I'm a Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University. I teach social and cultural British History from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. My specialisms include the history of emotions, masculinities, marriage, parenting, and family.
Family, home, work, and schooling have collided in the last year thanks to Covid. This has made visible the tensions between different parts of our lives and brought into stark relief gender stereotypes about caring. These issues were the spur to an open lecture exploring the role of fathers in the home today and in the past which I presented with Professor Tina Miller, chaired by Dr Patrick Alexander. It was part of the Oxford Brookes University Think Human Festival that will culminate in a series of exciting events in April 2022.
Tina and I work on fathering and fatherhood and we were both keen to talk about this in the light of Covid19. After all, lockdown has seen more of us spending time in the home for work, education, and leisure as well as family life. This has led to much questioning of gendered caring roles and opened up to scrutiny the issue of who does what when we’re at home and how this gets organised and practised. In our presentations and Q&A we ask what do fathers do in the home? Are fathers more involved now than ever before? Do men and women share the physical and emotional labours of parenting?
Historians’ motivation for researching the subjects they are passionate about are varied. It’s only in the last few years that we’ve been able to acknowledge the roots of our interests, often so very personal, emotional, and subjective. Everything from family trips to castles, children’s television programmes, and major political events noticed in childhood push us to know more.
I’ve talked about one of the causes of my own love of history before. It is Ruth M. Arthur’s The Saracen Lamp (1970), which I read as a child. I remembered this in 2016 when writing an epilogue for Feeling Things, the wonderful volume on emotional objects edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, and Sarah Randle. I wanted to handle The Saracen Lamp as well as remember it, so I found one online and bought it. I sourced the copy that I recognised from childhood, the 1978 edition, and opening it prompted a sensory and emotional memory of being a child. It made me fall in love again with Margery Gill’s beautiful illustrations, magical line-drawings of medieval life.
My memories of this ‘magical’ artefact, helped me in my epilogue to reflect on the relationship between objects, emotions, and identity. As I noted in my chapter ‘Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel’: ‘In this book I see my love of gender and family history, and belief in the power of material culture’. I went on to talk about the ways Davis’ book inspired me as a historian in a short video made for Oxford Brookes Think Human Festival in 2018 as part of a series called ‘Books that made me’. I also wonder now if my choice of the name Gabriel for my son was influenced by the protagonist’s brother having that same name! But crucially, this childhood object was part of my thinking through how to situate the individual, idiosyncratic response to emotional objects within more general historical factors. As I observed
emotional autobiographies can be written to great effect not just about individuals, but also about families, communities, and nations, to offer new insights into societies across time and place. Perhaps what strikes me most about my egotistical game of ‘I have an object, therefore I am who I am’ is its cultural and historical specificity; it reveals a life in a precise time and place. Although yours and my emotional objects might differ, they will be composed of shared items and forms, for they are shaped in very similar ways which reveal societal and cultural rules.
Serendipitously, I discovered just recently that I can confidently stand by my proposal that we can read outwards from an individual’s emotional object to broader, historicisable shared influences. This is because Professor Jennifer Jones got in touch to let me know that she had read my chapter in Feeling Things. She was startled to see my reflections on Arthur’s book. She told me that as a girl living in Chicago in the early 1970s, she devoured every book Ruth M. Arthur wrote. But The Saracen Lamp was a special favorite. She explained:
The book was so special to me that when it came time to celebrate the summer that I finished writing my first book, Sexing la Mode: Gender, Fashion, and Commercial Culture in Old Regime France (2004), I bought a copy of The Saracen Lamp on eBay and spent an entire day luxuriating in the story.
Jennifer’s book is a wonderful history of French fashion culture, which uses material culture to explore the gendering of modern commercial culture. My publications focus on the relationship between gender, emotions, and material culture. It cannot simply be an uncanny coincidence that both Jennifer and I read Ruth M. Arthur’s fiction as girls and that it inspired us both to study the history of gender, family, and objects? Clearly, we are products of our cultural time and place to the extent that we could respond similarly to the SAME emotional object. Interestingly, it also shows we are not prisoners of one cultural moment. For when I got my copy of The Saracen Lamp and read it avidly, I was more surprised by the aspects of it that I’d forgotten than those I’d remembered.
I had recalled well the beguilingly evocative descriptions of historical artefacts and place, especially clothing and buildings, and how the lamp was the device used to move the reader through different centuries, with a wonderful dash of the supernatural. Indeed Arthur’s books are described as ‘timeslip romances‘. What I’d forgotten was the exoticism of the figure of the Saracen, Yusuf/Joseph, ‘brave as a lion’, who once captured by a Crusader became the Count’s loyal servant. He was ‘a fine looking man, a little younger than my father’ (p. 10) says Melisande, the fourteen-year-old protagonist. Yusuf gives her the lamp he has crafted himself when she leaves southern France to be married to an English knight. This is secretly gifted because her father banished Yusuf a few months before. Melisande leaves with her prospective husband, bereft at leaving her family and the Saracen. It is only months later that she learns from her older brother that Joseph took his own life the day after her departure, and that he had been banished because he had wanted to marry Melisande. That’s an age gap that would not be presented romantically today, to say the least.
This book speaks to me of memories of my childhood, and evokes several times and places, real and imagined. I can see aspects of all this in the way I think about and write history. Are there more historians (perhaps only female ones?) who grew up in the ’70s-80s whose shared similar cultural and imaginative worlds shaped their research interests? As Jennifer asked:
I wonder how many other historians who focus on gender, family, and material culture were shaped by the magical worlds recreated by Ruth M. Arthur?!
If anyone reading this has similar experiences, drop a comment. I’d love to know more about emotional objects that shape lives.
Today we see favouring one child over another as a risk to happy family life and psychologically damaging for those who are least favoured. This is by no means new. Moral commentators and writers on parenting have long warned parents against favouritism, while simultaneously expecting it to take place. The author of Moral essays, published in 1796, pointed out the results of favouritism: a thousand ill consequences, ‘strife, division, and animosity, [which] usurp the seats of harmony and peace. They warned that
where jealousy and hatred are thus early sown, they generally shoot up in a rank and fruitful harvest of guilt and misery. For, when children find it impossible to please, they will naturally lose all desire of pleasing; where they are contemned [sic], they will contemn [sic]; and where they are injured, they will resent.
Even so, the author also declared that ‘there is scarce a large and numerous family to be met with, where this evil is not in some measure seen, felt, and lamented.’ Understanding why societies have seen favouritism as both inevitable and abhorrent can give us insights into family life in the past and how it was shaped by broader social and political practices.
We are already familiar with the way ideas about the early modern state shaped those about the family and vice versa. The patriarchal household was envisioned as a micro-state, justifying the male head of household’s rule over his dependents and shaping the gender politics of family life and society. However, other social and political institutions also had their familial counterparts. In the long eighteenth century, the most dominant was patronage, a configuration of connections and networks through which men gained preferment and posts in politics and the professions, such as the armed forces, the church, the law, and medicine. Deemed morally legitimate, patronage was a sanctioned and formalised process that shaped social, political, and professional life. It functioned through kinship, with preferment granted to sons, grandsons, sons-in-law, cousins, and nephews. It was by no means a male-only process, as Margot Finn shows, since it was rooted in the family institution and women were central to its functioning, acting as mediators between individuals and institutions, facilitating the exchange of gifts, entertainment, and knowledge that was central to the visibility and selection of men. Notions of authority, dependence, and reciprocity underpinned both patron and familial relationships. Those seeking preferment were deferential and stressed the patron’s obligations to them as dependents. In return for preferment, and not unlike children’s filial duties to parents, clients offered duty, affection, political, economic, social, and professional allegiances and support.
So, the question is, when much public life was based on preferring one family member to another, why was family favouritism so condemned and feared? The answer is twofold, rooted in eighteenth-century understandings of personal merit and of differential treatment, in which treating offspring differently could still be fair. Equity, in these cases, was not the same as equality, with equal access to opportunities regardless of gender, race, wealth, and class. It was about identifying an individual’s inner merit and offering them opportunities determined by their gender, race, wealth, and class. Thus, favouritism occurred when parents ignored inner merit and it encompassed behaviours deemed unfair because they elevated someone beyond the natural order. Favour was, after all, a vexed and complex phenomenon that had problematic associations with ideas about merit. There were longstanding suspicions about the role of royal favourites who exercised enormous influence and power due to this favour, yet were selected primarily because of their physical appeal and allure. As Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor observe, the rise of a favourite risked the wellbeing of the polity, since they might sway the monarch to ignore their other subjects’ needs. In many ways, this paralleled the rhetoric used about family favouritism. Favour continued to have a political dimension in the eighteenth century, since the concept of the royal favourite retained power during the era of parliamentary monarchy, especially as a way to attack the relations between a monarch and chief minister.
Favoured or favourite?
Being favoured could be unproblematic. Life-writers sometimes uncritically mentioned that a child was favoured, simply outlining the qualities or actions that made them so favoured. In a bundle of letters from Lucy Gray, daughter of a prominent York lawyer, to her nephew William Gray, a report about William and his sister, dated January 1809, notes that:
William is very quick, an amazing talker & a very great favourite with us all. He spent the day with us yesterday. He makes the home quite cheerful when we have him and is a very good child. We have him at table with us, when he does not speak a word except that when Grace is said he adds Amen – & yesterday after eating at a good rate he laid his hands on his stomach & called out “Williams cavity very full”. After Dinner he is always in high spirits & expects to have a riot with his Aunts. He was two years old on the 12th of Dec.
Moreover, certain family members were associated with partiality for specific children, especially uncles, aunts, and grandparents. It was, however a very different situation when parents had favourite offspring. While Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnson happily described her grandson as a pet, for example, she was worried that her granddaughter Mary was ‘too much an idol with both parents’. Notably, parents themselves rarely admitted to a marked preference for one child. The one exception was following the death of a child when they might confess that he or she was a favourite. Hannah Robertson’s memoir, written in 1791, painfully recounted her suffering at the deaths of all her children, though about her youngest son she confessed, ‘he was my dearest child! – this favourite son was in the silent grave!’ More troublingly, evangelical parents might believe themselves divinely punished for favouring a child. Lucy Gray’s mother, Faith, explained that she worried that the death of her four-year-old son from scarlet fever in 1795, a favourite with his parents, was a stroke of punishment for the great grief she had experienced for the loss her infant daughter fifteen months earlier. Here we glimpse the complexities of favouritism emerging.
Merit in a differential society
So, what type of partiality towards children did society identify as problematic? Essentially, it was when circumstances drove it rather than internal merit, such as superficial beauty or talents, personality, or the child’s similarity to parents. James Nelson commented in his advice for parents, published in 1753, ‘It is true indeed that it may, and sometimes does happen, that one Child in a Family is superior in Parts to the rest, or is particularly engaging, and may be said to merit that partial Distinction Parents make’. Still, to favour them for this was reprehensible. In 1792, the clergyman William Braidwood advocated that children not be ‘overlooked, despised, and maltreated, perhaps merely for the want of personal accomplishments, or a deficiency in bright and shining talents, which the great Author of nature hath conferred on some, and denied to others.’ It was ‘absurd or unnatural’ that favourites were ‘caressed, and respected, and allowed to trample on one who ought to be accounted their equal’, only ‘because they are more beautiful, or sprightly’. Even in 1830, William Cobbett was still warning fathers: ‘partiality sometimes arises from mere caprice; sometimes from the circumstances of the favourite being more favoured by nature than the rest; sometimes from the nearer resemblance to himself, that the father sees in the favourite’. None of these indicated merit, the authors insisted. As Nelson remarked, does it ‘not often happen, that the greatest Favourite is the greatest Booby?’ In any case, differences between children were often not the result of ‘malice’, but perhaps of ‘giddy youth’. He admonished, ‘Parents should by all Means consider, that every Child is equally the Object of their Love and Care; and, by the Right of Nature, equally demands their Protection.
