Homesickness: emotions, families, and nations

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.

Benoit Aubard, Homesick (2018) My photograph taken in the gallery………………….

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.[1] 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’.[2] 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’[3] 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.’[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]  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.’ [7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11]  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.[12]  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.[13] 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.  

[1] Susan Matt, Homesickness: An American History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), introduction.

[2] Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.

[3] Jennifer Green Lewis, Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory: Already the Past (London: Bloomsbury,2017). xix.

[4] Matt, Homesickness, 28.

[5] Fritzsche, Stranded, chap. 5; and Tebbe, Landscapes Of Remembrance: Home And Memory In The Nineteenth-Century Bürgertum,’Journal of Family History 33, no. 2 (April 2008).

[6] [3] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its discontents,’ The Hedgehog Review 9 no. 2 (2007): 14-15.

[7] Fritzsche, Stranded, 7.

[8] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997), p. 493, 618-660.

[9] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination, 493-8; 618, 659.

[10] Raymond Williams,  , The Country and the City (London: Vintage Classics, Penguin, 2016), chap. 2 and 3.

[11] Stabile, Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Icatha & London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 3-4.

[12] Fritzsche, Stranded, 164, 188, 192-5, 200. Tebbe, ‘Landscapes of Remembrance,’ passim.

[13] A 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 begins.

Making links: revisiting my research on men, emotions, and identities


In early June 2016 I gave my professorial inaugural lecture (yes, three years ago, just before we heard the results of the Brexit referendum, when the world seemed very different). I have not had a chance to work on my blog since then, subjected to a relentless series of publication deadlines. Now I’ve got back to my blog, I am posting the text of the lecture. I did share the video of the talk way back then, but it takes ages to watch. This post is still a long read, probably a good 30 minutes, but not quite as time intensive! My post might be interesting for anyone who wants to think about emotions history. In a way, it is a reflection on my own personal journey through my research up to 2016 and – thus – through the history of emotions.

I began by thinking about my research publications as a body of work, contemplating how my interests fit together and inform each other and thus what themes I have pursued since I began my academic career.

The formal version was this: I am interested in the history of marriage: particularly the emotional and physical relationships between men and women and how these change over time; I’ve worked extensively on parenting, focusing on self-identity, through the lens of family, gender, and religion; and more recently I’ve begun to investigate the roles of men’s bodies, emotions, and material culture in conveying and constructing ideas about masculinity.

In reality, my research interests seemed to boil down to this: a fascination with angry men, crying men, sad men, happy men, and anxious men. So the connecting themes through all my work were masculinities and emotions and these were what shaped my talk.

Feeling our way through the past

The multi-disciplinary field of the history of emotions is concerned with how far human emotions have been conceptualised, felt, and expressed differently across times and the ways in which they influence ideas and practices.

To demonstrate this in a concrete familial example, here’s a gorgeous family portrait painted by John Singleton Copley in 1778 of Sir William Pepperell and his family, commissioned by Sir William to celebrate having a baronetcy conferred on him and the birth of his heir in 1775.

The portrait shows the idealised Georgian family. It captures a new development in the genre of the family portrait: in which a tender family moment is caught in time with the participants seemingly unaware of the viewer. This was influenced by the culture of sensibility, which elevated the capacity to ‘feel’, and sought to stimulate sentiment, sympathy, and benevolence, which collectively were understood to regulate human society. As art historians like Kate Retford, in her wonderful The Art of Domestic Life, observe, when a family commissioned such a portrait they intended to show their social and cultural status to the outside world through these symbols of refinement, gentility, and affection.

All the hallmarks are here – the feted heir posed like the Christ child in a painting of the Holy Family, drawing our eyes from the mother who takes centre stage, up to the contented gaze of his tender doting father. With all the family members touching one another, it depicts a family poised in an affectionate moment, but positioned to extend into future generations.

As Margaretta Lovell shows, however, this is a portrait of a family that never existed -in this form. The baby – William Pepperell IV – was born in July 1775 in Boston, Massachusetts, when British troops occupied the city, and there was an uneasy peace between loyalists and revolutionaries. Shortly afterwards, Sir William was censured as a loyalist and had his lands, shipping, and lumber mills in New England confiscated. The family were effectively exiled and left for London in February 1776. Their fortunes never fully recovered; sadly, even the adorable male heir predeceased his father.

Most disturbingly for the viewer, is that the mother at the heart of the painting died three years before the painting was finished; she had died three weeks after her son and heir was born, a victim of fever and dysentery. Lovell argues that this image reveals the widower, Sir William, vainly struggling to assert family continuity in the face of enormous economic and personal disruption.

For me, as a historian of emotions, family feelings are also central to this portrait: especially those of fear, anxiety, grief, and loss. This is not simply because the painting’s commission was driven by competing emotions, with Sir William attempting to outface fear and uncertainty by displaying instead familial affection and stability. Emotions also have cultural agency. The feelings represented in this portrait manipulate the viewer, who is offered only a loving, well-ordered family presumably secure for future generations to come: because families mattered.

