Manliness in Britain 1760 – 1900: From Brookes to Book

The story of my book, Manliness in Britain, 1760-1900: bodies, emotion, and material culture, is one that has at its heart my teaching. I think this is significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because we often talk about research-led teaching, but less often about the ways research is informed by the teaching process and, of course, student engagement with it. And, secondly, because the research that this teaching stimulated has informed my public engagement beyond the university, from social media, to consultancy for TV and radio programmes, to knowledge exchange activities like Brookes Think Human Festivals. All this, I think, is crucial for any of us working on and studying arts and humanities subjects who want to sustain these disciplines in the face of what can seem like attacks from the government, media, and even the HE sector itself at times. For me, my book is a product of the humanities teaching and research that is so central to universities’ mission and their national and community role.

The project began in 2011 when Brookes historians carried out one of our regular refreshes of the History programme. I designed a new advanced study module. I wanted it to be different to what I’d researched and taught so far – which was the history of marriage, sexuality, intimate partner violence, and parenting. As you’ll imagine from this list, men’s behaviours and identities were central to all the work I’d done to date, so I wanted to explore this in more depth. I had worked primarily on the long eighteenth century, and so I was also keen to extend my knowledge and timeframe and trace masculinities in a way that broke with conventional chronologies, stretching from the ages of feeling, revolution, and reform to those of militarism, imperialism, representative democracy, and mass media. Making Men: Masculinities in England 1700-1914 was the result. Here’s the module booklet in its final iteration.

I can trace the various stages of my book Manliness in Britain through the preparation, development, and delivery of this module across its lifetime. My initial preparation for the module began with surveying a large body of the secondary literature, breaking this into weekly themes and learning outcomes. Much of the published work at that point focused on ideals of masculinity and the ways in which they were disseminated to men and society. I wanted something that was a little less conventional, so started to break the subject down through the lens of what interested me, such as my concerns with sexual relationships, violence, the home, and emotions, but also branched into other areas like war and empire.

One of the things that struck me, as I was preparing and then teaching the module was that while the terms manly and manliness were frequently used, scholars didn’t really define what they meant, which intrigued me since to me they appeared to be the dominant form of masculinity in the long nineteenth century. By 2012, therefore, I had the genesis of my first idea for a book – my hook was that I’d survey ideals of manliness over a period when society and culture was radically reshaped. I was lucky enough to get some research funding for a research assistant to help me compile evidence from digitised print, visual, and material culture sources. This formed the foundation of my early research – and confirmed what I thought about the significance of placing the terms manly and manliness in their context of a modernising society. Actually, A Manly Nation, never got written. It seemed a bit conventional in form and it didn’t really reflect what the students engaged most with. And, to be honest, while the book proposal got two positive reviews, one was lukewarm. So, I decided to rethink it.

My refocusing of ideas was shaped by the module and students’ responses to it. After a year of teaching, it was quite clear which seminars the students chose to write up in their seminar portfolios, and which workshops and classes that they contributed most to or were enthused by. The topics that they selected were those which asked them to investigate how facial hair was linked to manliness, why prize fighters were viewed as idealised men, the ways in which soldiers and sailors were crucial to conveying ideals of masculinity, the consequences for men and masculinity of bodily damage through industrial accidents and war, and the roles of men in the home. Increasingly, what linked these topics in my mind, and the way we discussed them in class, was men’s bodies, emotions, and material culture. So, by the next iteration of the module and my own research, I began to pay more attention to the centrality of men’s bodies to ideas about manliness.

I also became more and more interested in the way that ‘things’ – objects of various kinds – were decorated with images of manliness. In fact, the second version of the module explicitly separated seminars, which incorporated discussion around various questions and sources, from workshops that followed them, which focused on objects and spaces related to masculinity. One such object was Sunderland lustreware, which often had images of brave sailors on it. This jug, for example, is decorated with the ubiquitous sailors’ farewell. Seeing how students found these sources interesting to use to think through bigger issues, such as national identity, empire, and war was really important for me. It found its way first into an article, Tears and the Manly Sailor, as well as proving to be a real inspiration for the ways in which I framed my research and book.

