Sorrowful spaces: Mary Robinson and the material culture of emotions

This post combines two of my favourite things: cathedrals, spaces that have beguiled me since childhood, and are profoudly emotional, even for athiests like me, and my massive girl-crush, Mary Robinson, the eighteenth-century author and actress. The two come together in my interest in material culture, memory, and emotions, which began when I was working on the emotions of parenting, and wove its way into a blog post on the house as an object and a space that materialises emotions, another on nostalgia for the childhood home and its environs, and finally into a keynote in 2019, which developed into an article and, eventually, my part of an AHRC funded Research Network. Lots of this work is on domestic buildings and spaces, but this post shows how public and communal buildings and spaces can also generate or encapsulate meaningful emotions in individuals, which go beyond the religious or civic and are linked to family and life events.

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

My example is Mary Robinson, born in Bristol around 1756/8, a woman who became a celebrity thanks to her beauty and acting talent, who reinvented herself as a lady of letters before her tragically early death in 1800. Indeed, she is now known as a major literary figure of the Romantic period. She began her memoirs a couple of years before her death; a successful attempt to rebut sexual scandal and reconstruct her public identity. It has to be said that she certainly made me fall in love with her personality and her mind with this memoir.

Perdita, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782. Wikimedia Commons.
This is my favourite portrait of Mary. I visit Waddesdon Manor annually so I can commune with it. Her side-eye is quite spectacular.

Robinson’s voice reverberates with finely-tuned feeling – the cultural language of her time. Her memoir deploys sensibility to display her capacity to feel deeply, often conveyed through her sadness and melancholy. As such, Robinson uses her birth place and the environs of her early childhood to create a melancholic, Gothic self-identity as persuasive as that of the best graveyard poets.

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

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

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

N.E. portion of the Cloisters of the Cathedral, and back of Minster House” drawn and engraved by J.Skelton. Copper engraved antique print published in Skelton’s Etchings of the Antiquities of Bristol, about 1825.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the end, what fascinates me about the intersection of material culture, memory, and emotions is how amorphous it can be. Not only is it necessary to historicise the feelings attached to material culture, scholars must try to individualise them – particularly when they encompass public, collective objects, buildings or spaces. For Mary Bristol’s Minster House and Cathedral were vessels of pain and sorrow, due to her life-story. Of course, for other people these buildings might materialise entirely different emotions. All, nonetheless, share historically- and culturally-specific understandings of space, buildings, material culture, and the emotions associated with them.

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

This post was originally written in 2015 and updated in 2019.

Embedding and embodying gender in history

This post is based on a paper I gave in 2010 when I was asked to think about gender history. I’d been thinking hard about gender while writing my book and at the centre of this musing is the question: why did I change my book’s title over the three years I was working on it from: Parents in England c. 1760-1830: gender, identities, and generations to Parents in England c. 1760-1830: emotions, identities, and generations?

I began by collecting all my accounts of parenting from 1760 to 1830. I soon found that where parental identities are concerned the historian faces two assumptions; that parenting is a natural instinct and that motherhood and fatherhood are profoundly gendered, distinct, identities. The first assumption presupposes stasis, the second allows for change in parental identities. If becoming a mother or a father is engendering – that is, a process that is understood to produce a woman or a man, then it provides a specific female or male identity. Outside influences that shape the way femininity and masculinity are seen will therefore influence the way maternal and paternal identities are constructed. Scholarship offers varied accounts of both continuity and change. Social histories identify considerable continuities in the elements of parenthood for both sexes. More culturally attuned studies [histories of art and literature], on the other hand, posit transformations in motherhood – with a cult of maternity, for example, notable in the eighteenth century. A cursory look at recent work in the social sciences suggests that maternal and paternal identities are seen to have undergone rapid shifts and concomitant tensions in the second half of the twentieth century.


The Husbandman’s Return from Labour: Saturday Evening (1795) (colour engraving) after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

I decided that one way forward was to take an embodied approach to investigating gender identities. How was parenting imagined and experienced in terms of bodies and materiality? How did emotions shape gender identities? I found that thinking about bodies and emotions complicated my assumptions about gender difference and opened up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Parental embodiment in the eighteenth century, for example, need not be restricted to the well-researched concerns about maternal breastfeeding. An embodied approach opens up distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, for the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government becomes far more multi-layered and complex.

Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal. The culture of sensibility and Christian ideals of manhood celebrated sensitivity, physical care, and tenderness in men – all encompassed within the role of father and these were expressed through the body as tears, hugs, and kisses. Of course, the relationship between bodies and social conventions about gender remain open to investigation. For example, historians find it fruitful to scrutinise how paternity, grounded in biology, could be different to fatherhood, a social, male gendered identity – though both defined a man as a father.

Emotions history also lets me consider the ways in which the emotions associated with gendered identities were reconfigured in different ways at different times. Emotions are, after all, human and let us explore gender identities within a different framework. My research on parents in England therefore also encompasses anger, anxiety and sympathy and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence – and in some cases uncovers how these were not always mapped onto sexed bodies.

So why did I omit the word ‘gender’ from my book title? I think that my replacing ‘gender’ with ‘emotion’ signifies how much more embedded my understanding of gender has become. If it is any indication of wider developments, then it is that gender is being integrated more fully into a variety of topics, that we are more willing to think about the construction of feminine and masculine identities through different perspectives and lenses, and that new research agendas are being applied to the study of gender identities.