Indeed, in all my research on personal relationships and self-identity, I work from a two-fold premise. Firstly, that the family was an ‘emotional community’ – Barbara Rosenwein’s term, by which she means ‘groups of people animated by common or similar interests, values, and emotional styles and valuations.’[i] This is important because it recognises that the family, therefore, along with other cultural, political, and social forces, influenced systems of feeling. Secondly, that emotions shape societies, politics, and religion, as well as individuals, since both ‘emotional communities’ and institutions deploy emotions or generate emotional standards and atmospheres to achieve their ends.

In the rest of my post I’ll look at three emotions or feelings – anxiety, anger, and loss – through the lens of the anxious father, the angry husband, and the tearful sailor. Hopefully, I’ll demonstrate the ways in which different models of emotions history help us expose the cultural and practical ramifications of identities from the personal to the national.

Anxious Fathers: Emotional work and building bonds

Thinking about emotions offers fresh insights into parenthood in the past because they complicate assumptions about gender difference, opening up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Emotions are, after all, human and not fixed according to sex and their relationship with gender changes over time. Using this approach in my work on Georgian parenting (the references for the quotes that follow can be found in that book), for example, opened up the distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, so that the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government become 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.

You can see this in the vignettes of tender fatherhood in this scrapbook page ‘My Father’. Here the father is depicted as playing with and guiding his son, but also nurturing and caring for him.

An ideal way to explore this is in more detail is through the idea of anxious parenting. In the Georgian period, anxiety denoted uneasiness or trouble of mind, solicitude, and concern. The sheer agony and trials of parenting, in an era of vicious childhood infections and diseases, shaped the cultural vocabulary of parenthood. Anxiety was THUS the essential state of parenting; as a late eighteenth century writer on parental duties commented: ‘what a laborious affair it is to bring up children, how much toil of body, and anxiety of mind it occasions’.

There was some tendency to see anxiety as a natural state of motherhood, a form of biological programming. George Horne’s Reflections on the importance of forming the female character by education (1796) declared women had ‘an advantage from their own make and frame of mind; they are generally more apprehensive of danger, and of what may come hereafter, than men are. This makes them more concerned for their children’s everlasting welfare, and solicitous to teach them what they know themselves’.

But, fathers were described as anxious too. In 1790, a correspondent to the Lady’s Magazine claimed he felt ‘all the anxiety of a father’ for his adopted daughter. John Ryland’s The duty of ministers to be nursing fathers to the church (1797) used the scriptural term ‘nursing father’ of Israel as an example of anxious paternal tenderness to explain the role of ministers.

Here emotions served a purpose in constructing self-identity as a father, since anxiety was not a shameful masculine emotion, though it must be tempered with the antidotes of fortitude and resignation to prevent parental over-anxiety. Thomas Percival’s epitaph in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1804, observed ‘If ever man could be said to have lived for his children and his friends, rather than for himself, it was he. So unceasing his attention to their interests, so tender his anxiety for their welfare.’ Indeed, to be anxious was a badge of sensitivity and refinement in the later Georgian period, and thus was not just a trait of tender fatherhood, but, in turn, of approved masculinity too.

The emotions relating to anxiety also had a familial function. For a chapter on pregnancy that I wrote for a marvelous volume edited by Jen Evans and Ciara Meehan, I explored the vocabulary used by five families in their correspondence during women’s pregnancies. Fear is omnipresent in the frequent recourse to words like ‘awful’, ‘dangerous’, ‘anxious’, ‘death’ and ‘hope’. For instance Elizabeth Leathes wrote to her mother about ‘the approaching awful period’, worrying that her father might not accompany her mother to stay during the confinement, ‘for fear anything should happen … for Life is very uncertain & particularly at such Dangerous times’.[ii] These narratives of pregnancy voice the state’s sheer uncertainty with a focus on anticipation and apprehension, due to women’s bodily change through illness and physical incapacities, and the considerable personal and emotional disruption, partly owing to the invisibility of the unborn, and the justifiable fears of childbirth.

Though women experienced the pangs of labour, men dreaded them too and communicated considerable emotional distress. Elizabeth’s husband Edward Leathes told his father-in-law that he dreaded having to ‘endure the bitter pangs of another Night so Fraught with Anxious Doubts & Dead-like thoughts as this hath been’.[iii] When women and their families shared feelings like this, they performed emotional ‘work’ by building bonds between spouses and between them and family members, bridging the difficult transitions from one phase of life to another, and helping neutralise the fear of the arrival of a baby who was often referred to at the time as an unseen ‘stranger’.

Angry Husbands: emotional objects and wife-beating

Not all emotions are benign, and thus historians of emotions have also investigated societies’ ‘emotional rules’ – establishing how societies attempt to control and manage emotions considered unacceptable – at the collective level through rules of emotional expression. This is particularly useful when examining patriarchal society in the past, since men were given authority over their dependents, including their wives and children. In such hierarchical societies, because some men had numerous rights and privileges, social rules were implemented which prevented men from exploiting this power. Emotional restraint was a major component of these rules, and thus men were trained from boyhood to channel their anger into appropriate forms.