I led the module for the last time in 2015 – I’d taught it for four years by now – but retired it when I got my job as Head of School in 2016. By this point I had settled on the chapter structure of Manliness in Britain, with one chapter focusing on the idealised manly body, the second on unmanly bodies, the third on martial manliness and material culture, the fourth on manliness and the home, and the fifth on notions of the working and heroic male body. On revisiting Making Men’s weekly classes to write this, I realised just how much they shaped this final book structure. By this time, I’d also arrived at what would be the overarching approach and ‘take’ of my book, which I’d developed through a combination of the iterative process of teaching, as well as to beginning to write blog posts (which I also did to share my ideas with my students) and introducing aspects of my research to seminar and conference audiences.

So, Manliness in Britain is, first and foremost, a study of the way that men’s emotionalised bodies and emotional objects were key to transmitting the values of manliness to a wider audience. I use the term emotionalised bodies to align with the concept of emotional objects, where things become repositories for people’s groups’ or, even, national emotions and act to disseminate feelings and values. Here I use use the cultural theorist, Sara Ahmed’s formulation of ‘stickiness’, whereby meaning sticks to objects, signs, and bodies which then transfer that meaning – conveyed through a process of substitution from one object to another.[1] For my argument, this means that the emotions that bodies and objects elicited are sticky with meaning. The illustrated wallpaper from the British Workman below rather captures the ’intermateriality’ of image, text, and object, where you see an imagined father teaching his child through didactic, moral illustrations (of men) pasted on the wall.[2] When people encountered the idealised manly attributes linked with men’s bodies in other forms and locations, they recognised them and the feelings they stirred acted to reinforce associated ideas around gender identities.

Oxford Brookes awarded me a semester’s sabbatical, in 2018, to write my book. As I began furiously writing and filling in gaps of research, the book took a further shift because I suddenly realised that the men’s bodies depicted were predominantly working-class ones. This transformed the book again, and – very late in the day – Manliness in Britain became an account of the cultural uses of imagined working-class men’s bodies. In the book’s new form, I seek to queer the history of masculinities and its hierarchies, determining to avoid heteronormative assumptions when thinking about the ways in which gendered values are communicated. I show that manly bodies were objectified, intended to arouse feelings in those who encountered them, which, whether specifically erotic or not, made the gender attributes they embodied desirable. So, the idealised, eroticised young working man might be desired by some elite men as a lover, for others, he was alluring because his physical and emotional charisma displayed ideal manliness.

Below is a very expensive, elaborate, and intimate example and one that is embedded in teaching this module, since it was there that I and the students selected boxers as a way to think through manliness. This image on the slide is Lord Byron’s decoupage dressing screen, dated around 1812, on which images of prize fighters were cut out and glued, posed in fighting stance.

Lord Byron’s screen after conservation by Britton & Storey Art Conservation. John Murray Collection. Reproduced courtesy of the John Murray Collection.

The cuttings celebrate the depicted boxers’ bodies. Those placed next to ‘Gentleman’ Jackson, for example, admire his strength, initiative, and ‘bottom’ (fans’ slang word for courage). One text box praises his ‘anatomical beauty, and … athletic and muscular appearance’. The paragraph selected for Bob Gregson, known as ‘Dutch Sam’, similarly commends his physique:

To Nature he is indebted for a fine figure, and his appearance is manly and imposing; and who has been considered so good an anatomical subject to descant upon that Mr. CARLISLE, the celebrated Professor of Anatomy at the Royal Academy, has selected BOB to stand several times for that purpose; and who has likewise been the subject of the pencils of LAWRENCE, DAW.

