Setzer argues that Mary specifically used these descriptions to harness the cultural associations of the Gothic with the sublime and shape her identity. For example, Mary says that her infancy was spent in a nursery that was ‘so near the great aisle of the minster’ that she could hear the deep tones of the organ and the singing of the choristers, which made a ‘sublime impression’ upon her feelings.

In her childhood, Mary’s family moved away from Minster House to a large convenient one stocked with the luxuries of silk furniture, plate, and foreign wines. However, when she was nine years old her father left home to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. The result was his family’s downfall, since he separated from his wife and then failed in business. Mary’s memoir located this as the cause of the chain of events which resulted in her agreeing as a [young!] teenager in 1773 to marry a duplicitous lawyer.

Once wed, the couple travelled to Wales to meet his father. They visited Bristol and Mary revisited ‘The house in which I first opened my eyes to this world of sorrow’ and the cathedral with a ‘sweet melancholy interest’.  Mary uses the nostalgic visit to weave together her melancholic personality:

I hastened to the cloisters. The nursery windows were dim, and shattered; the house sinking to decay. The mouldering walk was gloomy, and my spirits were depressed beyond description: – I stood alone, rapt in meditation: “Here,” said I, “did my infant feet pace to and fro’; here did I climb the long stone bench, and swiftly measure it, at the peril of my safety. On those dark and winding steps, did I sit and listen to the full-toned organ, the loud anthem, and the bell, which called the parishioners to prayer.”  … Ah! How little has the misjudging world known of what passed in my mind, even in the apparently gayest moments of my existence!

Setzer observes that Mary’s final return to the cathedral in 1777 followed her becoming an actress in 1777. For Setzer ‘The sequence as a whole demonstrates Robinson’s artistic endeavour to identify a meaningful pattern in her life and to define an essential, coherent self, dating back to “earliest infancy.” (34)

There is no doubt that literary self-identification was a crucial aspect of Mary’s memories of Bristol Cathedral and Minster House. Yet I think that these buildings were not solely a vehicle for a literary reputation. These physically connected buildings (of home and early childhood) were also vessels for Mary’s emotions. In the first place, both nostalgia and melancholy might be defined as historically-specific moods and feelings. Both can be historicised, so it is likely that over time emotional objects differ in which feelings they trigger.

Sorrow was the emotion that Mary most notably associated with these buildings and their spaces. For instance, as soon as she describes her gloomy birth place and time, she quotes her mother:

I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered… Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow.

I don’t think sorrow was solely a motif of her melancholic persona. It was also a response to events which marred her life.  Thus the accounts of Bristol Cathedral were placed alongside or following descriptions of powerful relationships and crisis moments in Mary’s life.

The cathedral space was linked to her mother whom she adored and often lived with during her adult life. Thus the first account establishes the hugely significant role of her mother in her life-choices and their resulting sorrows.  Her birthplace and the cathedral also seem to have been places she visited in response to sorrow and which thus were imbued with this feeling.

The 1773 visit occurred at the time of her disastrous marriage. In her attempt to rebut scandal, Mary explained the events of her life and this unsuitable union was a lynch pin in rationalising the sexual scandals that followed. In some ways she blamed her decision on her mother persuading her to wed Mr Robinson in order to safeguard her reputation which was threatened by her extreme beauty and lack of paternal protection. Yet she was still only sixteen (perhaps even fourteen) years old and as she says, laid aside her dolls to marry. Thus when she recalled the mouldering decay of the house in which she was born, and sat in the cathedral to listen again to the organ, she seems to be materialising the loss of her childhood through form and space.

Mary had an adored child, Maria, from this marriage, who aided her in her final illness and published her memoir. She also had a second infant: Sophia, in 1777, who died all too soon.

At the end of six weeks I lost my infant. She expired in my arms in convulsions, and my distress was undescribable.

Thus Mary’s return to Bristol in 1777 followed the death of her second child. As she recounted, Sophia’s death affected Mary’s spirits so much that she couldn’t appear again on stage that season. Thus she went to Bath to recover and from Bath:

I went to Bristol – to Bristol! Why does my pen seem suddenly arrested while I write the word? I know not way, but an undefinable melancholy always follows the idea of my native birth-place. I instantly beheld the Gothic structure, the lonely cloisters, the lofty aisles, of the antique minster: – for, within a few short paces of its walls, this breast, which has never known one year of happiness, first palpitated on inhaling the air of this bad world!

By this time, perhaps, and with hindsight in 1798 when she told her life story, the buildings of her childhood did not only generate eighteenth-century feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, or offer a means to adopt a romantic literary persona, they were literally symbolic of sorrow in a life that never knew ‘one year of happiness’.

What fascinates me about this field of material culture and emotions is how amorphous it can be. Not only is it necessary to historicise the feelings attached to material culture, scholars must try to individualise them – particularly when they were shared objects, buildings or spaces. For Mary Bristol’s Minster House and Cathedral were vessels of pain and sorrow, due to her life-story. Of course, for other people these buildings might materialise entirely different emotions.

Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, written by herself, with some posthumous pieces, in four volumes, London, 1801.

Images: Mary Robinson by Joshua Reynolds; N.E. portion of the Cloisters of the Cathedral, and back of Minster House" drawn and engraved by J.Skelton. Copper engraved antique print published in Skelton’s Etchings of the Antiquities of Bristol, about 1825.


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