In this period, after all, as I’ve written about in my book Unquiet Lives, husbands had the legal right to correct their disobedient wives using moderate chastisement, but limits were placed upon them by insisting that husbands must act with reason and without anger, otherwise their physical acts would be defined as cruelty, which could lead to formal punishment. Here men’s transgressions of society’s rules were useful to their victims when prosecuting them in court. The abused wives, and their supporting witnesses, ensured that they used the language of anger when describing the men’s actions to the authorities, with words such as ‘passion’, ‘fury’, and ‘rage’. This inferred irrationality and even madness. In 1766 a wife deposed that her husband John Greenwell ‘worked himself up into great Anger and Passion’ before he attacked her. In 1803, a servant described the Manchester manufacturer, James Lee, as ‘more like a madman than anything else’.

I think that a new dimension of the history of emotions is really useful here – the concept of emotional objects (for a great introduction to this, check out this blog). Essentially, this approach investigates the ways in which material culture – objects, stuff, and spaces – convey emotions and have symbolic power.

It is particularly valuable to consider the emotional resonances of material culture where marital violence is concerned (I’ve written extensively about this in an article). As well as hitting wives with their fists, many violent husbands used objects to abuse them. Often, husbands picked up heavy things and hurled them. When Mary Bentley ran away from her husband after a blow he threw the chair at her, which broke to pieces against the wall.[iv] In the records of marital violence that I surveyed, I found that husbands used a range of weighty objects including a wooden charger, white stone plate, tankard, burning coals, and lit candelabra. Sometimes an implement was wielded like a stick: bed staff, poker, hearth brush and other hearth implements, umbrella, walking stick, and in one case, a bull’s pizzle (a bull’s penis, dried and twisted into a switch).[v] Illustrations of marital violence conveyed abuse through the broken ornaments and overturned furniture as well as the figure of large, aggressive husband wielding domestic objects (usually pokers.)

The material culture of marital violence had several emotional resonances. For instance, a symbolic form of abuse in nineteenth-century cases was the husband tearing off his wife’s wedding ring as part of an attack, often before turning her out of the house. Moreover, refusing to provide wives and families with their material rights was a profound statement to the public that a husband rejected his legal obligation, since his primary function was provision. But withholding the ‘stuff’ of marital love was of course also a profound emotional rejection too.

Abusive men frequently removed wives’ management of the household space and objects, symbolically enacted by taking away their keys. As Elizabeth Foyster observes, ‘household keys were significant indicators of authority, since whoever held them governed access to both household spaces and resources. Without them a woman was powerless’.[vi] In literature, household keys represented normality and security. Carried on the body – tied around the waist or held in baskets of keys, these were intimate reminders of a woman’s status in household and family. By removing them, men took away the one object that gave a woman access to critically important chests and rooms within which were cash, food, clothing, linen, papers and marital property. This removal was emotional: women who complained about this to the courts revealed feelings akin to loss as well as resentment and humiliation.[vii]

Furthermore, the material culture of this violence offers insights into the way accused husbands would be assessed by society and law. After all, consider what they reveal about being beaten by one’s husband, who in this patriarchal world, was supposed to be a wife’s protector, guide, companion, and lover. A pewter tankard, an iron poker, a silver or brass candlestick share several qualities: they are heavy, likely to draw blood when used as a weapon, and even to kill the victim depending on which part of a body they struck. Thus, judged as material culture, these objects convey the victims’ fear and pain and the perpetrator’s unacceptable fury. This was critical in the courtroom, for it showed that these objects were not corrective in function, but deployed in unplanned anger, the very antithesis of mild chastisement. In addition their use was grossly out of proportion to any supposed female provocation, for example, as when Thomas Bowes of Brancepeth was accused before the Church Courts of using his ‘iron beef forks’ in the 1730s to try and stab his wife until the servant intervened and took them off him.[viii]

Thus, objects’ emotional power influenced understandings of wife beating. In its imagined, form, the material culture of wife beating became class-specific over the nineteenth century, a development which embellished and embedded the stereotype of working-class marital violence in public discourse and conscience. The best example of this is the working boot, both clog and hobnail versions, which became the most notorious object associated with wife beating in the Victorian era. Both were industrial workers’ footwear, reinforced with metal toe caps and heels: wooden clogs were worn in metal- and textile-working industries to protect feet; hobnail boots were similarly cheap, durable, and protective. In some horrific later nineteenth-century cases, men used both to murder their wives by kicking them to death.

