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?