Nature was key. Natural law meant parents should love their children, but in a hierarchical society, children were different from each other as was their access to benefits and privileges. Indeed, authors noted that birth order and gender might cause favouritism. A ‘Letter to the editor’ in the 1804 Lady’s Magazine, saw ‘Priscilla Firstly’ compile a list of things generally considered ‘first’, one of which was the first child who ‘is often spoiled by the indiscreet fondness of the parents’. This had to be handled carefully, however; after all, it was undisputed that a first-born son was going to have greater opportunities than younger sons and daughters. Yet, parents were warned that favouring first-born children or sons was wrong. James Nelson, in his essay on the government of children (1753), observed ‘Sometimes the Father has his Darling, and the Mother her’s [sic]; sometimes they both doat [sic] on the same Child’; for the most part, though, ‘Mothers are extravagantly fond of the Boys, and either treat the Girls with a visible Indifference, or grossly neglect them, they know not why.’
A structurally sexist society may well offer the explanation, since not only were women often complicit with the advancement of patriarchy, they were also deemed as less rational than men and censured for favouritism’s worst ills. The real problem, as glimpsed in the blame apportioned to women, was that over-indulging children was unfair because it would damage them, undermining their personal morals and merit. Despite being a prudent wife, tender mother, and real Christian, Amelia Stanhope in ‘The Female Reformer by Bob Short’ ‘A Mother’s Failings’ (1784), was too partial towards her eldest daughter. Named after her, the girl ‘is daily dressed out so fine, or as some would say, so tawdry, that she is more like a Bartholomew doll than anything else.’ Superficial trappings took precedence at the cost of the child’s character; the comparison to a cheap, brightly painted doll sold at a disorderly fair implied that the partiality would compromise the daughter’s virtue.
In ‘The Unnatural Mother from Marmontelle’, published in the Lady’s Magazine, 1782, the author linked the mother’s usurpation of marital authority to her partiality for one child and the ensuing familial collapse. The daughter of a French Intendant, she had agreed to marriage only on the condition that she had ‘absolute authority’ in her husband’s house. Quickly widowed and possessing too much power, this ‘unnatural mother’ favoured her eldest son, Mr De L’Etang. Her preference ruined him and he became headstrong, capricious, and bad tempered. She neglected James Coree, her younger son, who despite his mother’s enmity remained honourable, intelligent, and morally sound. Thanks to lack of maternal support, James left for Antilles to make his fortune. Damaged by her favouritism, the eldest son wasted the family fortune, leaving his mother in debt and ill. As with many such stories, the neglected child returned home. Tending his mother’s sick bed, James’ moral decency persuaded her that heaven was punishing her for her acts of favouritism; this revelation and her penance restored her to good health, a decent living, and appropriate patriarchal oversight since she went to live under James’s care in the Caribbean. Overall, such cautionary tales warned that both parental inability to identify inner merit in some offspring and the over-indulgence of others would lead to disaster for individuals, families, and society.
The rhetoric condemning favouritism sought to clarify and align ideas around merit with a notion of equity that was rooted in differential needs and societal and cultural constraints. Several writers acknowledged that reconciling equitable treatment, suitability, and merit was difficult. William Cobbett warned fathers that the division of property could lead to terrible hostilities in families. Fathers should, therefore, be impartial where property was concerned. Nonetheless, he reflected, this did not equate with equitable distribution in all cases, because offspring’s’ ‘different wants, their different pecuniary circumstances, and different prospects in life’ necessitated diversity. This might play out unexpectedly in discussions around parental partiality. In the Lady’s Magazine, 1783, the ‘Matron’, Mrs Gray, an agony-aunt, responded to Eliza Willis, a young woman who perceived her two younger brothers to be favoured over her. As a result, she says, the siblings insulted her, and her parents sent her to be apprenticed. Now nearing the end of her term, she asked should she return home to a ‘miserable’ life, or set up in business independently. The Matron acknowledges that many parents were too partial in the distribution of their favours to their children, making no efforts to conceal their partiality, leading to uneasiness and unhappy consequences. Nonetheless, she offered reasons why Eliza might be mistaken about her situation. Firstly, the two sexes require different modes of education since their views in life are distinct. Secondly, Eliza’s brother was, perhaps, less healthy and capable of making his way in the world than her; and, therefore watched with more care.
The factors shaping the treatment of children had several similarities to the structures shaping the patron-client relationship. Studies of eighteenth-century patronage argue that it was envisaged to be compatible with merit, defined as a set of qualities that deserved reward, since it often operated through knowledge of the candidate.  Indeed, in the clerical nepotism that William Gibson investigated, patrons actively sought to select meritorious kinsmen to place. In the section on naval and military officers in his Enquiry into the Duties of Men (1794), Thomas Gisborne similarly identified merit as central to preferment when he commented that patronage and promotion in the navy ‘ought to be considered as a public trust, and exercised with a strict regard to desert’. Those who promoted ‘a favourite, a friend, or a relation, to a post of which he is unworthy’, betrayed ‘sordid principles or an unskilful judgement; [which] discourages meritorious exertion throughout the service’ and thus laid the nation open to danger. For Gisborne, bestowing indulgences on men was fine as long as the practice aligned with the public good, just as bestowing charity should attend to the merit of the recipient. He recommended, therefore, that an officer should ‘allow to virtuous conduct every degree of reasonable weight in the granting of favours, and the distribution of preferment’. Favour was acceptable if bestowed on clients who deserved it through their good conduct. It is perhaps no coincidence that the advice he offered on the bestowing of preferment had its echoes in that given to parents; after all, the power structures on board ship mirrored domestic patriarchy, with the naval officer acting as a surrogate father over his men, inculcating in them morals and piety to protect against vice. In effect, both family and patronage operated through power relations structured by obligations between those who bestowed favour and its recipients. Both shared similar concerns about the elevation of those who did not possess sufficient merit or capacities over those who did.
Favouritism, conflict and disorder
In granting preferment, a patron sought to preserve family interests and, in some cases, professional and national ones, as well as status, and security. Yet patronage was seen as potentially destabilising, since those seeking preferment competed with each other within a process that frequently manifested itself as a jostling for restricted resources. Rivalry for resources was also one of the frequently mentioned outcomes of favouritism. Often derived from biblical injunctions against favouring one child, print culture fulsomely warned that favouritism’s outcome was wrathful offspring, hatred, rivalry, and conflict.  Loving one child above the rest of their children, the author of ‘A Mother’s Failings’ cautioned, led to the ‘ruin and destruction of the beloved object, and planting of a thorn in their [the parents’] dying pillows’. Most writers agreed that children were ruined by indulgence becoming, ‘haughty, overbearing, and petulant’, while the ‘neglected children’ ended up broken hearted or resentful’. As a result, offspring ‘conceive a Hatred to one another, and often to the Parents themselves, which perhaps lasts as long as their Lives’. William Braidwood’s sermons delineating parental duties, published in 1792, counselled that ‘an unwarrantable partiality’ would unfailingly provoke children ‘to wrath, and discourage them.’ Cobbett’s ‘Advice to Fathers’ explained that ‘By nature they are rivals for the affection and applause of the parents; in personal and mental endowments they become rivals’. In effect, favouritism resulted in internecine family conflict with implications for social cohesion. Nelson spelt these out as everything from lawsuits, to poverty, and rash marriages.
There is evidence that preferential treatment within families caused dispute. This could be especially complicated in blended families. When John South’s mother, for example, wrote to him when he was away at boarding school in the early 1810s she voiced her resentment about his father’s relationship with the daughter of his first marriage. One Saturday morning, she noted: ‘Sally is gone to Lincoln, I suppose for her Summers [sic] residence, as pleasure for her, seems the chief pursuit, and your Fathers greatest delight, as his particular attachment to her, wants little penetration to see’. If this close father-daughter caused relationship caused marital disharmony, she used it to demand that the love she felt her son owed her. Reflecting on this, she told John: ‘I hope to have comfort in my own Children as they grow up, as mine is a Mind much distressed from various disappointments: which I hope you will always make it your study to alleviate ‘. In 1812 she wrote to him:
You have but too great a share in my affection, which makes me often think I have a very small return in your Infant Years, with great care I watch’d over you, and seem’d to promise myself much from you, I thought I should always have in you a Companion, and as you grew up in Life a most sincere friend – I always endeavoured to instruct you in your duty to God; and your Parents
Life-writers also positioned themselves within a narrative of favouritism. For instance, some memoirists identified favouritism as one of the factors shaping their life trajectories. The educator Catherine Cappe, writing her memoir in 1822, presented parental favouritism as predictable, and deployed print culture’s conventions concerning its consequences. Her younger brother was, from infancy, she remarked, ‘my mother’s delight’. Like his fictional counterparts, he was indolent and self-indulgent. This made his father dissatisfied with him, a breakdown in father-son relations that distressed their mother. Although Cappe was, she said, her father’s favourite, this brought no advantage because of his failure to recognise merit, which stemmed from gender prejudice:
As my father was himself literary, and as I was his supreme favourite, it may seem extraordinary that he did not take the business of my instruction into his own hands. But the fact was, that although in other respects extremely liberal, he had imbibed some of the prejudices of that day, in respect to the cultivation of the female mind. And if he saw in his daughter an early desire of mental improvement, and some capacity for making progress in it, it is probable that he might think it the more necessary not to encourage, but rather to restrain the growing propensity. However this might be, I not only lost many of the superior advantages which I should otherwise have obtained, but what is more to be lamented, my affection for him was not cultivated and improved as it would have been.’
Her father’s preconceptions about educating women left Cappe’s abilities undeveloped and her merit unrecognised; in turn, she was unable to give him the filial love she felt she owed him and that society commended as the reward for good parenting.
The writer Lady Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Brandenburg-Ansbach (1750-1828), alleged her mother’s neglect of her from birth and preference for her older beautiful sister. Craven was married at 16, and after a year of marriage, her husband told her that her mother had intimated her worries that if his manners were rough he would break Craven’s heart, since was such ‘a meek-tempered child’. This shocked her:
for I had never discovered that my mother thought me amiable. To the gracious gifts which Providence had bestowed upon me, to my application to do good, and to excel in what I was taught, I was obliged to acknowledge to my governess and relations my great obligations. My mother’s thoughts appeared to be fixed on the handsome face of my sister; and this mortification rendered me more humble and more happy, while, at the same time, this partiality prevented my sister from thinking any improvement to be necessary.
Craven’s adult life would be one of sexual scandal and separation from her family and most of her own children. It is perhaps, therefore, not surprising that she chose to position herself as the victim of favouritism; the child whose merit went unrecognised and unrewarded, whose advancement and improvement depended upon those outside the kin networks.