Worried commentators and feminist writers evoked these objects in their publications, when demanding the appropriate punishment for wife beaters, or improved rights for women. For example, attempts to pass Lord Leigh’s Bill to introduce flogging to punish wife-beaters in 1874, presented evidence of cases of working-class husbands ’“digging” the women with wooden clogs tipped and heeled with iron’.[ix]  A letter to the Editor in the Spectator, Dec 1877, complained of a series of northern men who had killed their wives recently: ‘Alfred Cummins, tailor, Moor Street [Blackburn], was charged with knocking his wife down and kicking her head and face so violently as to deprive her of sight in one eye’.[x] In 1874 another article raised the spectre of an epidemic of violence in the north, thanks to: ‘The Rough who kicks an inoffensive passer-by to death, or who tramples, with his hob-nailed boots, on the body of his senseless wife, is often maddened with drink, but he is never, or hardly ever, quite irresponsible’.[xi]

This rapidly became a regional material culture of marital violence – as you can see in this Punch cartoon. After all, clogs and hobnail boots were worn in textile mills, mines, and iron-working; industrialised labour that centred on Lancashire, West Yorkshire (Manchester, Preston, Blackburn), Liverpool, and the north-east of England. So, in 1876 Serjeant Pulling identified the ‘kicking district’ of Liverpool and most famously of all the feminist activist Frances Power-Cobbe drew to the public’s attention the ‘kicking districts’ of Lancashire in her 1878 publication Wife Torture.[xii] For Victorians, therefore, working-class men physical abused their wives, while middle-class men mentally abused them. In fact, studies of assault show it was scattered far more widely among different types and classes of men.[xiii]

In short, boots and clogs were profoundly emotional objects, which contributed to the efficacy and tenacity of the stereotype of wife beating. After all, the reading and viewing public had seen, hefted, or worn a pair of clogs or hobnail boots and knew their weight and size, their roughness, and crudeness of form; those who heard the shoes on cobbles heard the nails ring. Hence, all knew these objects’ potential threat as weapons and the way they turned one kick into a fatal blow. They also spoke of the rage of men who used them and prompted visceral emotions in those who came to associate them with marital violence – of disgust, revulsion, and contempt – for men who used them.

Though the sinister association between footwear and working-class and regional wife-beating waned in the twentieth century, by the 1950s the flat cap had taken over as the social-class- and place- signifier of wife-beating. It was perhaps most associated with Andy Capp, a globally popular cartoon character who was the personification of the wife beater.

According to Erik Hobsbawm the flat-cap marked a proud working-class identity from the 1890s; he describes it as the ‘headgear which virtually formed the badge of class membership of the British proletarian when not at work’. Though Hobsbawm states that the Capp cartoons ‘gently satirized the traditional male working-class culture of the old industrial area of Britain’, Andy Capp’s callous use of violence against his wife, Flo, offered a derogatory vision of working-class men.[xiv] Thus the very emotional associations of this material culture of marital violence helped entrench class stereotypes by creating an ‘other’ against whom the middle classes and ‘respectable’ working classes could construct identities.

The Tearful Sailor: Gendering Emotions

So far, I’ve looked at the work emotions did in forming familial bonds, facilitating public scrutiny and criticism of behaviour, and in symbolising through certain objects a number of gendered and class stereotypes. Now I want to look at the way emotions helped construct identities, both individual and collective. I’m going to use the common image of the sailor to examine this in more detail, largely through the depiction of the tearful sailor (see my article for more details).

Representations of the ordinary sailor were ubiquitous from the later eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century, as consumption, sentiment and war joined forces, and sailors (and soldiers) were commoditised in word, song, picture, object, and spectacle. I will focus on the motif of the Sailor’s Farewell and Sailor’s Return.[xv] This was a staple event depicted in songs, poems, art, and on pottery from porcelain to more affordable earthenware versions.

These show the sailor taking leave of either his sweetheart, or wife and children, against background of sea and ship, along with tearful reunions. The woman’s tears are central to these depictions, represented by her holding a handkerchief to her eye.

These depictions were more than consolatory accounts of women’s response to separation, reunion, and loss. Thomas Dixon explains that contemporaries did not see tears as a simple indication that a person was emotional. Tears were signs of passions, affections, feelings, thoughts, and ideas. For instance, as a refined, genteel man of feeling, for example, the Georgian naval officer could weep. He symbolised all the admirable manly attributes of the age of sensibility. But his tears were not just informed by the Georgian culture of sensibility and Victorian domesticity, but also by Christian texts. Tears of a Christian sensibility were often about resignation, lament, and pity.[xvii]

By the 1790s such qualities were extended to depictions of the ordinary sailors. These Jack Tars wept when press-ganged. In one ballad, Patrick O’Stern was ‘in tears’ when he was torn from his Kate. Luckily he managed to hoard his prize money and returned to take his rightful role in providing for her and their two boys, who in his absence fell into poverty and were maintained by the parish.[xviii] In fact, Jack Tars shed tears in numerous songs, verses and titles. ‘The Sailor’s Tear’ (in the image above), 1830, was the title of a picture of a sailor gesturing to sea with his sailor’s hat in one hand and clasping his wife’s hand to his heart with the other, a young child and small dog at his legs.

