History, Emotions and Memories

In this post I want to talk about the power of literature in helping people express their emotions. Scholars working on memory show that people usually remember events that were linked with very strong emotions. It is as if the emotion – whatever it might be – love, grief, joy, fear – pins the event into the brain. You can read about this here.

This really struck me when I was reading autobiographies written by people in the middle to gentry social ranks, from the 1750s to 1840s, seeking out how writers discussed their parents.

When people were talking about their fathers in their autobiographies, or talking about themselves as fathers, I noticed that quite a few used the image of a rural labouring father.

burns, cotter's returnhome

Verse 2 of The Cotter’s Saturday Night, Image deposited on Future Museum co.uk.

This was a fairly common pastoral motif in poetry, paintings, engravings, and fiction in the eighteenth century.[1] Central to this image was small children’s joy at their father’s return, running to kiss him and sitting on his knee. It was a scene in several cottage genre paintings, like William Redmore Bigg’s Saturday Evening: Return from Labour, which is the cover of my book Parenting in England, and on the Home page of my blog. Etienne Aubry’s l’Amour Paternel (1775) is another lovely example, demonstrating the father’s eagerness to meet his child on his return, not only through their embrace but his abandoned work bag.

Perhaps the most well-known examples are in the popular Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) by Thomas Gray:

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,

Or busy housewife ply her evening care:

No children run to lisp their sire’s return,

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.


and Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, 1784-5:

At length his lonely cot appears in view,

Beneath the shelter of an aged tree;

Th’ expectant wee-things, toddlin, stacher through

To meet their dad, wi flichterin noise and glee.

His wee bit ingle, blinkin bonilie,

His clean hearth-stane, his thrifty wifie’s smile,

The lisping infant, prattling on his knee,

Does a’ his weary kiaugh and care beguile,

An makes him quite forget his labor and his toil.[3]

This cultural motif had long Classical roots, but it filtered through to a plebeian readership by the end of the eighteenth century. For example, D Eaton portrayed an idyll [soon to be lost thanks to the effects of the war] in 1795 where the poor labourer returned home a welcoming wife and ‘little prattlers’ who sat on his knee.[4] The rural labouring man embodied the ideal of the father in a period of sensibility: tender and emotionally bound to his infants, as well as a hard-working provider. It conveyed the sense that to have a family to support was somehow ennobling for a man – it gave the labourer a reason to labour – thereby making labour have a value rather than being an end in itself.

What amazed me was how this rather sweet, moving image was used by writers to evoke their personal emotional experience. Dorothea Herbert quoted the stanza from Gray at the start of the chapter in which she described the ‘black chaos’ following her father’s death in 1803.[5] Actually, several parts of Gray’s poem were mentioned by memoirists, as if its intensely melancholic tone helped them talk through their feelings.

Thomas Wright (1736-1797), a relatively humble West Yorkshire man, used the verse from Gray to talk about his sense of loss as a father, when discussing the death of his favourite son John in July 1783. Eight and a half years old, the boy became ill very quickly and died in his father’s arms a day or so later . Thomas referred to the ‘killing image’ of his ‘darling child’s passing’, which was seared in his mind. It seems as if this dreadful memory was verbalised through Gray’s words. For, writing a decade or more later, Thomas moved into the first person when describing the traumatic event, suddenly and literally talking to his son to tell him how much he missed him:

I shall no more hear thy sweet voice eagerly blessing me, and when returning home, thou “No more shalt run to lisp thy sires return,/Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share”’ [5]

Thomas subtly became the rural labouring father in writing through his grief. Clearly, this binding together of provision and emotion seems to have powerfully impacted on some fathers and children.

For more on this, do have a look at my book Parenting in England.

[1] For popularity of such prints see B. E. Maidment, Reading Popular Prints 1790-1870, Manchester, 1996 and Christiana Payne, Rustic simplicity: scenes of cottage life in nineteenth-century British Art (1998), passim.

[2] Robert Burns, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, in Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, Kilmarnock, 1786 , pp. 124-137.  This was accompanied by illustrations of the moment of return. For example, Thomas Bewick’s wood engraving, copied in Maidment, Popular Prints, p. 114.

[3] John Barrell, Spirit of Despotism, chapter 5.

[4] Dorothea Herbert, Retrospections of Dorothea Herbert, 1770-1789, London, 1929, p. 406.

[5] Wright, Thomas (ed.), Autobiography of Thomas Wright of Birkenshaw in the county of York, 1736-1797 (London, 1864).