Patronage increasingly came under attack from radicals and reformers in the nineteenth century, who viewed it as nepotism and a source of corruption, undermining political and professional institutions. In its place they sought to articulate and advance a new vision of personal merit, based upon more utilitarian conceptions of social and professional worth. Was family favouritism condemned along similar lines? Did the personal and political remain thus entwined and, if so, how did it shape family dynamics? These are the questions I hope to explore further as my research into this topic develops.
Moral essays, chiefly collected from different authors. By A. M. Vol. 2, Liverpool, 1796 2 vols, pp. 81-2
 William Gibson, ‘Importunate cries of misery’: the correspondence of Lucius Henry Hibbins and the Duke of Newcastle, 1741-58’ The British Library Journal 17/1, 1991
 William Gibson, ‘Patterns of Nepotism and Kinship in the Eighteenth-century Church, Journal of Religious History 14/4, 1987, p. 383; William Gibson, ‘Nepotism, Family, and Merit: The Church of England in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Family History 18/2, 1993, 179-90.
 Hannah Smith and Stephen Taylor, ‘Hephaestion and Alexander: Lord Hervey,Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the Royal Favourite in England in the 1730s’ English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV No. 507, 2009, 285, 291, 294-5]
 1809 March Lucy Gray at Ockbrook to her nephew William Gray at Olgeforth, York. Acc 24/M3, Folded ‘parcel’ with note on front saying: Master Gray Ogleforth York by favour of Miss Dikes. In another hand: Letters to my father from his aunt Lucy Gray and others.
 Rev. Arthur Wentworth Eaton (ed) Recollections of a Georgia Loyalist by Elizabeth Lichtenstein Johnston, written in 1836. New York and London, 1901 [1764- (122, 125-6)
 James Nelson. An essay on the government of children, under three general heads: viz. health, manners and education. By James Nelson, apothecary. London, 1753.
 William Braidwood, Parental duties illustrated from the word of God, and enforced by a particular account of the salutary influence therein ascribed to the proper government of children; in three sermons, preached to a church of Christ in Richmond Court, Edinburgh (Edinburgh,1792) p. 14
 William Cobbett, Advice to Young Men, and (incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and higher ranks of life. (First edition 1830, published as an Oxford University Press paperback 1980) p. 310
 Nelson, An essay on the government of children, pp. 205-6 210
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. 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. 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.
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.’ 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. Both are what Sharrona Pearl describes as ‘caricature physiognomy,’ their simian features indicating that intemperate bodies were subject to racial degeneration. 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. 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’. 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.
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. 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?
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!’
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.
 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2004) pp. 89-92
 ‘A Father’s Lessons on the Illustrated Wall-papers’, British Workman, 2 May 1870.
 Gary Dyer, ‘Thieves, Boxers, Sodomites, Poets: Being flash to Byron’s Don Juan,’ Proceedings of the Modern Language Association, 116:3 (2001), 570.
I begin with Keith Douglas’s poem, Simplify me When I’m Dead (1946), whose title I incorporate in my own title. The poet’s imagining of what will be remembered of him after his death touches me as a historian and speaks to me of my professional practice. It opens: Remember me when I am dead/and simplify me when I’m dead. And I do remember, for I cannot, simply cannot resist that direct plea from people in the past to remember them. And I have encountered it many times. But there is more. As you can see, the poet reflects on how the passage of time will shape, perhaps distort how people will imagine him in the future. His desire to be remembered pains me and his knowledge that he will only ‘survive’ in a modified way discomforts me. He notes that some ‘learned man’ will ascribe agency to him: ‘you may/ deduce, from the long pain I bore/the opinions I held, who was my foe/and what I left’. It is this emotional relationship between the scholar and the historical subject and its dyschronicity, or confusion of time, that I explore in thinking about the relationship between the conference’s two themes of agency and emotion.
This is an excellent moment to explore these connections. The history of the ‘less powerful’ is so well established that agency, its ‘master trope’ has been thoroughly theorised in the last few years, while the more recent ‘emotional turn’ means that emotions scholarship is perhaps one of the most theoretically self-conscious. Although I am attuned to the ways in which historical actors’ agency was facilitated by emotions and achieved through emotional expression and acts, my focus today is to explore the academic’s role in the relationship between emotions and agency, positioning the authorial self as the triangulating point between the two. Essentially, the question I want to address is: do emotions help us to recover historical subjects’ agency and what challenges do our own feelings present in that work? Thankfully, scholars are now far more able to forefront their own subjectivity in their work, offering reflexive accounts of how their own experiences and their feelings for the archive and their subjects shape their understandings of and responses to their research. Thus, I am going to reflect on my own positionality in my work on agency to date, suggest where emotions might play a part in identifying agency, and, since researchers are more prepared to grapple with their place in this nexus, summarise the complexities that can arise. I will conclude by considering how emotional intersubjectivity and hauntology might offer some ways to accommodate scholarly self-awareness, emotional connectedness, and their disruptive forces and potentialities without losing sight of our historical subjects.
Joanne and agency
The urge to recover both agency and emotions in the people I study in the past has informed all of my research interests. I have worked on three areas: marriage, marital relationships and intimate partner violence; parenting and parent-child relationships; and, thirdly, the history of masculinities. What is common to all these areas is that I work on the long 18th and 19th centuries and I’m interested in power dynamics, with a concern to expose the impact of various categories like gender, age, and class on those who held less power. In addition, I also tend to use materiality as the lens to uncover what we might call, for now, unproblematically, historical actors’ agency. By materiality, I mean the material determinants of people’s lives – their bodies, their physical and spatial environments, and their stuff. Thus, as you may infer, I’m also interested in non-human agency, in that my work shows that spaces and objects act upon people’s behaviour and feelings, often – to use Sara Ahmed’s concept – sticky with emotional meaning that disseminated and maintained various values that informed identities.
My book Unquiet Lives and related articles sought to do more than explain how spouses suffering conflictual marriages sought solutions to their difficulties. It does that very thing, I hope, but it also returns repeatedly to the power dynamics between wives and husbands, seeking out how the household and its management, the family and community, and the everyday interactions of spouses constrained or enabled women and men’s personal and public actions. Like many historians, I used the court records and legal status of spouses, and, literally, the law of agency, to argue that what might look like the oppression of women could be read more sensitively as spaces for wives to manoeuvre within to resist patriarchy and, sometimes, set their own destinies. While compiling my data and analysing it, I sought to locate wives’ agency, finding that their important roles in household economies facilitated it. In turn, I was interested in how this wifely agency set some limits on men’s potential for unconstrained agency within and without their families and households. Interestingly, I see now how I resisted the view that wives might be complicit with patriarchy, although I acknowledged that they could achieve more by allying with aspects of its structures. You know, being asked to reflect on one’s body of work through the lens of a specific theme can be revelatory about oneself and one’s concerns. So, when I picked up this book again, when writing this paper, I was surprised by my conclusion’s final sentences, which revealed just how much I had set out to uncover agency in the first place:
The benefits of marriage for both men and women, therefore, outweighed any of its disadvantages. Husbands and wives were not puppets of an unfair gender order, but reacted to and against the circumstances of life-cycle, social and financial status, and changing ideologies. They determined themselves whether they had quiet lives.
Alongside this, I’ve published on intimate partner violence. I’ve always found this aspect of my research a huge challenge, partly because the graphic physical and emotional details within the records distress me in their accounts of the fear, violent acts, and the pain that the abuser inflicted. I’ll return to that emotional response later in my talk. But I also realise that the subject troubles me further, largely because the extent to which wives could exercise agency in these situations was far more limited than in non-violent relationships. Thus, I found the handful of women who were described as escaping abuse, or, striking back, easier to cope with. This is a feature of the problematic role of the author in identifying agency, which I recognise in the critical accounts of agency that I will move on to later. Anyway, reflecting on my body of work in this area, I realise that, as a result, I focused instead, therefore, on the role of non-human agency – the ways in which spaces and objects had agentic force in shaping spousal abuse and responses to it. So, in a first article on this I traced the way the built environment defined and shaped men’s violent acts and in my second article I proposed that objects like beds and household stuff were emotional objects that helped manifest abuse, sites over which spouses fought to exert control. I also argued that spaces like stairs and landings were the loci for the enactment and visibility of assaults, conduits in the violence that flowed through multiple and single-family occupancy homes. As I argue, stairs were often points of egress, routes by which wives could leave their husband, and since they spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands may have been sites that especially antagonised controlling husbands.
My second area of research addresses family relationships more broadly, with a focus on parenting and parental identities in the late Georgian era, but attending to parent-child and generational relations too. My approach in this work was more deliberately emotions driven, so, if you had asked me what my focus was at the time, I would have replied that I was not so compelled to identify the agency of those who were the dependents in these relationships. I’d have said that I was more interested in ascribing agency to emotions themselves, especially to structures of feeling that shaped parents’ construction of self and personal identities. In any case, far more of the individuals I worked on were from the professional ranks and the middle classes, those groups I tended to see as possessing more autonomy. Yet, if I look again at this work, I can see that my urge to delineate who had the capacity to intentionally shape their worlds had not really waned. When I describe the qualitative software I used, for instance, I state that ‘It shows when [people] used the vocabularies and cultural motifs [of feeling], flags up ambivalences, and demonstrates individuals’ agency where they adapt them in their own ways’.
And of course, my focus on parental identities and self-fashioning brought moments of agency into sight. I wrote about women who selected and used maternal identities in order to claim greater authority and contrasted their self-declared ‘superior’ actions with their husbands’ ‘inferior’ ones. I described lower-status men who juggled the tropes of tender and providing fatherhood in order to justify their actions as fathers, and lay claim to ideals of masculinity, when their actions otherwise failed to meet the ideals of mature patriarchal manhood. I also added pauper parents, because I wanted to see how far parents who were hugely disadvantaged by their economic dependence might nevertheless deploy emotional strategies and vocabularies to improve their and their children’s situations. And, that is indeed what I discovered in their pleas to their readers’ sensibility and sympathy. I was also interested in locating how parents and children negotiated their duties, obligations, and privileges towards each other. After all, family structures and relationships shifted across life courses as people grew up, aged, and adopted new roles; experienced as a rise and fall of individual agency across a lifetime. Even men were not immune from this. A boy might exercise some agency derived from being away from home at school, able to dodge writing home if he wished, or use the ties of affection to request gifts of food and clothes. Yet his agency might wane again when trying to secure employment with family approval, only coming to the fore once he was established, more financially autonomous, and with a wife and offspring. As fathers got older, or became grandfathers, they in turn felt less able to influence others and turned to that rhetoric of the less powerful, affection and love, in order to impact family members. In 1812, for example, George Courtauld saw his own role expanding at his son’s approaching adulthood as he decided what business to take up. He explained,
my parental duties are not concluded, as they probably are at this juncture of more importance than at any other, (for upon a young man’s first start in life his future wellbeing most imminently depends) it would be a cowardly dereliction of duty—and impious dependence upon the Almighty—to give up the agency He has appointed me.
Of course, here George used the contemporary sense of acting as a superior’s agent – in this case God, to exert autonomy and authority over others. Interestingly, he later blamed himself for the diminution of his children’s love, by having taught them to think for themselves.