When ordinary sailors were shown as possessing powerful feelings, physically expressed through tears their worth and value and were dramatized and their self-sacrifice and duty highlighted. These depictions of emotional sailors were deployed by writers, artists, and publishers for several reasons. The tearful Jack Tar was a device intended to stir sympathy and benevolence in the consumers of these products. In one song ‘Poor Tom Haulyard’, fought bravely in battle until he received a mortal wound. Dragging himself to his ‘noble captain’ he asked ‘Have I done a seaman’s duty/On this great and glorious day?’ The ‘weeping’ captain confirmed his bravery and agreed to give Tom’s ‘dear and constant Catharine’ a lock of his hair and a letter. Tom died and the final verse rhetorically asks: ‘Who that saw a scene so mournful,/Could without a tear depart?/He must own a savage nature,/Pity never warmed his heart’. So here tears proved the readers’ sympathy, as well as being symbolic of civilisation even in the savagery of battle when ‘the main-deck to the quarter,/ [was] Strewed with limbs, and wet with blood’.[xxi]

Most significant, the representations of the emotionally expressive Jack Tar were used to promote an ideal of masculinity in a time of war and national crisis. You see, up to the 1860s, shedding a tear did not undermine manliness, because tears were ‘movements’ or ‘agitations’ that indicated piety, sympathy, and tenderness; all requisite elements of the manly man.[xxii] In the ballad ‘The Sailor’s Farewell’, the sailor is parted from Mary by ‘stern duty’. He pleads with her not to weep: ‘You unman me with your kindness,/Oh! Chase these tears off my brow’.[xxiii] Though he uses the term ‘unman’, this was not about effeminacy but rather concern that emotional distress might prevent him performing his manly duty. Indeed, a tearful man was not considered effeminate in what might be called a ‘long-century’ of acceptable male weeping as long as he shed his tears for the correct reason and in the correct space. Manly sailors shed tears at leaving home or at homecoming, at the point of entering battle, or at death. The song The Sailor’s Tear (1835) drew on all the attributes of feeling manliness. Here the song-writer melded feeling, domesticity, and fighting in the figure of the ordinary sailor; the epitome of the manly self-sacrificing, patriotic, fighting Briton.

Tearful tars in textual, visual, and material culture, therefore, stirred love and pride, but also at the same time, joy, fear, loss, and nostalgia, and these emotions helped to ‘fix’ their manly ideal in people’s minds and sense of selves. Contemporaries certainly recognised their emotive patriotic impact and popularity. In 1828 The Literary Gazette and Journal of Belle Lettres, Arts, Sciences reviewed The Parting Hour, which it described as ‘A sailor is being borne to his ship in the distance, and waves his handkerchief from the boat to his aged parents on the shore, while his faithful mistress leans against a rock, apart, and weeps her adieu’. The reviewer observed that this subject was ‘one always congenial to British feelings’ and ‘the whole scene possesses a character well calculated for popularity’.[xxv]

What fascinates me is that there is evidence that this cultural motif ALSO had emotional value for men. On 5 July 1811 John Shaw ended a letter to his future wife by copying out a poem celebrating the constancy of wife, children, and friends in an uncertain world. One stanza featured an injured patriotic seaman:

‘the water still breaths in his life’s dying embers

the death wounded tar whose his colours defends

drops a tear of regret as he dying remembers

how blest was his home with wife children and friends’.

The poem concluded by observing that a man’s twilight years were drear if they drew ‘no warmth from the smiles of wife children and friends’. John therefore visualised his married life through the figure of the patriotic man uprooted from his family; no doubt this had extra emotional power since he was himself a travelling hardware salesman who would spend extended periods away from the home and family he loved.


George Hicks’s The Sinews of Old England, 1857, draws together the themes of my post. It’s a particularly appealing example of a working man leaving home to work, in this instance a rural labouring man, rather than the Jack Tar.

Even so, Hicks’s Sinews of Old England evokes the navy, which was popularly described as ‘the sinews and power of old England.’[xxvi] This image can be read in several ways in the light of what I’ve discussed so far. To some extent it can be seen as conservative in intention, reinforcing the gendered spheres of home with the man active in the public sphere and his adoring wife waiting in the domestic sphere. Like other similar images, it sentimentalises men’s hard labour, in the process making the working-class man less threatening to higher ranking people by valorising his work ethic for his family. Moreover, as with the Jack Tar, this labouring men at the heart of his family also embodies the strength of the nation through the motif of familial affection that saturates the painting.

I’m also ending with Hicks’ labourer because he represents the transition from the research that I’ve previously done to my current interests. My new book (due out in 2020 with Manchester University Press) moves on more explicitly to the role of bodies, emotions, and material culture in constructing gender. It offers, I hope, an innovative account of manliness in Britain between 1760 and 1900. I use diverse textual, visual, and material culture sources to show that masculinities were produced and disseminated through men’s bodies, very often working-class ones, and the emotions and material culture associated with them. I thus analyse idealised men who stimulated desire and admiration, including virile boxers, soldiers, sailors, and blacksmiths, brave firemen, and noble industrial workers. I also investigate unmanly men, like drunkards, wife-beaters, and masturbators who elicited disgust and aversion. Manliness in Britain therefore offers an account of manliness that is more corporeal and material, more emotional, more cross-class, and less heteronormative than other studies. All in all, what I aim to do next is show that emotionalised bodies and objects can tell us a lot about human society.