Strikingly, these corporeal accounts also attach emotions to bodies. The text chosen for Tom Johnson describes him as ‘extremely active, cheerful, and good-tempered,’ winning in 1789 although his opponent Isaac Perrins was three stone heavier. The newspaper cutting for Richard Humphries, ascribes to him ‘gaiety’ and ‘impetuosity’. Two black American boxers are placed alongside each other, Tom Molineaux and Bill Richmond, both born in slavery. Richmond, who lived in England for most of his life, trained Molineaux when he visited to fight Tom Crib. Posed like the white fighters, the cuttings acknowledge their race, applauding Richmond’s ability as ‘a Man of Colour’ to remain ‘good tempered and placid’ in the face of the racial ‘taunts and insults’ he received. As an aside, I should say, that if I’d realised sooner what my book was about, I’d have engaged more thoroughly with the construction of race that manliness encompasses. What I was seeing, after all, was also the construction of white manliness, and, if I were beginning this book again, I’d have sought out more such sources.

Back to the screen. It is not clear who crafted it, though it was preserved and passed down in Byron’s publisher’s family, after John Murray purchased it in 1816, when Byron left England.  By the twentieth century, the screen, now designated a ‘relic,’ was understood to have been made by Byron’s own hands; and even if it was not, Byron’s interaction with the collaged screen may have extended beyond purchasing it, since it was further embellished with painted ‘blood’ splatters. For me the key issue is that whatever its origin, Byron’s screen does more than showcase his love of boxing and membership of the Fancy, a fraternal community devoted to pugilism. It is the physical manifestation of a homosocial culture of masculinity predicated on the mixing of patrician and plebeian men brought into close proximity by their love of prize-fighting. On these four panels we also witness elite men’s admiration for white and black working-class men’s sporting skill, strength, and fortitude. More than this, the images thrum with erotic potential in their celebration of men’s physicality and beauty. As Gary Dyer remarks, the ‘boxing subculture was one of the rare arenas where one could celebrate the male body … and depictions that foster aesthetic responses have been known to foster erotic ones as well, whether deliberately or inadvertently.’[3]  As such, Byron’s screen is a three-dimensional object that materialised working-class manliness and the desire and emotions that it stimulated. 

And desire dominates the decoupage. For Byron, who enjoyed sex with men and women, the boxers’ bodies were homoerotically charged. But, as I’ve mentioned, and this is what shapes my book, the allure of the pugilists’ bodies extended further than sexual desire. In their muscularity, athleticism, and agility they, perhaps, reminded Byron of his own bodily aspirations and shortcomings. He was obsessed by his body throughout life (and his appearance, as you can tell from this beautiful portrait); born with a club foot, which caused pain and lameness, he also persistently fought a tendency to corpulence through diet control and a boxing training. Moreover, once Byron attained celebrity status, reactions to his body were ambiguous and complex. Though commentators were beguiled by his beauty, they also noticed his foot and gait, intrigued that for all his handsomeness, his body did not conform to notions of health, vigour, and shapeliness. This screen was an emotional object onto which he may have projected anxieties about his own body, his desire for the perfect, anatomically ‘correct,’ male figure, and the values associated with it. As such, the boxers’ emotionalised bodies embodied and conveyed a desire for manliness itself.

In parallel, unmanliness was projected through abjectified non-conforming bodies, frequently those of white-working class men, as well as those ethnically and racially marginalised, which were marked out as uncontrolled, ugly, and, consequently, disgusting. Typically, these were men who failed to master their own bodies, emotions, and habits. My second chapter explores some of the main representative figures of unmanliness, including smokers, drunkards, and masturbators. These emotionalised bodies were culturally useful in making unmanliness frightening, unappealing, and to be avoided. The warnings of the risks of drunkenness, for instance, were represented through men’s emotionalised bodies, often via the bodily and material decline of the respectable working-class family man.

To some extent, this was inspired by illustrations from George Cruickshank’s series The Bottle that I’d used in teaching, a set of images which visually describes the physical and mental decline of a formerly respectable man. As this photograph below shows, the prints were transferred onto a range of decorative ceramic objects including plates, jugs, teapots, and plaques. Each time such objects were encountered in the home the sticky values were transferred and internalised. Indeed, as I learned, the physical characteristics of the drunken male body were so recognisable that they were used to evoke the corporeal inadequacies of men who manifested other failures of will.