Researching fatherhood led me to focus more specifically on masculinity and my most recent work has been on manliness in the long nineteenth century. Here the connections between bodies, emotions, and material culture have been my primary focus. Reflecting on this book from a little distance (it was published in March this year) is quite interesting. The project began in 2012 with what I imagined was a shift away from a history of the powerless, since I was focusing upon men and the construction of manliness, the dominant form of masculinity in the long nineteenth century. Researched in the interstices between teaching and later my head of school role, I designed it so it could be primarily done from digitised print, visual, and material culture sources, rather than manuscripts in archives. About halfway through, however, the project transformed into 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. Here materiality is agentic, since the emotions that bodies and objects elicited were sticky with meaning. This utilises 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. I argue that this ’intermateriality’ means that 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.
When writing the book in a semester’s sabbatical in 2018, a further shift occurred as I suddenly realised that the men’s bodies depicted were predominantly working-class ones. This transformed the book again, and perhaps indicates that my interest in those who hold less power had not waned. And so – very late in the day – Manliness in Britain became an account of the cultural uses of imagined working-class men’s bodies. In this process I sought to queer the history of masculinities and its hierarchies, determining to avoid heteronormative assumptions when thinking about the ways in which gendered values were communicated. I show that manly bodies were objectified and intended to arouse feelings in those who encountered them which, whether specifically erotic or not, made the gender attributes they embodied desirable. The idealised, eroticised young working man was desired by some elite men as a lover, for others, he was alluring because his physical and emotional charisma displayed ideal manliness. In parallel, unmanliness was projected through abjectified working-class bodies, intended to stir disgust and aversion in viewers and readers. Both objectified and abjectified bodies were intended to be didactic lessons for the working classes, the former helped render the working classes less threatening for middle-class consumption by modelling a patriotic, well-behaved, hardworking, trustworthy citizen, acting as a counterpoint to the upheaval of modernity.
The desire I identify troubles the standard account of the gendered gaze, which positions a male viewer as active and dominant and the object of his gaze as female and subordinate. When the body being objectified and gazed at is male, and the viewer can be both female and male, then the binary of the agency of the gazer and lack of agency of the gazed at is disrupted. This is because the idealised manly body was active, the agent of prized gender values. Yet, it was also passive, the object of both a male and female desirous gaze, and subordinate, since the majority of these idealised manly bodies were working class. My inclination to seek out the agency of those who operated in the domain of the less powerful also found its way into the final section of my book, where I look at how working-class men deployed the idealised manly working man in their own cultural products. Using the material culture of working-class organisations, like trade unions and friendly societies, I argue that working-class people depicted workers’ manly emotionalised bodies in less eroticised ways. Their heroic workers were less the subject of the consuming gaze, less objectified, and associated with values intended to serve working class ends. I turn to the end of this final chapter, only to find myself once more beguiled at handing over agency to my guys: in this instance, working-class men, who I observe:
co-opted the imagery for their own organisational and political ends, reshaping it subtly so that it shed its condescension. The manly workers that they chose to represent them, and whom they performed in public for an audience, possessed remarkable confidence and assuredness. Perhaps in some small way, this gendered identity could, over time, take on less conciliatory aspects to aid workers in asserting their rights.
Rethinking, troubling, and critiquing agency
Perhaps it is time for me to confess that, for all this engagement with agency, I’ve not grappled properly and fully with what I mean when I use the term. Agency has been an amorphous concept that I attach to human and non-human actors, acts and events with the assumption that everyone reading my work will understand what I mean. Actually, when writing this talk, I recalled that I was made aware of this from the start of my career. When I was a JRF at Merton College I was friends with a physicist who had an amateur interest in history and would read my work on marriage. On one of these occasions he asked me to explain what I meant by agency. I don’t honestly think I did that very effectively at the time; and, regardless, it certainly didn’t stop me using the term perhaps too unthinkingly in a number of my ensuing works. What strikes me, however, on outlining my work and where it explores human and non-human agency, is how much I am a fellow traveller with other scholars searching for agency among their subjects, following the routemap of agency as it has unfolded over the last seventeen years since my first book was published.
And I can see this in the rethinking, troubling, and critiquing of agency that has taken place in the last ten to fifteen years as a number of scholars have opened up agency to scrutiny. They include Walter Johnson on North American slavery, in 2003, and Cornelia Hughes Dayton, on dispossessed early modern Europeans, in 2004. Lynn Thomas reflects on African women and gender, in 2016, and Megan Webber, in 2017, uses case studies from early 19th century charitable organisations. Chris Pearson surveys non-human agency in 2015 and, more generally, historians of material culture have extended our understandings of agency to include objects. Together this body of work sharpens up our critical faculties on agency and its development as a field of enquiry over time. Thomas, in particular, encourages scholars to avoid the ‘agency as argument’ trap, where agency is both the predicable and safe endpoint of analysis.
Most of these critics trace scholars’ endeavour to recover agency from its emergence in New Social History, especially in E. P. Thompson’s work in the 1960s. They identify the limitations inherent in the concept of agency as we often apply it, in that it is, as Johnson observes, a product of 19th century liberalism, which over-emphasises independence and choice. Instead, as these scholars remind us, we should attend as much to the many constraints on people’s capacity to act and make decisions as to those who self-consciously exerted autonomy. Collectively, these critics point out that agency is not synonymous with intentionality, or resistance, or pre-meditated tactics. Thinking in terms of contemporary stereotypes of the passivity or victimhood of women, for example, enables us to acknowledge the individuals who selected dependence or conformed to hierarchical structures as exercising agency too. As such, these studies of agency include alternative forms of agency, such as compliance with and submission to those holding power, or to the divine will. Some propose that one way out of the cul-de-sac of agency is to focus on subjectivity. Others advocate that scholars pay attention to the imagination and mind as much as to physical acts of agency. Thomas, for instance, urges us to reformulate agency by highlighting ‘psychical desire, [and] fantasy’ as well as social and political structures. This critical work has been particularly helpful in delineating more recent developments in exploring agency beyond its human forms. As Chris Pearson comments, a focus on agency as resistance ‘obscures how human and nonhuman agents exist in close relationship to each other and how their ability to act is contingent on these historically situated relations’. Like others inspired by Bruno Latour’s ‘actor network theory’, these scholars have begun to explore the agency of objects, space, non-human animals, and nature.
Do emotions offer insights into agency?
These thoughtful analyses of the concept remind us that agency is neither trans-historic nor universal, but historically contingent, differentiated by gender, age, time, place, as well as environment. In this opening up and criticism of the concept of agency and our uses of it, the elephant in the room, it seems to me, is scholars themselves. These thought pieces are not simply guidance on historicising agency, nor sharpening up our definitions so we find agency in more situations and behaviours. They also warn the academic about their own positionality and subjectivity when evaluating their subjects as agents in their respective historical worlds. Some – often implicit – criticism is therefore directed at scholars’ lack of reflexivity. So, scholars who critique agency are directing us to scrutinise our own political and intellectual stance when they remind us of agency’s liberal roots, or when they urge us not to adopt the role of saviour of the victim, the oppressed, and the dispossessed, and when they ask us to consider that agency can take many forms, which do not necessarily match with our own heroic concept of worthy resistance or autonomy. Dangerous too, as its critics observe, is the well-intentioned tendency to overemphasise the agency of our subjects in the past. One of the things that worries me is that scholars deploy agency as a form of approval – is it our favourite types of subjects who we see as exercising agency? Furthermore, shouldn’t the language of giving people ‘back’ or restoring and recovering their agency unsettle us? Isn’t this imperative both condescending and exclusionary to those we study? As Katie Barclay points out, historians of subaltern groups often understand ‘their ethical obligation to their subjects as giving them voice, of placing them back into history’. Perhaps this can be read as empathy, but I wonder if it could also be read as cultural appropriation. Indeed, Megan Webber is explicit about this, recommending that historians be ‘transparent about how their political, personal, and historiographical concerns inform their portrayal of agency.
I suggest we go a step further as scholars, which is to explore our own emotional responses to our subjects when researching their agency. Scholars are only just beginning to unpick the role of researchers’ feelings around their subjects of study. Not only do they recognise that neutral objectivity is a myth, and urge the researcher to expose the role their personal experience plays, they go on to scrutinise the role of emotions as a constitutive rather than intrusive component of the research process. This might include the ‘emotional imperatives that often drive research’, the range of feelings caused by research, as well as the emotional connectedness and power structure of the researcher-researched dyad. One of the ways in which the latter is framed is through empathy. Rob Boddice points out that historians need to be cautious when they empathise with historical actors. They cannot, he points out, know what their historical actors’ feelings were, and since emotions have different meanings over time, scholars need to learn to ‘see’ in the way past actors saw – presumably advocating that we adopt a period feel as much as a ‘period eye’. This still supposes the scholars’ capacity to achieve some kind of intellectual objectivity over their historical subjects.
Others try to go further and consider the relationship between the academic and past actor. Drawing on existing reflexive work on archival fever, subjectivity, ethical engagement, and affective memory, among other things, Katie Barclay investigates the capacity of ‘an emotional entanglement … to bring the past into the present’ in her 2018 article. In order to subject her own critical practice to scrutiny, she explores the layers of her emotional response, from dislike to a kind of love, to Gilbert Innes, a somewhat unlikeable Scottish banker who died in 1832. For her, emotional reactions are not distractions, but ways to connect past and present and she advocates that we all should examine the ‘dialogic relationship’ between our emotions and the object of our empathy.
So, I need to ask, do these emotions assist in recovering agency or do they get in the way? Megan Webber worries that scholars’ empathic investment in their subjects can lead them to identify with and project onto historical actors their own values and hopes – and, thereby, preferred types of agency. I suspect this may well be true. I’ve come to realise over my career just how much my own personal experiences and emotional connections have shaped my interests, and my identification with specific historical actors. In turn, this influences what I find, analyse, and prioritise, and, I suggest, where I tend to locate agency. Let me give you a couple of examples. Perusing my publications as a body of work, I realise I have strong emotional responses to certain ‘types’ of women and men in my records. I respect the wives and mothers who are described, or define themselves, as hard-working, stoical in the face of adversity, self-sacrificing, enduring. I espy agency in such women’s attempts to defy and outwit patriarchy, to circumvent sexist economic limitations in order to secure their families, and to seek autonomy. On the other hand, I am utterly beguiled by men who were self-proclaimed tender fathers, who spent time with their children, nursed babies, played with infants, and became their adult offsprings’ friends. Powerful cultural emotions, such as sensibility and domesticity, were agents here, creating self-aware men who, in turn, harnessed them in their self-fashioning. I was sort of aware that my delight in such loving fathers might be a problem when, around 2010, I had an article on the relationship between fatherhood and masculinities rejected because reviewer #2 pointed out that I was outright ignoring other types of late Georgian fathers and fathering. It may only have been at that point that I began to consciously scrutinise my obsession with particular historical actors. For those of you who are interested, I redesigned my research to take account of bad dads thereafter. And, you will not be surprised at my inclinations, perhaps, when I explain that my handsome, glamorous father died when I was twelve leaving me, an only child, to be brought up by my mother who devoted her life to providing a secure and financially stable home for me as a child, and, even, adulthood when I was myself a mother.