[i] [Palmer, ‘The History of Emotions’, History and Theory, 253

[ii][ii] NRO, BOL 2/24/13/1  April 9th 1775, also see BOL 2/24/22 Reedham July 18th 1775.

[iii] NRO, BOL 2/24/26 Reedham 28th August 1775.

[iv] Cons. CP 1847/4, Bentley v. Bentley, 1845.

[v] These objects are derived from cruelty separation cases (1660-1857) that I worked on in my first book and subsequent articles.

[vi] Foyster, Marital Violence, p. 53, for examples see Bailey, Unquiet Lives, p. 77.

[vii] Cons.CP 1800/3 Warburton c Warburton, 1799.

[viii] Trans CP 1737/2 Elizabeth Bowes c Thomas Bowes, Libel.

[ix] For more on these debates see Susan Edwards ‘”Kicked, Beaten, Jumped On until They Are Crushed,” All under Man’s Wing and Protection: The Victorian Dilemma with Domestic Violence’, in Judith Rowbotham and Kim Stevenson (eds.), Criminal Conversations: Victorian Crimes, Social Panic, and Moral Outrage, Ohio State University, 2005, pp. 247-66.

[x] The Spectator, 22 December, 1877, p. 13

[xi] The Spectator, 5 December 1874, p. 9

[xii] For more on Cobbe’s campaign see Susan Hamilton, “’A Whole Series of Frightful Cases’: Domestic Violence, the Periodical Press and Victorian Feminist Writing,” TOPIA 13 (2005): 89–101

[xiii] Bailey, Unquiet Lives, pp. 96-7.

[xiv] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Mass-producing traditions: Europe 1870-1914’ in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge, 1983, p. 287.

[xv] Check out the online galleries of the National Maritime Museum for examples.

[xvi] Lady’s Magazine, 1782, pp. 343-344.

[xvii] Dixon, ‘Weeping in Space: Tears, feelings, and enthusiasm in eighteenth-century Britain’, in Susan Broomhall (ed), Spaces for Feeling: Emotions and Sociabilities in Britain 1650-1850, London, 2015, pp. 137-9, 148, 150.

[xviii] ‘Patrick O’Stern and Catharine O’Grady’, Universal Songster, p. 425.

[xxi] In Universal Songster, 1828, p. 5.

[xxii] Thomas Dixon, Enthusiasm Delineated: Varieties of Weeping in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Litteraria Pragensia: Studies in Literature and Culture 22 (2012): 59–81.

[xxiii] Broadside Ballad, English Ballads, Digitised National Library of Scotland.

[xxiv] Sailor’s Tear, Bodley Ballads, Bodleian Library, Frame 19918. Also see sheet music, Victoria & Albert Collection, S.356-2012, c 19th century, and

[xxv] The painting was by H. Corbould and engraved by H. Bromley, R. Ackermann.

[xxvi] Men and times of the Revolution; or, Memoirs of Elkanah Watson, including journals of travels in Europe and America, from 1777 to 1842

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.

‘Breeding’ a ‘little stranger’: managing uncertainty in pregnancy c. 1660-1830

I had a fantastic time at the Perceptions of Pregnancy Conference. I met some wonderful people for the first time, encountered the real version of the people I talk to in Twitter, and heard some really brilliant and thought-provoking papers.

If you’d like to read the presentation I gave for my keynote paper – click here.

 640px-Da_Vinci_Studies_of_Embryos_Luc_ViatourFoetus by Leonoardo Da Vinci, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Images.

I got some invaluable questions about the issues I discussed, so thanks to everyone who asked them. Also, the last bit of Prezi here acknowledges the conversations I had with people during the preparation of the paper – so thanks to them too! I also learned that I should probably be using a downloaded version of my Prezi presentation when I deliver them. More stuff to find out about …

Also, if you enjoy the presentation, some of my earlier blog posts talk in a little more detail about some of the quotations I mention – here . here, and here.

Will-power and Writing History

In a break between teaching and marking I’ve spent a week writing a draft of a chapter related to my current research project on the concept of being manly. This is for an edited volume by Nadine Muller and Jo Parsons on the male body in Victorian literature and culture and an expanded version of it will eventually become chapter three of my book. I often claim I like writing, but I wonder if this is really so, for the process of writing this draft has been very difficult (and it is still not finished).

With some reflection (as a means of procrastination and avoidance, no doubt), I realise that it is so painful because I’m being taken out of my comfort zone. I label myself as a social/cultural historian of the long eighteenth century. My book project spans the period 1760-1918 and, I’m finding, takes me further into other fields like ideas, medicine, and politics; that is beyond the edges of my knowledge.