In ‘Penny Puffs; or the £90,’ published in the British Workman, 1856, for example, a labouring man is informed to his amazement that he has spent £90 in a lifetime on tobacco. The illustration of his face demonstrates a crudeness of feature similar to the drunkard in ‘Loss; Gain’ in the same periodical, 1855, below.[4]  Both are what Sharrona Pearl describes as ‘caricature physiognomy,’ their simian features indicating that intemperate bodies were subject to racial degeneration.[5] This was about the construction of difference, usually deployed against Irish, Jewish, and black people, but which also included a bodily othering of white working-class men to differentiate unmanliness from manliness.

In ‘Our Gin-shops’ published in the British Workman, 1855, the reader is asked to look at the men standing at the counter, to witness the:

pale-faced, pallid-looking gin-drinker; see the eyes large and sunk deep in the sockets, as with his fingers, like the claws of an unclean bird …. It is horrible to look at him. And yet that is a man! See that other standing; the dull waters of disease stagnant in his eye – sensuality seated upon his cracked, swollen, parched lip; see him gibbering in all the idiocy of drunkenness. That is a man! 

The repeated incredulous refrain ‘that is a man!’ takes its power from the disjuncture between the drunkard’s dirty, ill, avian body and the ideal manly body that I outline in my first chapter. You can see the power of abjectified bodies and their stickiness with emotion when I explain that the descriptions of the gin-drinkers’ bodies are almost identical to those of masturbators, whose self-indulgence was seen in the nineteenth century as a consequence and cause of other forms of sensuality and wayward appetites and, increasingly, mental illness. In 1876, for example, R. V. Pierce detailed the degeneration that ensued from ‘abuse of the sexual organs:’ sunken eyes, bloated and pale face, rank body odour, then increasingly weakness in legs, trembling hands, melancholy and suicidal thoughts.[6] All these bodily incapacities and inadequacies stirred fear and deployed disgust to strengthen their didactic power.

The solution to avoiding masturbation was the same as building manliness: restricted diet, bodily exercise, outdoor living, cold baths, healthy eating, and prayer. Social and moral commentators had long made a connection between succumbing to temptation and escalating vice, but in the long nineteenth century the failure of self-control was pathologised and considered to fuel a descent into physical degeneracy and madness. For most men, therefore, the risks to manliness caused by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity, or simply indulging in pleasurable bodily habits instead of rigorous self-mastery, were made very visible and visceral: unappealing bodies, disease and insanity. As such, the penalties for unmanliness and conveyed in emotionalised bodies were shockingly real, endangering a man’s place in his family and community and the root of the dissolution of self.

Another aspect of my book, which was directly related to and rooted in my teaching – is the complex ideal of the military man. One of Making Men’s weekly themes, as I mentioned earlier, was fighting men and we had both a seminar and workshop focused on soldiers and sailors. The seminar portfolio, for instance, required students to: ‘Analyse how images of military OR naval men changed over the Georgian and Victorian periods’ and the related workshop asked them to select a primary source relating to martial men and present on what it says about the relationship between martial values and ideals of masculinity. Now, this teaching helped me realise just how much objects were central to conveying ideas about manliness, because we often discussed objects that could be defined as emotional objects, which had personal as well as cultural meaning.

In many respects this helped shape the final form of my book’s chapter three: ‘Hearts of Oak: Martial Manliness and Material Culture’. In it I analyse lots of different artefacts of war and the military, including uniforms, weapons, medals, ships, and regimental colours. I also analyse objects encountered at the domestic level including toys, ceramics, and textiles, which depicted martial manliness or had intimate connections with soldiers and sailors. They appealed to all age groups, genders, and social classes, since many were priced for a modest pocket and had a domestic function or ornamental appeal. I also traced the emotionalised bodies and material culture that celebrity military heroes generated, from consumable products that deployed their names and images, to the monuments that memorialised them, to the very stuff of their bodies (in the examples I selected, a skull and a heart). Such material culture conveyed martial values that were keenly associated with manliness. This irresistible nexus of emotionalised bodies and objects prompted affective responses, which disseminated, reinforced, and maintained civilian manly identities.