A second example. By the time I was working on manliness, from about 2015, I was far more reflexive and prepared to work with and through my emotional response to my subjects. By now, I avoided working on areas that distress me, such as unhappy relationships and intimate partner violence. While I think I am able to work with the feelings that such challenging material elicits in me and, even, use my empathy to productive ends, I realised that it causes me too much personal strain. I elected, instead, to work on areas that are less emotionally demanding: the power of manliness as a concept and identity, focusing on its transmission through handsome bodies and appealing material culture. This is because I am perfectly aware of my own emotional response to ideals of heroic men, conveyed through aesthetically pleasing faces, bodies, and objects. I am drawn to these representations and their deployment by men and society, and the work they do to make masculinity appealing, even while deeply conscious of their role in sustaining unequal power structures. I wanted, perhaps, to explore how I simultaneously acknowledge their seductive qualities and resist them. This, I think, is at the root of my insistence on the power, indeed agency, of emotionalised bodies and objects in fixing gender. No doubt my conception of the ambivalent role of the desirous gaze in all this is rooted in my own subjectivity too. Recognising my subjectivity and my emotional triggers in my research has thus been productive in exploring how I encounter and locate agency in my work.
All this self-reflection is good, up to a point, but it can leave me, the researcher front and foremost, and I suspect, for some, look a little like self-indulgence. Where are the historical actors in this reflexivity? Because, let’s be honest, whatever our personal experience and emotions about research, it’s still them we’re interested in. So, next I want to propose some ways to build in authorial subjectivity and feelings without losing sight of the subject of enquiry. This builds on Katie Barclay’s example of the benefits of ‘using emotion to think with’. By attending to one’s own feelings towards one’s subject, she argues, we can incorporate the historical subject without ‘overwriting past subjectivities’ with that of the historian’s. Scholars can similarly use emotions to think with to analyse their historical subjects’ agency and their own role in identifying it. Perhaps emotional intersubjectivity is a helpful concept – where we as authors are self-aware of the mutual construction of our past subjects’ agency through a sense of shared subjectivity. This would help us avoid foregrounding our own subjectivity and preferences for types of agency. I would also hope that intersubjectivity could assist here as a way to counter the power of our emotional historical gaze in identifying and bestowing agency on our subjects. For – to return to Webber, there is a risk that an emotional connection with our historical subject can lead us to confer agency on those types of acts that we have a preference for – whether that be the rebellious rather than the complicit, the unconventional rather than conventional. I am proposing intersubjectivity here as a process of metaphorical co-constitution between the researcher and the historical actor rooted in both sensitivity towards one’s own emotions and subjectivity and a fully historicised understanding of theirs.
Katie Barclay is advocating something along these lines when she proposes that our affective responses to our subjects are products of engagements between people over time, not just between the reader and the text. In her case, this has provided ‘a reading of Innes that was both of the past and the present’. Her proposal that acknowledging emotional entanglement helps bring the past into the present brings me to my final reflections on agency and emotion. It leads me to reflect on another aspect of the researchers’ emotions that emerges in analysing agency in the past, a more disruptive aspect. The most powerful of my emotional responses to the past has always been difficult for me to articulate. The best example of it is through my responses to old photographs and film. Since childhood, I’ve been unable to look at old photographs without some degree of distress, for I am constantly acutely, even agonisingly, aware that the people I look at, full of life, solid presences, engaging with the lens and the viewer on the other side of it, are now dead. Everything I see in these artefacts is dead or gone in some way, the pets they play with, the clothes they wear, even the buildings and landscapes they stand in are profoundly different. I feel the same when I encounter the traces of people in the manuscript and published sources that I read. Remember that I am a historian of relationships and bodies, and the spaces they inhabited, so I encounter people writing about emotional moments in their lives, when they feel sorrow, grief, despair, pain, fear, anger, and, sometimes, joy, excitement, and desire. They describe things they have done, seen and felt – all of which, I am constantly aware – are no longer in existence – and that they had no idea of their own futures at the time of writing.
My response to manifestations of the past is profoundly unsettling and, even, disorientating at times. The nearest I have come to defining my emotional response is through the concept of hauntology. Hauntology has been defined in several ways, since the term was coined by Jacques Derrida. In its broadest sense, it evokes the way the past returns to haunt the present. One manifestation of hauntology that especially appeals to me, is in its reflection on the way the present is haunted at once by its own past and its unfulfilled or lost futures. Indeed, it is theorised that hauntology is a response to new technologies which enable us to record, replay and store the past – a phenomenon that can be seen both in the nineteenth century following the invention of telegraphy, photography and cinema, and in the early twenty-first century where the internet has created an ‘ever-growing archive of the recorded past … instantaneously accessible. Mark Fisher calls this the ‘technological uncanny’ – an atemporality of a present in which the past no longer dies. I experience something akin to hauntology with my historical subjects, which is a recognition of time out of joint and potential of unrealised futures. It is neither a form of nostalgia, nor an attempt at recovery, both politically problematic positions. For me, when I work with historical records and individuals, time is out of joint because I am intervening in it. I am there doing something to re-assemble those people’s present [in the past] and, sometimes, imagine their future which they had not yet encountered. In effect, hauntology is a contracting of space and time and produces dyschronia, a confusion of time.
Ethan Kleinberg, explores a hauntological historical methodology in his Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017). He describes ‘a past that is absent but haunts us and can return in ways that disturb our conventional historical narratives and understanding of what the past and history is’. For him, hauntology is a way to escape ‘ontological realist dreams’ of a real and correct past. The reason hauntology is a concept meaningful to my practice as a historian is that it captures my place in the contraction and confusion of time, which the archive and the past manifests. And it this position of the authorial self, if you bear with me, that I shall suggest has some impact on exploring agency. For, as the cultural theorist, Mark Fisher, reflected, the works he was analysing were ‘hauntological in the sense that … they were about the virtual agency of the no longer’.
For me, the ghosts of the people and their materiality shape their potential re-inscription in my work; they are simultaneously gone and eternal. I don’t think this is just me. Katie Barclay cites Arlette Farge’s encounter with the ‘surplus of life’ that she felt in the archive and ruminated on in her wonderful, sensual account of historical research, The Allure of the Archives. Barclay notes that it is a type of ‘haunting that demands the acknowledgement of past subjects as ‘real’. I think it does more than this. It also reminds us that what once was a surplus of life is now an absence. Indeed, Barclay herself, turns to mourning as an intellectual process to unpick her responses to the archive and those she finds in it. She proposes that we recognise the ‘”excess of life” that continues beyond death and which brings the past to the present through us’. This positioning of ‘us’ as the conduit is crucial, in my view. We have set up this relationship with our historical subjects and we are the means by which them, their actions, and their potential are realised. How does this impact agency? Well, I think we can use hauntology to understand and make explicit our emotional connections with our historical actors – and their haunting of us in the present. It also helps us to acknowledge our role in identifying their agency – both in terms of moving us (and thus shaping what we think about them) and in detailing what we determine as their acts of agency. Finally, a hauntological mindset reminds us that their futures, as realised or unrealised potential, shape what we construct out of their remains.
I hope that my journey through the matrix of emotions, agency, and time has been thought provoking. What I aim to have suggested is that we should try to recognise our place in the construction of our historical actors’ agency and that we realise that this relationship is not entirely uni-directional, whether emotionally or temporally. The concept of emotional intersubjectivity approaches the co-constitutive creation of historical agency that I envisage. And the concept of hauntology acknowledges the disruptive force of time in the academics’ place in that relationship. Kleinberg advocates a ‘narrative [that] accommodates an understanding of …the past as something that is, as present and absent at the same time, as something and nothing entangled in a seemingly impossible way where the iterative position of the historian is woven into the past and the present such that it also presses upon the future’. I like the way that the scholars’ dyschronic intervention in the telling of the past is acknowledged here, though I think we should also recognise the force of the historical actor in this process. I shall end with Keith Douglas’s evocative phrase, ‘Time’s wrong-way telescope’, as a metaphor for what we are doing where our subjects’ agency is concerned – self-consciously attempting to understand how people interacted with their world, ‘by distance simplified’.
Paper delivered to The Centre for Nineteenth Studies Second Annual Conference 27 Nov 2020, on the theme of Agency and Emotions. I am very grateful to them for organising this conference and inviting me to close it with this keynote address.
 Megan Webber, ‘Troubling agency: agency and charity in early nineteenth-century London’, Historical Research, 91:251 (2018), 128,134-5
 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), pp. 89-92
 Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, CUP, 2003) p. 204
 Joanne Begiato, ‘Beyond the Rule of Thumb: The Materiality of Marital Violence in England c. 1700–1857’, Cultural and Social History, 15:1 (2018), 46
 Bailey, Parenting in England 1760-1830. Emotion, Identity, and Generation (Oxford 2012), p. 14
 Chris Pearson, ‘Beyond ‘resistance’: rethinking nonhuman agency for
a ‘more-than-human’ world’, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, (2015) 22:5, 710
 Katie Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, Rethinking History, 22:4, (2018) 465
 Megan Webber, ‘Troubling agency: agency and charity in early nineteenth-century London’, Historical Research, 91: 251 (2018), 135
 Tracey Loughran and Dawn Mannay (eds), Emotion and the Researcher: Sites, Subjectivities, and Relationships, (Emerald Insights, 2018) pp. 1-2. For the role of personal experience, see Chris Millard, ‘Using personal experience in the academic medical humanities: a genealogy’, Social Theory & Health 18 (2020),184–198.
 Loughran and Mannay, Emotions and the Researcher, pp. 6-13.
 Rob Boddice, The history of emotions (Historical Approaches) (Manchester, 2018) pp. 126-131
 Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 460
 Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 464
In a brief visit to Manchester Art Gallery – snatched during a gap in the conference my husband was attending – I was stopped in my tracks by Benoit Aubard’s Homesick (2018). Aubard’s spray-painted graffiti style duvet cover is one of the critically-engaged works by young artists intended to respond to historical masterpieces in the gallery. So Homesick is situated near William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). While Etty’s painting focuses upon the abundant flesh of the sirens and the nude muscularity of Ulysses and his sailors, Aubard responds instead to the more abstract theme of Homer’s Odyssey – Ulysses longing for home over the ten years it took him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan War.
As the accompanying exhibition sign says:
Preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aubard has used a bedsheet, referencing the domestic, and added graffiti-like text, reminiscent of a protest banner. The text is not a question, asking whether we feel homesick, but a statement of fact. The artist often uses slogans on ready-made objects to explore the theme of home and refuge at a time when there is significant migration in the world. Homesick doesn’t necessarily refer to home as a building. It stems from an instinctive need for love, protection and security which are intrinsic to the human condition. These feelings and qualities are usually associated with home and are common to all of us.
As readers of my blog know, I’m very interested in people’s memories of home and its meaning for them and their sense of self. Aubard’s artwork captures the way in which homesickness is about place, security, and love in a changing world. Susan Matt put the emotion of homesickness at the centre of the making of the American nation in her brilliant book Homesickness: An American History (2011). She argues that it was a medical condition before the twentieth century, recognised as a trauma caused by migration, which could lead to death. In the twentieth century, however, homesickness was downgraded to an inconvenience and sign of failure as migration came to be associated with modern individualism. As she observes, people had to learn to repress the emotion in order to appear modern, mature, and successful. Longing for home is a phenomenon that shapes national as well as personal and familial identities.
