Humans forge powerful links between people, space, objects, and emotions. The most tangible version of this is the strong attachment that many people have to their parental home, particularly when this was the home where they grew up, or where a parent has lived long enough for it to be intimately associated with him or her. I love this sampler that I found online, because it represents the centrality of a parent to the childhood home. The embroidered ‘This is my Dear Father’ seems to evoke not just the man who stands at the centre of the textile, but the home next to him and the domestic symbols surrounding them.
I’ve written blog posts about the more positive links people have drawn between houses and family emotions in the past and how memories about place could forge a strong sense of personal identity. I’ve also developed this further into an article published earlier this year. The parental home could be profoundly important in this meeting of memories and identities. Some writers explicitly evoked the profound link between childhood, parental home, and parents and its role in personal identity. In her early journals, written before 1797, Elizabeth Fry explained that her father’s home was at Bramerton, ‘near a pretty village,’ where she lived from two till five years old when the family left to live at Earlham, and where ‘I believe, many of my early tastes were formed’. She described the way the ‘impressions then received remain lively on my recollection’ thus: ‘here, I think, my great love for the country, the beauties of nature, and attention to the poor, began’. She then linked this place with her mother and her own later religious devotion recalling their walks ‘in the old-fashioned garden’ where her mother told her the story of Adam and Eve. Collectively her parents within the parental home were at the root of her sense of self.
The identity constructed in this manner could be firmly regional. Thomas Bewick, 1753-1828, was the son of a tenant farmer and collier in Northumberland who established himself as a renowned artist of the natural world, disseminated widely through his wood engravings. In his memoir, he lovingly recreated the domestic scene of his childhood activities in his parental home at Cherryburn, locating his father in particular with the home and its surroundings. A poignant example of rooting parent into place lies in his memory of going fishing after completing his tasks at home: ‘and well do I remember to this day, my father’s well known whistle which called me home… this whistle I learned to imitate and answered it as well as I could and then posted home’. For Bewick, his father personified the traditional Northumberland world, its social structure, its employments, and its culture, much of which he felt was disappearing. Like other autobiographers, Bewick nostalgically mourned the loss several overlapping worlds through the medium of his parental home and parents.
The nexus of parental home, place, and parent was this powerful because it generated memory and emotion.[i] Georgian autobiographers wrote into existence their emotional well-being which they located in the matrix of parent and parental home. Catherine Cappe, a Unitarian and writer, for instance, found solace in both after she suffered intense spiritual, emotional and physical affliction when her prospective husband died in 1772. As she later recalled: ‘I often derived much consolation from the recurrence of two simple stanzas of the thirty-fourth psalm… which, when very young, I had been accustomed to hear my mother sing very sweetly, as she stood by the window, in the twilight of a Sunday evening’. Since memories ‘are often literally housed, with dwellings and the objects they contain providing the key to remembrance’ the parental home evoked the parent and vice-versa.[ii] This links in turn to personal identity. Marius Kwint, for example, observes that the domestic interior is a space that ‘serves as a model of the psyche, a concrete personality, and is the environment which memory tends most powerfully to reconstruct’.[iii] Gaston Bachelard also linked memories of the home with the ‘self’: ‘by remembering “houses” and “rooms”, we learn to abide within ourselves’.[iv] So what happens, therefore, when that link is broken? Does it diminish or even destroy one’s sense of self?
As research into emotional objects shows, ‘experiences come to be lodged in things’, so deprivation of those things are profoundly upsetting.[v] Mary Robinson’s daughter, who completed her mother’s memoirs, for instance, observed that ‘even to the latest hour of her life, her [Mary’s] grief appeared renewed, when any object presented itself connected with the memory of her departed mother’. Moreover, as the nexus of parent, parental home, and place served as emotional and material security to the child, whatever his or her age, it resonated throughout adulthood. Catherine Cappe felt that her domestic idyll was shattered when the family moved to Catterick in 1748 when she was four years old. She recalled, ‘Often did I lament, without exactly knowing why, the charming fields of Long Preston’. Decades later she still experienced ‘an indescribable feeling of tender regret’ when recalling her childhood home. She connected this point of emotional rupture with her perception that the period following the removal saw her father grow more distant from her. Her early childhood thus represented a golden age of parent, place, and home whose loss she linked to the formation of her adult identity.
Thomas Bewick’s presented his parents’ deaths in 1785 as an emotional hiatus, marking the end of his youth; this is hardly surprising, but he also felt it as a material loss, embodied through the termination of his weekly walks from Newcastle to his parental home at Cherryburn. Until his parents’ deaths, he had undertaken these three hour walks every Friday night between 1777 and 1785. During them he had developed his love of nature, his moral values, and cemented his love of his region. He commented that people told him he was insane to walk home whatever the weather, but he says ‘my stimulant as well as my reward was in seeing my father and my mother in their happy home, which I always reflected would have an end, and that the time would come when I would have no feelings of warm regard called up on their account’. After their deaths, Cherryburn ‘became a place, the thoughts of which now raked up sorrowful reflections in my mind’. For these autobiographers, therefore, the memory of parent and childhood home served to describe a disjunction in a life and an identity.
The ways in which the parental home have been described has changed over time. Georgian people’s memories were often centred on the home’s surroundings and were less detailed about interior space than later nineteenth-century autobiographical writings. Jason Tebbe, for example, has demonstrated that nineteenth-century German middle-class memoirists provided elaborate descriptions of spatial layout and possessions. This may well indicate the difference over time between the levels of consumption and ownership of goods and the increasing degree to which self-definition was achieved through possessions and material culture later in the nineteenth century.
Yet there is much continuity too. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, autobiographies still lovingly evoke parent, parental home, in their time; usually through material memories. Our memories of parents and childhood homes are also commercialised and sold as aspirational life-styles. After all, when we admire mid-century interiors and the 1970s vibe aren’t many of us simply nostalgic about the safe world of the parental home in which we grew up, increasingly out of our grasp? Gaston Bachelard said that the natal home serves as a ‘cradle: when we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of reverie, we participate in this original warmth’. But in doing so, and certainly when the link between parents and home was severed, do we also have to define ourselves anew?
[i] Kuhn, Annette, Family Secrets: Acts of memory and imagination (London and New York, 1995, new edition 2002).
[iii] Marius Kwint, Chrisopher Breward and Jeremy Aynsley (eds), Material Memories, Berg, Oxford, 1999. 11.
[iv] Gston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (1958) 1994 Edition with foreword by John Stilgoe. xxxvii
[v] Auslander, 1020