I’ll just offer one example here. The Victoria Cross, first issued for gallantry in 1857, was one of the most popular objects that functioned as a point of entry for readers to imagine military manliness. The article for boys, ‘Soldiers and the Victoria Cross by an Army chaplain,’ published in 1863, in The Boys’ Own Magazine, opens with the disingenuous claim that English boys are less warlike than their French counterparts, for they neither worship ‘la gloire’, nor dress like soldiers; ‘Swords and guns are not their only playthings, nor are feeble imitations of sanguinary contests their only pastimes’.[7] Of course, this distinction actually emphasises the centrality of martial material culture to British boys’ fascination with war.

It also highlights the significance of feelings in constructions of martial manliness. Rather than telling tales of soldiers’ bravery, it focuses on the emotions of combat and the battlefield. The chaplain states: ‘One early object of our curiosity was to ascertain what are the sensations or feelings of a soldier on entering battle’. He answers this through the sensory nature of fighting: ‘as the bullet whizzed past the ear, and comrade after comrade dropped,’ likening the experience to the disorientation of a bather plunging into water. The Chaplain presents a powerful image of English soldiers as masters of self-restraint (remember this was a feature of manliness), noting that they were silent in hand-to-hand fighting, unlike the Russians who were noisy when advancing and fighting. His account does not pull its visceral punches; he describes a soldier going mad after his friend’s brains splattered in his face. For all its graphic nature, perhaps, even, because of it, this account of the materiality of combat conjures a striking picture of martial men who fight despite fear, comrades who support each other in battle, and may, though he suggests otherwise, shed furious tears in battle.[8] 

The Boys’ Own Magazine also celebrates martial self-sacrifice through regimental colours, another type of object that personified manly bravery and selflessness for civilians as well as the military (today you’ll see retired colours displayed in churches – as above). The Chaplain explains that one or two subalterns and several sergeants were nominated to guard the colours, while the bravest men in the regiment would rally round them when they were in danger. As he concludes, a ‘Grateful country will not forget men who loved colours better than their lives’. The article describes other objects that emphasise the poignancy and appeal of martial manliness, listing the ‘Many small pledges of affection [that] were found on the persons of our soldiers who fell on the battle-fields of the Crimea’. These included a lock of hair, a photograph, a last letter from home, a small bible, and a father’s gift of a watch; all explicitly understood to be repositories of emotions associated with the courage and endurance of military action and life.[9] Here, I’m reminded of conversations in class where the martial objects selected for discussion were family relatives’ medals.

Another account of men awarded the Victoria Cross in The Boy’s Own Magazine, 1863, similarly deployed material culture to emphasise military men’s emotional intensity (and I would suggest, their broader allure for civilian manliness). It described the siege of Bergen-op-Zoom (1814), where Captain Fraser directed his servant, Donald, to remain in the garrison while he conducted his men to attack a battery. Engaged in this manoeuvre, the captain halted for a short time; then on moving forward he found his path impeded. Putting his hand down he seized a plaid, and drew his dirk, thinking one of his men was deserting, only to discover his servant Donald. When asked why he was there, Donald answered: ‘”It was just my love for you”‘. He tells Fraser that he brought the plaid because:

How could I ever show my face to my mother (she was Fraser’s foster-mother) had you been killed or wounded, and I not been there to carry you to the surgeon or to Christian burial? And how could I do either without a plaid to wrap you in?[10]

Same-sex affection clearly heightened the appeal of martial manliness for those who encountered it, as did the rootedness of martial manliness and its values within the family and home.