In Britain in the long eighteenth century, homesickness had two co-existing forms. One was a medicalised condition, nostalgia, which was experienced by people who were prevented from getting home – like soldiers sent to serve in a different country. It was thus primarily about space. The other was driven by notions of time, where the yearning was for their home when they were children, now lost in the past. After all, the memoirists I studied, who were writing in the later Georgian period, could, in fact, revisit their natal homes when they wished, for they not separated by long distances. This was especially challenging for writers born in the mid eighteenth century, since, in the post-revolutionary period, as Peter Fritzsche argues, people came to apprehend time ‘as non-repeatable’ and ‘irretrievable’. I’m interested in the ways in which this more intangible, temporal form of homesickness was also influenced by broader social and cultural contexts, and I’ve written about this in more detail in an article, ‘Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain’ (2019).
This ‘backward looking aesthetic’ and emotion was also a response to instability and change. The Georgian life-writers I’ve talked about in previous posts recalled their childhood homes during a period of profound social, economic, cultural, and political change. They were formulating their deep attachment to the natal home just as the centrifugal forces of modernity were beginning to spin people out into the world in the imagined form of what Matt describes as ‘cosmopolitan, unfettered, happy individuals.’ In these new conditions, the home was reinvented as a ‘sanctuary of nostalgia.’ This development, which Fritzsche has traced in America and Jason Tebbe in Germany in the later nineteenth century, had a restorative, compensatory function at a time of change.
Yet, the life-writers’ memories of parental homes were not simply consolatory and benign, a desire to return to an idyllic, safer, past home. Their homesickness was more a reflective than restorative act. For Thomas Bewick, Catherine Cappe, Mary Robinson and the like, the ‘longing, lingering look behind’ (an oft-used phrase from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751) at the childhood home, recalled through sounds and smells, was a personalised meditative act frequently associated with hard-edged negative emotions as well as pleasant consoling ones. The same homes could conjure resentment, sadness, grief, and despair, as well as love and affection, when recalled in relation to different family members and other points in their life-course. Here again, we see the importance of emotions to the forming of a personal identity bounded by historical circumstances: the domestic caught up with broader forces. The life-writers analysed were thus articulating national and personal identities in the face of modernity’s profound temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. Yet, as Fritzsche suggests, these broader historical forces were not simply disruptive, they also offered ‘imaginative possibilities for building subjecthood.’ 
This temporal homesickness also helped locate
people in their specific regional and national culture. John
Brewer shows how the generations born at the mid-eighteenth-century shaped a
national culture from their aestheticized attachment to the local. He traces the ways in which eighteenth-century sensibility had a provincial
perspective, which celebrated the locality, particularly the sensual pleasures
of its landscape, in contrast with the worldly metropolitan environment. Nonetheless, this contributed to nation
building since Britain was perceived to be formed from such provincial cities
and defined by the landscape of the British Isles. Indeed
scholars have shown how a type of collective nostalgia is often seen in
pastoral fiction, evident from antiquity to modern times, where the countryside
is the imagined location of a better past; a feeling most resurgent in times of
political, social, and economic change.
We can see how this affected people’s practices. Susan Stabile shows how literary women in America between around 1760 and 1840 deployed genealogies of family and home in their national memory building. Their material and textual acts of preservation focused on the local, particular, and domestic. English life-writers’ nostalgia for the places and spaces of childhood homes likewise forged overlapping personal, familial, local, and national identities. With extensive emigration, the self-conscious rituals of curating familial and homely objects, heirlooms, and family souvenirs into ‘memory-palaces’ and ‘mini-museums’ were increasingly harnessed to new narratives of public, explicitly nationalist, memory in the later nineteenth century. Today, nostalgia is commercialised and politicised, less an act of personal memory or benign form of self-soothing than a collective desire to make-over the present into a mythologised national past. Its toxic potential when harnessed to notions of racial and gender superiority are all too clear.
These acts of memory through memories, objects, spaces, genealogies, and stories associated with families and their interaction with national cultures are something I will get a chance to explore further. With Katie Barclay, I have been awarded funding from the AHRC for an international, multi-disciplinary Research Network titled Inheriting the Family: Emotions, History, and Heritage. Katie and I will work with Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Laura King, all innovative leaders in these areas of research. Using emotions and material culture methodologies, we’ll explore the ways in which objects and ideas are transmitted across generations to help explain how, when, and why they become significant to familial, collective, and national heritages. I will be fascinated to see how much these family inheritances are bound up with the emotions of nostalgia, homesickness, and the imperatives of migration, alienation, and nation building, which often has exclusion rather than inclusivity at the centre of its hard-heart.
Matt, Homesickness: An American History,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), introduction.
Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present:
Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.
Green Lewis, Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory:
Already the Past (London:
24-month project, starting 1 October 2019. We have a Twitter account
@InheritingFam and will be working on a series of workshops and ‘History
Harvests’. More on our website, which we are developing as soon as the project
The other men in William Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) that I want to talk about are the boxers. In the painting, so evocatively displayed at London Museum, a bare-knuckle prize-fight takes place in the middle-ground. This was a boxing booth opened by James Figg in 1719 on Tottenham Court Road, at the Adam and Eve pub. Figg was one of the first boxers to commercialise the sport, opening his Amphitheatre to teach boxing, fencing, and quarterstaff. George Taylor took over the booth in 1734 and one of the boxers depicted may well be Taylor. We can see its fenced stage, the boxers squaring up to each other, surrounded by a closely packed audience of men, women, and children so avidly watching the match that they pay little attention to the guardsmen behind them.
It is wise not to overlook the fight as merely a lively backdrop to the scenes in the foreground. Nor should we assume the pugilists are a pictorial symbol of cruelty or the brutal habits of the lower orders; a Hogarthian moralising vignette of the callousness of metropolitan life. For Hogarth, the boxer was a signifier of male beauty, his sport was patriotic, and both were closely associated with national identity. So, with that in mind, what can boxers tell us about Georgian masculinity?
Rather a lot, since they were public performers of the most visceral forms of masculinity; indeed, boxing matches were often advertised as ‘trials of manhood’. They were popular with most social ranks. Aristocrats and royalty patronised them and gambled on them and their spectators and followers included most social groups.
Like the soldier, the boxer was a plebeian patriot. Fighters were labouring men drawn most often from trades that depended on upper body strength, like watermen and blacksmiths. They shared other attributes with Hogarth’s soldiers. Controlled violence was their stock in trade. Pugilists were compared to gladiators in the first half of the eighteenth century, for example. Both were prized for their bodily ‘superiority’ – height in the guardsmen’s case, muscularity in the boxers’. The physiques of both were considered ideal examples of manhood. Indeed, it was soldiers and boxers who often acted as life-models for artists and anatomists in the Georgian period, as discussed in the lovely book Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body by Anthea Callen (2018).
Like soldiers, boxers also resolved some of the challenges for masculinity that politeness and, later, sensibility, posed. Karen Downing has shown that in the period from the 1760s to 1815 the ‘gentleman boxer’ answered the question of whether a man could be manly while conforming to the conventions of the ages of politeness and then feeling. A boxer like ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson (1769-1845) resolved these concerns by cultivating the courtesy and gentility of polite sensibility while displaying the vigour and force required to fight to extend and defend an empire.
We can see the early stages of this being worked out in Hogarth’s art and writings. His boxers offered a mode of manliness that was rough, plain, sturdy, and authentic. Like other artists, Hogarth admired boxers, featuring them in his art as well as discussing them in his 1753 publication The Analysis of Beauty. The English champions James Figg (1684-1734), George Taylor (1716-1758), and Jack Broughton (1704-1789) served as models for his art.
Figg appeared in Southwark Fair, 1732, the figure on the right, riding in on horseback, A Midnight Modern Conversation, and plate 2 of a Rake’s Progress – the wigged prize-fighter bearing his quarterstaffs. Hogarth also depicted a naked Taylor on his design for the famous prize-fighter’s tombstone. Taylor’s muscular physique in these plates demonstrates why boxers were used as nude life-models – like the other plebeian labouring men who acted as life-models, their work led them to have defined musculature.
The role of such men was to be living examples of classical statuary, in pose, proportions and physical type. They were looked at and studied by both artists and anatomists in art academies and associated events. Hogarth, for example, likely used such life-models at St Martin’s Lane Academy, which had been reopened in 1735 under his leadership. Johan Zoffany joined St Martin’s shortly after arriving in London in 1760 and this is the only known depiction of a life-drawing class there. The figure in red is a porter and occasional model at St Martin’s, who was also the first porter at the Royal Academy, founded in 1768.
The Royal Academy appointed a Professor
of Anatomy to lecture artists on the human form. The first holder of the post was
William Hunter, who assumed widespread familiarity with boxers when describing
motion and musculature as:
essential to painters and sculptors … Everything that we have seen acted in reality at Broughton’s Amphitheatre at Saddlers Wells, and such places and every thing that we see done on the Stage, in the way of imitation by the Comedian or the Tragedian, is nothing but a skilful exercise of muscular motion.
Johan Zoffany’s painting shows Hunter alongside his lecture props: a skeleton, the Hunter écorché (aplaster standing-figure, flayed to display musculature) and a life model (most likely a pugilist) echoing its pose. Hunter is even said to have stolen the hanged body of a famous Irish pugilist sentenced to death for murder, and made a cast of his corpse; which he used to teach anatomy at the Royal Academy.
It is worth reiterating that these
elite men were looking at labourers’ bodies not just to acquire knowledge about
function and form; but because these plebeian men were considered aesthetic and
gender ideals. Classical
bodies shaped ideas of the ‘beauty of proportion’ for men as well as women. Although
we tend to think of Hogarth as an artist of satirical types – the faces and
forms of his protagonists often distorted and designed to convey character,
behaviour, and morals, he also saw beauty of form as crucial to understanding
the world. In his Analysis of Beauty
(1753) he theorised abut the aesthetic basis of art and experience, setting out
the characteristics of beauty both in art and nature.
This was no elite discourse, his observations had their roots in metropolitan
life. Thus, he used boxers as an example of people’s instinctive understanding
of beauty and proportion.
As he says:
almost every one is farther advanced in the knowledge of this speculative part of the proportion than he imagines; especially he who has been used to observe naked figures doing bodily exercise, and more especially if he be any way interested in the success of them; and the better he is acquainted with the nature of the exercise itself, still the better judge he becomes of the figure that is to perform it. For this reason, no sooner are two boxers stripped to fight, but even a butcher, thus skilled, shows himself a considerable critic in proportion; and, on this sort of judgment, often gives, or takes the odds, at bare sight only of the combatants. I have heard a blacksmith harangue like an anatomist, or sculptor, on the beauty of a boxer’s figure, though not, perhaps in the same terms; and I firmly believe, that one of our common proficients in the athletic art, would be able to instruct and direct the best sculptor living, who has not seen, or is wholly ignorant of this exercise, in what would give the statue of an English boxer a much better proportion, as to character, than is to be seen, even in the famous group of antique boxers, or, as some call them, Roman wresters, so much admired to this day.
Here Hogarth considers English boxers to be superior to the Wrestlers, a classical sculpture that was reproduced in antique cast rooms in large form for students to draw from, and in small form as a decorative ornament. This is significant for notions of Georgian manliness more generally, since men’s bodies were a crucial factor in the construction and evaluation of masculinity with classical forms as the standard against which all ideals were compared.
