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.