Though the narrative style was harder, more brutal, even vicious by the turn of the century, material culture and emotions still remained central to martial manliness. The demise of Harry Keston, in a tale set in the South African war in The Marvel (1899) deploys weaponry to horrific effect. When Harry is wounded in a rout, a scene of wild disorder, he throws aside his rifle and, holding a revolver in each hand, tries to secure higher ground. The Boers swarm the knoll; one of them, Paul Pieters, Harry’s personal enemy, charges at him. Left only with an empty revolver, Harry fights like ‘a wild animal … striking out heavily with his fists, kicking, snarling, butting savagely.’ Taken prisoner and assured that Pieters will torture him the next day, Harry elects to end his own life. He is unable to fire a loaded gun he finds on the ground, because his arms are bound. A chilling scene follows that unites innocent tropes of childhood pleasures with the aggressive, competitive version of manliness that dominated the imperial, militaristic culture of late nineteenth century Britain.  First, the sight of his bare toes reminds him of a childhood visit to a circus in which an armless performer used his toes like fingers. Thus inspired:

By the aid of his toes, and by lying on his side, Keston managed to get the barrel of the rifle between his knees. It was then an easy matter to work it up till the muzzle entered his mouth… With his toes he felt for the trigger of the rifle, keeping the butt firmly against the ground, found it, and rested the big toe of his right foot upon it. A moment’s hesitation. Bang!’[11] 

These emotions were worlds apart from earlier cheerfulness, sentimental fraternal comradeship, and tender feeling that marked out accounts of the military earlier in the nineteenth century. Instead, they conveyed the individualistic and antagonistic model of martial manliness that underpinned Robert Baden-Powell’s scouting model of masculinity, with self-mastery now enacted through self-annihilation, rather than laying down one’s life for one’s comrades. Still, for the youths reading this literature, the combination of excitement, admiration, and violence helped to make this version of aggressive manliness equally desirable. This shows how the combination of bodies, emotions, and material culture could be updated to promote new versions of manliness.

I only have space for one more example from my book, for my fourth chapter also reflects how my teaching informed my research and my sense of what was useful to evidence my arguments. As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that we covered in Making Men, and which students really engaged with, is the relationship between masculinity and the home. Our seminar portfolio activity was for students to critique John Tosh’s thesis that a flight from domesticity occurred in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. He argued that a new generation of men reacted against the emphasis on domesticity as a defining feature of masculinity, and postponed or opted out of marriage, turned to homosocial leisure outside the home, and sought out careers in the empire. I can see that our seminar discussions around this influenced the central argument of my fourth chapter, which tackles how manliness was configured through the emotionalised spaces of the home. For, what I saw us grappling with was the extent to which men were actually present within the home or not and how far both domesticity and the supposed flight were imaginary constructs. Indeed, I argue that while the imagined space of the home was the locus for concepts of manliness and unmanliness, paradoxically, most of its cultural power was situated in men’s enforced absence from it.

In some ways, the imagined significance of the home for men’s selfhood and identity arguably increased. In 1871, the British Workman published the tale of a mariner, Darby, whose captain advised him to remember “that ‘home’ is a sacred word – ‘tis a word that has a meaning in heaven. Yes, Darby, work for the ‘home.’ Save for it; spend by-and-by in it … God intended the thought of ‘home’ to do much for a man’. He concluded, “the man who has ‘home’ in his heart, will, by God’s blessing turn out well’. Of course, this was a middle-class message for working-class men. In 1857 the same magazine contained a poem titled ‘Come back as soon as you can,’ illustrated by a top-hatted man, bidding farewell to his daughter at the garden gate. The middle-class poet announces that his daughter always says goodbye to him by imploring, ‘As soon as you can, come home’. He advises the working man to ‘get home,’ since that is where ‘a man and a father be.’ As with working-class men throughout the book, they were instructed on how to be manly, but also served as exemplars onto which middle-class men projected their own concerns. Here was the ever-present tension for men; required to leave home to work but told that it was central to their identity.