This chapter, for example, is exploring the relationship between will, emotions, the body and manliness – predominantly in the Victorian period. Now, I have got data (thanks to the lovely Dr Melanie Reynolds who worked as an RA on this project) which I’ve coded on NVivo, and a broad understanding of the scholarship on the history of masculinities (thanks to teaching a third-year module across the period covered). I’ve also got lots of ideas about change over time in the broad understandings of my selected concept of manliness.

The thesis I’m working on in this chapter is that the successful exertion of will epitomised manliness through the action of conquering passion during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If men did not conquer vice and succumbed to temptation, they were unmanly: that is inferior and dependent. Manliness was thus often about bodily and emotional control and the regulation of appetite. This sign of ideal manliness had long roots. In the earlier eighteenth century ‘luxury’ was identified as making men effeminate, or like women. Thus frugality was prized, which included restraint in consumption and behaviour.

It is my impression that in the Victorian period this was even more essentialised within the male body, partly represented by a shift in emphasis from moderation to abstinence in bodily consumption. I think that the will-power associated with purity, a praised aspect of manliness in the late Victorian period, for example, was far more intense than the manly frugality of men in the early part of the century. I hope to reveal this through a case study of male insane asylum patients whose admission notes often describe the failure of bodily control. Also I’m thinking about using the figure of Sir Galahad, whose manly purity was so popular by the 1880s to offer insights into the power of will by the later period.

Sir Galahad ARthur Hughes

Sir Galahad by Arthur Hughes Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, as I start to write, all this stops being a foundation and becomes a series of holes – in my knowledge. I have my firm points in the secondary literature: Thomas Dixon on the changing understandings of emotions, and how passions and their mastery were conceived; Stephanie Olsen on the links between manliness and the regulation of emotions in training youths in late Victorian and Edwardian England; Anne Guerrini and Roy Porter on frugal diets. However, I begin to realise how sketchy my knowledge is of temperance, of medical understandings of the body and mind, or the admission or treatment of men to insane asylums from the second half of the nineteenth century.

My evidence buckles from the strain I place it under. How, after all, do I put insane men and Sir Galahad in one place? My examples of virtue, vice, and self-control become scattered and fragmentary not sustained. Basically I don’t have the same grasp of trends in Victorian print and visual culture as I do Georgian. In other words, I’m not a Victorianist.

I’m finding that stepping into new areas as a historian while fully aware of how little I know of that era and related subjects is both disconcerting and exposing. Do I have the time to do justice to the topic, or, even, to write the book? I hope I’ll bring a fresh eye to the subject, but I also know I’ve got to face up to reviewers and readers with that extensive in-depth knowledge. That is not a welcome prospect. Well, at least my empathy is renewed for undergraduates tackling essays and postgraduates embarking on their research with the ‘infinite’ archives and finite time.

And perhaps I’ll now stop irritating people by saying how much I enjoy writing. Actually, I only enjoy it when it is easy. But, then, what would be the point of that?


Feeling like a Dad

Fatherhood is one of the most universal and collective experiences, but at the same time is intensely personal, individual and unique. This is what Tom Chivers, is encountering and thinking about in his article ‘What does it feel like to be a Father’ in The Telegraph. He concludes:

In about four and a half months, it seems, I am going to change, profoundly and almost instantly. It’s a frightening thought. I can’t wait.

Men have always wondered about becoming fathers. Perhaps one of the things that is always associated with fatherhood, despite changing styles in expression, is that it brings with it a deluge of emotions that are rarely felt anywhere else in life. As the clergyman John Angell James rhetorically asked in 1822:

who, that has felt them, can ever forget the emotions awakened by the first gaze upon the face of his child, by the first embrace of his babe?

AMERLING_Friedrich_von_Rudolf_Von_Arthaber_With_His_Children 1837Indeed one of the aspects I enjoyed most when writing about parenting in Georgian England was the sheer, unabated love for their children that men often expressed; much like that which Tom Chivers anticipates.

A number of examples can be found in William Hutton’s autobiography which he assembled in extreme old age from the diaries he had kept. William was born in 1723 and died in 1815. In between he climbed the social ladder to rise from a child worker in a Derby silk mill, to a bookshop owner in Birmingham, and ended owning a successful paper warehouse. He wrote the first history of Birmingham, and was a travel writer, powered by his phenomenal ability to walk long distances. Oh, and he was really quite delightful!

Of 1756 he recorded:

My dear wife brought me a little daughter, who has been the pleasure of my life to this day.

For 1758 he described a fine year when:

I procured all the intelligence I could relative to the fabrication of paper; engaged an artist to make me a model of a mill; attended to business; and nursed my children; while the year ran round. On the 2nd of July, Mrs. Hutton brought me another son, so that I had now three to nurse; all of whom I frequently carried together in my arms. This I could not do without a smile; while he who had none, would view the act with envy.

And then, just as now, everyone’s child was the best. In 1770 he recalled:

I went to Nottingham races, and took my son upon a pony. When I. surveyed the little man, and the little horse, the strong affection of a father taught me to think him the prettiest figure upon the race-ground.

At the end of his life, he confessed

my children are my treasure, my happiness. I have ardently wished I might not be separated from them. I have hitherto had my wish. The world would only exhibit a barren desert without them.