Hogarth discusses, for example, the statue of Antinous, as ‘the most perfect… of any of the antique statues’, showing ‘a manly strength in its proportion’ from its head to its foot. This is illustrated in his plate I, a statuary yard, where he depicts well-known classical statues.
This demonstrates that the huge muscular form of Atlas or Hercules was less appealing in the Georgian era than the more youthful graceful forms of the Antinous and Apollo Belvedere. The ideal manly body of a dexterous carriage and poise and clean-shaven face was influenced by historically-specific factors as diverse as polite sociability, the culture of sensibility, Georgian military techniques, and ideas about physical exercise, diet, and health. The mature Herculean body-type only came to symbolise muscular Christianity in the later nineteenth century, shaped by ideas of empire and warfare, namely new weaponry that required skirmish and light infantry battle techniques (I talk more about this in my article).
As you will see from his art, Hogarth was a proponent of physiognomy, the practice of reading outward appearance, faces and bodies, to reveal inner character. Thus, for Hogarth the body and its capacities and actions shaped function and character – but also, it should be noted – gender. He argues that ‘a fat, bloated person, does not call to mind the character of a Silenus, till we have joined the idea of voluptuousness with it’. In Greek mythology, Silenus was an older satyr associated with wine-making and drunkenness. Here – and in his pictorial series – Hogarth was pre-empting one of the principal ways in which unmanliness would be represented in the Georgian period – as the inability to master one’s appetites. As I will explore at length in my book, vice and lack of self-control were understood to produce a corrupt, unhealthy, unappealing body which was deployed in representations throughout the later Georgian and Victorian periods to stimulate disgust and thus encourage men to avoid the behaviours that would undermine their masculinity – and, therefore, society (For more on the male body in the 19th century, see Joanne Parsons and Ruth Heholt (eds), The Victorian Male Body).
His manly bodies were not simply emulations of classical standards of male beauty. The inferior version of manliness that he contrasted with the ideal in his illustrative plate and details was the dance-master. He uses this less favourable type of masculinity, that I have discussed in part I of this series of posts, as the foil for both Antinous and Hercules. Check out the plate above, to see how Hogarth contrasts the fop’s ‘stiff and straight’ pose with the ‘easy sway’ of Antinous.
Hogarth was an artist of urban humanity, not simply classical aesthetics, and thus he thought it essential to identify the role of function in creating form. As such, it was often the plebeian male body in motion that was the subject of his examination of male proportion, evident where he discusses the ways in which men’s labour shaped their bodies: ‘so likewise strength to support, and clumsiness of figure, are united, as well in the character of an Atlas as in a porter’. Don’t forget that one of the life-models at St Martin’s Academy was a porter.
Hogarth is fascinated by the
working-man’ real body:
When we consider the great weight chairmen often have to carry, do we not readily consent that there is a propriety and fitness in the Tuscan order of their legs, by which they properly become characters as to figure?
Watermen too, are of a distinct cast, or character, whose legs are no less remarkable for their smallness; for as there is naturally the greatest call for nutriment to the parts that are most exercised, so of course these that lie so much stretched out, are apt to dwindle, or not grow to their full size. There is scarcely a waterman that rows upon the Thames, whose figure does not confirm this observation. Therefore, were I to paint the character of a Charon [Greek mythology: Ferryman of the Dead], I would thus distinguish his make from that of a common man’s; and, in spite of the word low, venture to give him a broad pair of shoulders, and spindle shanks, whether I had the authority an antique statue, or basso-relievo, for it or not’. 
The common man was important, he was
not to be dismissed as low, and was the model for authenticity. It has been
argued that Hogarth’s ‘language of aesthetics is an unashamedly predatory and
erotized one, in which visual pleasure is related most closely to the
perspectives of the wandering masculine eye, pursuing the alluring forms and
outlines of the ever-elusive female body’. This is true perhaps, but it is not
an entirely ‘chauvinist erotics’, since he viewed and described the male body
as beautiful, typically the plebeian muscular body.
Here again we see the roots of what developed even more strongly in the long nineteenth century, as I’ll show in my new book – the aestheticization, even eroticisation of working men’s bodies in textual, visual, and material culture. You can see that with Ford Madox Brown’s Work as an example (significantly, Mark Hallett notes how Brown was influenced by Hogarth’s art). Idealised working men’s bodies were offered as exemplars of manliness for middle-class men. Increasingly, working men were imagined, consumed, and deployed in constructions of manliness and by the second half of the nineteenth century idealised men’s physicality was not only associated with national identity and strength, they also symbolised economic prosperity.
Boxers were an early progenitor. As
we see in Hogarth’s art, from the early eighteenth century, they were offering
entertainment and sport in fairs and prize-fights and selling training in
various forms of combat in specialised locations to paying male customers.
Their fans’ and followers’ emotions were stirred by their bodies, their
actions, and their cultural representations. Hogarth shows the passion of the
spectators – one man mirroring the fighters’ stance. Again, we hear Hogarth –
the shouting, the sounds of blows on flesh.
This became more explicit over time with celebrity boxers of the later Georgian period, and the sale of their images in material culture, visual culture, and eventually photographs. Their diets and regimes would become fashionable for young men, most famously, perhaps, Lord Byron, who like other men followed such training as assiduously as possible to achieve health and physical fitness.
The March of the Guards to Finchley tells us more than we might expect about Georgian
masculinity. It enlarges our understanding of what constituted manliness –
beyond the polite genteel man, or the many forms of masculinity to avoid – by
offering insights into the allure and ambivalences of the plebeian model of
Hogarth has a reputation for making ‘popular heroes’ – as we see in Beer Street where the ‘stout and jovial’ men’s bodies represent ‘the body politic in a state of health and comfort’. The Beer Street men, however, are somewhat too comfortable and prosperous to defend a nation.
So, in Hogarth’s robust soldiers and
boxers we see virility and violence, both considered essential components of a
forceful masculinity fit for a modern commercial colonising nation.
Like the guardsmen, boxers conveyed national as well as gender identity through
their pugnacious and patriotic bodies. As Matthew Craske observes, Hogarth
celebrated English people’s riotous tendencies as a feature of their national
character: ‘a physical manifestation of the national proclivity towards
This contrasted with the perceived authoritarianism of continental states, but
also indicated the capacity of Englishmen to stay on the right side of
The men at the heart of The March of the Guards to Finchley embody the notion of the ‘plain’ man that the English have cultivated and admired from the eighteenth century onwards. It is a model of masculinity that prizes authenticity over artificial manners, demonstrated by a plain, bluff appearance and rough behaviours, supposedly indicating honesty and usefulness. It is a type of manliness that has its roots in a plebeian culture, and while potentially dangerous to society, can at times be seen to be the saviour of the nation and is often deployed even by elite men to gain approbation.
Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History,
London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.
David Day, ‘”An Art and a Science”: Eighteenth-Century Sports Training’ in
Rebekka von Mallinkrodt and Angela Schattner, Sports and Physical Exercise in Early Modern Cultures: New Perspectives
on the History of Sports and Motion.
Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History,
London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.
Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History,
London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 26, 29.
Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History,
London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 32-3.
Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer:
Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number
3, April 2010, 343
Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer:
Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number
3, April 2010, 334.
Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale
University Press, 2018, p. 73.
Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale
University Press, 2018, p. 79.
 Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New
Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223.
Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and
the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 82.
Boddy sees Hogarth’s early interest in pugilists as life-models as related to
his interest in proportion relating to function in the Analysis of Beauty
rather than academicians later who she suggests saw them as approximations of
pre-determined ideals of beauty. I think he saw them as beautiful. Even in the
Taylor images he uses the linear curve that he associate with beauty above him.
Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon
Press Limited, 2000, 240
William, Hogarth, The analysis of beauty (1753), Paulson, Ronald Publication
date 1997 Topics Aesthetics Publisher New Haven, Conn. : Published for the Paul
Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press Archive.com pp. 144-5.
Let me begin with the guardsmen at the heart of William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750), the subject of a great exhibition at the Foundling Museum. They are an evocative depiction of the troubling charms of the soldier. In the eighteenth century, officers might be considered examples of idealised masculinity: noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing. The other ranks, however, were considered with some suspicion by society – their form and appearance yet to take on the more solid, reassuring appeal they possessed by the mid-nineteenth century. Politically, after all, the military raised fears of standing armies as authoritarian tools of repression, and individually they were examples of the bad behaviour men were supposed to avoid, such as drinking, fighting, womanising, and gambling.
So let’s unpick the masculinity of these soldiers. Firstly, their bodies matter, as Matthew McCormack’s book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England argues. Hogarth depicts a regiment of Guards, who were generally recruited because they were tall. In the central figure, we see the elite of the elite – a Grenadier of the Foot Guards. In the 1760s it was said that ‘the best bodied Men in the Battalion’ became grenadiers, not only because they could throw grenades further due to their height, but also because they would flank the regiment in their distinctive uniforms at parade.
Hogarth’s mastery of the senses helps
convey the power of such martial masculinities, since it was the form, sight, spectacle,
and sound of soldiers that made the armed forces function effectively. Studies
of fancy uniforms and martial spectacle, for example, show that both helped form
regiments into coherent fighting forces, as well as making regiments more
acceptable to a society suspicious of standing armies.
These factors also helped convey and fix those aspects of masculinity that were
more salubrious and celebrated, such as bravery and self-sacrifice. These
guardsmen were dressed in magnificent uniforms that were designed to flatter
manly proportions and instil admiration and patriotism in those who saw them.
And yet, these guardsmen are hardly heroic figures: this is a picture of soldiers rousing themselves from a night of misbehaviour and debauchery – still ongoing in many instances, with drunk soldiers, one urinating against the wall, another stealing pies, and others casually sexually assaulting women traders.
Badly behaved, impolite, unruly, undisciplined: surely that was unmanly? Well the problem is that all these behaviours could indicate some degree of virility. Hogarth thus reveals the inherent paradox of masculine identity, since many unmanly behaviours were also those which, in a managed form, were central to the performance of normative masculinity. The question is – at what point did this virility become the immoral behaviour that rendered the perpetrator more bestial than manly in the eyes of society?
This was always a delicate balancing act and historically contingent. Youth has long been recognised as a period of lack of control, when the juvenile male had not yet fully learned to master temptations and control or channel emotions. Some of these guardsmen might be young and unmarried and therefore given some licence. Some, as you can see, were mature, so that would not excuse them all. So, let’s return to the issue of politeness and its risks which I discussed in part I of my series of blog posts.
Armies have often served as
barometers of national masculinity. In the 1740s and 50s commentators were
alarmed that politeness was undermining the manliness of the armed forces, with
soldiers enfeebled by the comforts of civilian life and unable to cope with the
rigours of war.
This was especially acute following the 1745 Jacobite rising and ‘the initial
disorganisation of the British army’s response’. The novelist and editor Eliza Haywood, for
example published the essay ‘Effeminacy in the army censured’ in The Female Spectator in 1745 in which
How long this over-delicacy will continue, heaven knows; but it is yet far from being extirpated:—even among the military gentlemen, there are some, who being infected with it before they become so, find it an insuperable difficulty to bring themselves to that hardiness and neglect of personal ornaments, which suit with the life of a soldier.