In this chapter I argue that while manly men were often envisioned outside the home, they were nevertheless considered integral to its success, because they were fighting for it, defending it, or providing for it. Indeed, men were most often depicted literally on their doorstep, as with this picture in the British Workman above. I use specific case studies, most of which, it should be said, had their roots in images I selected when writing lectures and seminars. I became especially obsessed, for example, with George Hicks, The Sinews of Old England when putting together a seminar. This inspired sections on the motif of men leaving and returning home to go to work or fight for their nation. Though men were shown to be absent, their minds, on the other hand, were understood to be directed towards home: all the time dreaming of cottage, wife and family, and longing to be remembered. Together these were intended as motivating forces for men’s manly endeavours – outside the home. When print and visual culture imagined men in the home, it was as catalysts for a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ home, predominantly fashioned through their performance of key emotions. To some extent, what I try and do is argue that representations of the productive, heroic absent manly man resolved the conflict between the competing demands of home and work for masculine identity. It was the present unmanly man whose leisure and work disrupted the home who must be avoided at all costs.

And I close chapter four with a section on the disruptive man within the home. Often, the ways in which unmanliness was materialised within the home was through metaphors of work and work-wear, a striking cultural trope that demonstrated that the home was not the haven from work when work intruded into it and its inhabitants’ lives in the most grotesque fashion. The best example is the working boot, both clog and hobnail versions, industrial workers’ footwear which became the most notorious object associated with wife beating. This helped embellish and embed the stereotype of the working-class wife beater in public discourse and conscience. You may by now not be surprised to learn that I’d used these objects in my classes on another module that I designed and is still taught at level 5 in an updated form, as a way to get students to think through how historians can use material culture to illuminate their subjects. These teaching ‘hooks’ find their way again and again into my published research.

And, so, finally, the book was published in March 2020, which was, as you will imagine, a very strange time to publish something. As a result, I have not felt much like self-promotion over this year. It is nice, therefore, to have the chance to talk about my work today, to revisit what I’ve lived with for the last eight years, and to share the role that teaching played in bringing it to life. As I said at the start, my teaching has been integral to this research project in that it inspired and motivated me to think afresh about the topic of masculinities, emotions, and material culture, and because student engagement helped me see what was the best way to formulate and develop my ideas. The result is a book which shows that manly bodies are reified as symbols, progenitors, and defenders of gender, society, and nation, and thus are repeatedly manipulated and made-over to improve men and masculinity at an individual and collective level and across social classes. Working with my students on these issues has helped me talk to broader public audiences about such important topics as toxic masculinities, men and emotions, gaslighting, and the dangers of unrealizable bodily ideals. For example, the slide shows the ‘How to be a Man’ event that I led around these issues earlier this year as part of the Think Human Festival. Moreover, these events often end with members of the public audience offering their very moving and powerful thoughts and experiences on gender and sex. In the end, therefore, I sincerely believe that this co-constitutive form of teaching, research, and public engagement showcases and disseminates the critical importance of arts, humanities and social science subjects to society and helps us fight for them at a time when progressive values can seem to be under threat.

This blog post is a version of the talk I gave to Oxford Brookes History Society in December 2020. I wanted to give students some insights into how teaching can inform research, and their role in this. My book, however, is an academic monograph and very expensive. Still you can read a sample chapter for free on the publisher’s webpage.


[1] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2004) pp. 89-92

[2] ‘A Father’s Lessons on the Illustrated Wall-papers’, British Workman, 2 May 1870.

[3] Gary Dyer, ‘Thieves, Boxers, Sodomites, Poets: Being flash to Byron’s Don Juan,’ Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, 116:3 (2001), 570.

[4] ‘Loss! Gain! British Workman, 1865

[5] Sharrona Pearl, About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, Mass./London: Harvard University Press, 2010)

[6] Ray Vaughn Pierce, The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English, or Medicine Simplified (Buffalo, New York: World’s Dispensary Printing Office and Bindery, 1876), pp. 801-2.

[7] ‘Soldiers and the Victoria Cross by an Army chaplain,’ The Boy’s Own Magazine: An Illustrated Journal Of Fact, Fiction, History, And Adventure, 2 (1863), p. 309.

[8] ‘Soldiers and the Victoria Cross by an Army chaplain,’ Boy’s Own Magazine, 2 (1863), p. 310-314.

[9] Ibid, p. 315.

[10] The Boy’s Own Magazine, 2 (1863), p. 483.

[11] The Marvel (9 Dec, 1899), p. 13

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