William died a happy man, his surviving daughter and son close by him.

I’m delighted that there are more historians writing about fatherhood in the last couple of years and that men’s emotions figure prominently in the analysis. Here I’ve talked about positive feelings, but of course fatherhood stirs others too, like anxiety, sorrow, anger, and fear. All need far more attention for the changing ways in which men are meant to handle these feelings as fathers.

For more recent fathers’ thoughts and feelings, do have a look at the modern historian Laura King’s wonderful website ‘Hiding in the Pub to Cutting the Cord’ and the sociologist Tina Miller’s book Making Sense of Fatherhood.

The bed and the emotional landscape of the household

Angela McShane and I have worked on beds (as it were) for quite some time now and one of the things that has increasingly fascinated us is that the main bed of the household – the marital bed – was a location for family and home that was both literal and figurative. So in this post we’ll think a bit more about this question: how did the bed and its dressings act as both a metaphor and stage for household and family relations?

Overall, the bed was a space whose use was directed by wider family and household concerns. Historians have become much more spatially aware recently, and what is important for those of us who study domestic space is that spaces obtain meaning mainly through the ways in which people use them. One of the things that struck Angela and I again and again was that the space of the bed in seventeenth- and eighteenth- century households was very mutable. The bed could hold different meanings at different times for different individuals because it was so intimately bound up with the form and function of the household. Just think about it – the bed regularly changed its use in a number of short-term, temporary ways. So a bed had different meanings according to whether a wife shared the marital bed with a female servant due to her husband’s absence, or when she lay with her husband. It changed again when it was given over to child care or nursing the sick.

L0019348 A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips.

Many historians will know that there were times when the bed had a ceremonial role to play in key life-cycle events like ‘bedding’, childbirth and death, at which points its function would be symbolically transformed. Very often, the dressings on a bed themselves played a vital part in the reshaping of its use. The classic example of this is the way that the function of the chamber in which the bed was placed changed to a child-bed and lying-in space. This was done by blocking the key hole, and by using fabric to close off the light from any windows. The space was thus transformed into a secure, safe environment ready for the female-only experience of giving birth (The image above illustrates this: Wellcome Library, A Dutch birth-room, with a maid giving sweetmeats to gossips, seventeenth century).  Male midwives eventually caused a draft by entering this closed-off haven in the eighteenth century, of course!

Bed curtains c. 1690

As such, the bed and its textiles could become invested with emotional meaning for individuals and families. A great article by Janelle Jansted reveals that wealthy women, for example, had special hangings that were used during their lying-in, the period following child-birth when they received guests from their bed.[i] These textiles gained sentimental connotations and were shared between the aristocratic women’s family members.

We can see the emotional investment of parents in the quilts made for children’s cradles too. Made or commissioned for the birth of a child, some embroidered with the child’s name and date of birth, they represent the human capacity of hope in the face of adversity. In lots of autobiographies and print culture children were frequently referred to as the repository of parental hopes; precious conveyors of familial and personal qualities on to the next generation.


Wikimedia Commons, Two Women By a Cradle, 1670

Yet children’s lives were unbearably fragile. One demographer calculates that from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries around a third of all children died before reaching their tenth birthdays in England and Wales. Mortality for infants under a year old could be even higher. And the same memoirs are often full of the language of grief that testifies to the shattering blighting of parental hopes when a child died. Yet what astounded us was that in the face of this knowledge, parents did not fear marking the precarious arrival of their offspring through textiles that would be placed on cradles or beds, or indeed displayed nearby. In part the possibility of loss might itself have motivated parents to make permanent their children’s lives through a material object that could be passed on to future generations. As with family portraits, or written memories of family members, textiles offered another way to try and heal the irrevocable discontinuity caused by frequent and sudden mortality.

All this testifies to individuals’ interest in what scholars rather pompously call the ‘diachronic’ family – that is in situating themselves within the family as it stretched before and after them. And this too can be seen in some quilts and coverlets. One of the quilts which was displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Quilt Exhibition (2010) is a great illustration of this.


It is a cot quilt (held at the V&A), thought to date from 1690 to 1720 as most of the textiles used in it are late seventeenth century. Yet it has a particularly early textile at its centre, probably from the 1660s). The likely maker was Priscilla Redding, and research on this quilt by Claire Smith in preparation for the exhibition suggests she probably made it for her first born child Susanna. Priscilla herself was born in 1654, which means that the textile may have been from her own childhood (or could have been inherited from another family member). The fact that it sits at the centre suggests it has a particular emotional resonance for the maker. We don’t think it is unreasonable to speculate that it represents emotional lineage, the handing down of memories of family from one generation to another.

To read more about the quilts on beds you can read Sue Prichard (ed), Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories (V&A, 2010)

We’ll think more about the curtains around the bed in our next post.

[i] Janelle Day Jenstad, ‘Lying-in like a Countess: the Lisle letters, the Cecil Family, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34:2 (2004)