Hogarth offers a very different portrayal of guardsmen to Haywood’s – no artificial social polish here or lack of hardiness! Combining fine physiques with behaviours deemed problematic in other men, such as fighting, drinking, and sexual liberty, these soldiers are not cautionary tales against succumbing to temptation. Instead, they answer the gender anxieties of their time, fulfilling the claim of a civic tract from the late 1750s that states that the ‘bravest’ and ‘honestes’t’ men were the ‘roughest’. Roughness is presented as the antidote to a fighting force made inferior by social conventions deemed to weaken manliness. The manliness Hogarth displays here is one that is successfully navigating between the two extremes of the period: the villainous blackguard and the weak fop. The former was part of a counter-culture of anti-civility where socially elite men behaved badly, but whose boorishness was a risk to society, and the latter was equally problematic due to his womanly inferiority.
In some ways Hogarth proffers a martial masculinity more attuned to that of the Jack Tar (the nickname for a sailor), who in popular culture combined carousing with comradeship, sexual prowess, and bravery. Never as reassuring as the Jack Tar, soldiers took longer to be domesticated in popular culture (for which, see the volume I have edited with Michael Brown and Anna Maria Barry: Martial masculinities: Experiencing and imagining the military in the long nineteenth century (MUP 2019)). Two of the guardsmen most reveal the ambiguities of martial masculinity: the grenadier in the centre who takes his leave of his pregnant sweetheart, and the regimental drummer pulling away from his tearful wife and clinging child.
These are early examples of a symbol
of martial masculinity that became immensely popular by the later eighteenth
century and into the next century: the sailor’s and soldier’s farewell. In
these later popular sentimental images, the handsome military man takes his
leave of his pretty family; in so doing proving his self-sacrifice, his
patriotism, and his feeling – symbols of moral manliness in the age of sensibility
that marked out the decades from the 1760s to 1830s. In The March of the Guards to Finchley, before the full grip of
sensibility, Hogarth’s departing guards are less comforting and sentimental. Is
the pregnant woman a sweetheart, rather than a wife, likely to be abandoned to
bear a bastard? And note the difference between the toddler with face buried in
its mothers’ skirts and the grumpy boy with clenched fists.
Still, though these men are not yet fully formed as heroic, since their manly roughness is necessary to show their effectiveness as soldiers, their potential for valour, discipline, and self-control is literally on the horizon. As Mark Hallett explains, Hogarth shows the transformation of a ‘sprawling, inchoate mass of men into the well-drilled fighting unit that starts to take shape in the shadowed mid-ground and then marches in perfect formation across the distant, studiously illuminated landscape’.
He describes the regimental drummer just beginning to drum the beat that will bring these soldiers into fighting order, if still staggering, somewhat punch drunk, into the scene from the left, his bloated face bearing the marks of drinking and fighting. Hogarth’s acoustic talents are heard here as the elaborately uniformed man and boy play fife and drum; crucial sounds of army life since they regulated soldiers’ daily routines, set the tempo of the march, and communicated battlefield signals to company commanders in battle. Military music, we must not forget, also stirred the emotions and senses of civilian onlookers not just to patriotism but to emulate the gender of the martial men. No wonder that men writing in the later eighteenth century recalled their excitement at seeing soldiers and regiments as children and its impact on their sense of selves as men.
These guardsmen surely stirred humour and perhaps some envy in their contemporary audience – as men who could enjoy licence, escape familial obligations, and still emerge as ideals of masculinity. In fact, men in general may well have found martial manliness appealing and something to emulate because it resolved the often-competing aspects of manliness and unmanliness. Thus, military men were useful gender role-models for civilian youths and men because they battled with and overcame the challenges of self-mastery, often in extreme situations.
In the next post I turn to the boxers in The March of the Guards to Finchley, another plebeian patriot who influenced ideas of manliness in the Georgian and Victorian periods.
Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military
Spectacle, p. 10.
Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia
in Georgian England, p. 89.
Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military
 Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, Harlow, Essex, Pearson, 2001, pp. 130-1 and McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England passim.
Men and the Emergence of Polite Society,
Recently, I had the privilege of talking about William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) in one of the talks accompanying the Foundling Museum’s 2019 Exhibition Hogarth & The Art of Noise. This is a jewel of an exhibition – small and perfectly formed – which explores Hogarth’s abilities to conjure the five senses in his art. It focuses on sounds, surrounding this masterful painting with even more layers of meaning and wonder.
I had the pleasure of exploring what Hogarth’s masterpiece can tell us about Georgian masculinities and it is such a great topic that I wanted to share my talk here, especially since it touches on some of the areas that I’m analysing at length in my new book Manliness in Britain 1760-1900: Bodies, Emotions, and Material Culture, out in 2020. It’s quite a long piece of writing, so I’m dividing it across three blog posts to make it less of an investment of time when you read it!
Like all his scenes of London, William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley teems with life: vibrant and funny, a patriotic and sensory celebration of English liberty. The guardsmen assemble at Tottenham Court Turnpike, ready to march to Finchley and defend the capital against Jacobite attack. Painted a few years after the Jacobite Rebellion, it is, therefore, a knowing, and perhaps, unconventional depiction of victory (after all, this is no heroic battle scene with officers nobly dying)!
So, what can it tell us about mid-eighteenth-century
The Age of Hogarth
A lot! After all, we think of the early Georgian period as the ‘Age of Hogarth,’ so closely does his art seem to reveal the complex and contradictory society and culture of a Britain not yet the aggressive imperial force it would be by the end of the century, still internally unstable, but expanding its commercial interests and worrying about the results of luxury and excess. An era when the always-rising middling-sort used morality and politeness to define its interests and aspirations against those social groups above and below.
Hogarth, the brilliant recorder of low and high life, of all human vices and the disorder deemed to result from them, captures and harnesses the tensions of new modes of behaviour and the rise of consumerism. After all, while his cautionary images show the horrors of personal degeneracy, many also acknowledge the delights of consumption and advocate the pleasures of moderation: his preferred alternative to Gin Lane, 1751, remember, is not abstinence, but Beer Street. In these mirror images, as in all his pictorial series and street scenes, we see the many faces of Georgian masculinity.
You will perhaps already recognise several
faces of Georgian masculinity if you are familiar with Hogarth’s art. One
feature that will strike you, is that they are often negative rather than positive,
since the ideals of masculinity were frequently defined through failures to
achieve them. As we shall see, one of the central features of Georgian
masculinity was that it required self-control to master the temptation and vices
that so often led to its failure.
The ne’er-do-well is a case in point. Sometimes he was an aristocrat, or sometimes from a more modest genteel background – like Tom Rakewell of Hogarth’s ARake’s Progress. He is extravagant, prone to vice and succumbs to temptation; his masculinity undermined by his libertinism and lack of self-control.
And then there is the fop – like the dance-master in the same plate of Rake’s Progress: artificially poised with mannered foot pointing, wide hipped skirt – signifying his foreignness, urbanity, and effeminacy (for the latest work on meanings of effeminacy in the eighteenth century, see Declan Kavanagh’s 2017 book Effeminate Years: Literature, Politics, and Aesthetics in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain).
Another Hogarthian staple is the polite citizen, urban, portly, plain, weighed down by his full-bottom wig).
Perhaps, for many of us today, these types of masculinity have been superseded by this representation of eighteenth-century manhood:
Bare, buff Ross Poldark scything in a field. This scene and Aidan Turner’s representation more generally in the TV series has provoked discussion about whether Turner has been objectified. Turner’s most recent reflection on the matter is that he does not feel objectified because, as a man, he does not feel at risk from the female gaze.
My own research on masculinity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, published in 2020, shows that men’s bodies are always crucial to meanings of masculinity. Certain types of men have often been objectified – typically working men – and notions of masculinity were shaped, maintained, and disseminated through looking at images of men and reading descriptions of men’s bodies. This process was closely linked to emotions. Idealised male bodies considered attractive and strong were linked with ideal masculine behaviours and actions and became even more appealing and powerful through their associations with positive emotions such as love, desire, admiration, and patriotism.
Bodies were unruly, however, and needed constant self-control. Bodies considered unattractive, non-normative, often diseased or ill-formed, were associated with vices and bad habits that were deemed unmanly, a set of ideas made more influential by stirring disgust and revulsion. The lineaments of this are present in Hogarth’s work. He was an artist who deployed bodies and emotions; relishing in the sensory. Indeed, Mark Hallett observes that Hogarth ‘knew how to provide good pictorial acoustics’. He did more than evoke the sounds and sights of metropolitan life, he also conjured its feel, and smell – all of which contributed to defining gender norms too.
Take the vicious libertine, whose body is weakened by his vices, scarred by venereal disease and excess. Viscount Squanderfield of Marriage a la Mode (1743), is the perfect Hogarthian example. These men were rendered unable to sire a healthy heir and ultimately driven insane, as Rakewell in the final plate of A Rake’s Progress. The fop’s failings, as we saw above, are written on his body too – non-muscular, vain; a body considered woman-like both physically and in his interests in fashionable appearance.
In the mid-eighteenth-century, as these failures of masculinity indicate, masculinity was still not comfortably aligned with politeness. Indeed, Hogarth does not often depict graceful polite manliness. One example is the slender, graceful dancer at the left of plate 2 of his Analysis of Beauty (1753) (the Country Dance). While politeness had its social benefits, it also had its hazards, as Philip Carter explained in his book Men and the Emergence of Polite Society. This code of behaviour, which required courtesy, a mannered style of deportment, and the ability to mix in polite female company could be viewed as undermining masculinity. For the most part, therefore, Hogarth shows the risks of too much comfort, luxury, and pleasure.
His A Midnight Modern Conversation 1730-1 is a case in point. It shows what happens when polite sociability goes wrong. Hogarth pulls the curtain back at the end of an evening on London lawyers, merchants, clergymen, and physicians who have drunk and smoked too much, leading to violence, drunkenness, and unconsciousness. As Declan Kavanagh observes in Effeminate Years, the homosocial clubs of the mid-century were often seen as sites of excess.
So, A Midnight Moral Conversation offers a moral lesson to be learnt, perhaps. Yet this is an ambivalent scene, as is frequently the case with standards of masculinity. Kate Davison recently formulated the concept of ‘occasional politeness’, to show that polite comportment was only necessary for men in certain circumstances. When men got together (rather than in mixed sex groups) they could be bawdy and humorous for there was a ‘tacit acceptance of looser manners that might be called ‘intimate bawdiness’, which had its origins in a renaissance humanist train of thought that valorized wit as the centrepiece of male sociability’. Hogarth plugged into this ‘intimate bawdiness’, demonstrating through humour the somewhat disgusting results of deviating from politeness.  Astute enough not to alienate his male viewers, his humour made his satire more palatable and easier for them to look at, even identify with uncontrolled appetites and, thus, perhaps more likely to avoid them. 
My next post will turn away from middling and elite men, for they can only offer a partial account of eighteenth-century masculinity. If you look back at Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley above, you will see the guardsmen in the foreground and the boxers in the middleground and they will be my focus in the next two posts. What I want to draw to your attention is the plebeian nature of Hogarth’s vision of masculinity here. These two types of working men became for many social ranks the embodiment of masculinity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – in all its complexity and ambivalences. Part two considers the soldier and what he can tell us about Georgian masculinities.
For Hogarth as the patriot artist of nationalistic subjects see Mark Hallett,
‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’ in Mark Hallett and Christine Riding, Hogarth, London: Tate Publishing, 2006,
‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’ p. 218.