‘the voice of the house’: telling the intertwined story of material culture and emotions

As a historian of family and gender, I often write in my blog about different emotions. How were various emotions expressed in the past by spouses, parents, and children? How did families forge a sense of lineage and continuity through emotions and memories? And how do my own emotions shape my responses to the lives and events I read? Very often in the process I’m drawn to material culture and its relationship with emotional life.

The intersections between emotions and materiality are in the process of being investigated much more widely in history (see the Emotional Objects website) and though I do some reading in the area I’m still uncertain about the methodology of this kind of analysis. In short, I can see links between objects and emotions (like anger, fear, joy, sadness, love) but find it more difficult to explain the mechanism for these sometimes invisible, often nebulous links. Let me give an example from the papers of a York family whose parental relationships I investigated across a couple of generations: the Grays.

The three generations I focused upon were lawyers in the city of York. William Gray (1751-1845) came from rather humble origins and worked his way up through immense toil, piety, good works and determination to become a major figure in the city. This social rise is embodied in his purchase of Gray’s Court in 1788. This important property is still nestled in the shadow of York Minster, and its foundations were part of the old Treasurers’ House, which was the official residence of Treasurers of York Minster. The Gray family lived in Gray’s Court for several generations and the family papers show that it clearly shaped the lives led under its roof.

“Grays Court” by failing_angel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

This seems to have taken on a profound emotional attachment for some of the family. One of its members by marriage, Mrs Edwin Gray (Almira Gray, married 1882), published a biography in 1927 of the family from its time in the house to her own residence: Papers and diaries of a York family 1764-1839, The Sheldon Press, London. The volume surveys the family papers and uses them to write a lively account of the Grays, another rather appealing family who spanned the later Georgian and Victorian periods. What particularly interests me is that it is the house that seems to have inspired Almira Gray to write about the family rather than her husband’s ancestors.

The first chapter is titled: ‘The voice of the house’ and in it she demonstrates how Grays’ Court’s very fabric drives her feelings and identity. She says:

It is not given to many to live as I have done in a beautiful, historic, and romantically situated house, and from so early an age, before my twentieth birthday, that I seem to have become a very part of the house. To me the long Gallery lined with oak speaks with no uncertain voice of the past, of the many different people who have worked, played, and suffered there since the middle of the seventeenth century, when it was built on top of the ancient thirteenth-century walls and pillars of the old official house of the Treasurer of York Minster, situated to the north-east of that great Cathedral. It is not that there are ghosts in the House – ghosts imply something terrifying, something unhappy; but there is, at any rate to me, some atmosphere, some impelling force which cannot be particularly described, but which nevertheless suggests something very near, very akin to personal life.

The House inspires love, admiration, respect. It breathes harmony and quiet, and speaks to those who know how to hear, of goodness, of duty, and of discipline. The noble proportions of its rooms, the beauties pertaining to so many different styles and tastes, and the general comfort and convenience, the simplicity and dignity of its furnishings, tell of people who have had ideas and culture, who have been industrious, and careful and simple in their lives. The rooms all lined with books placed there by forebears of the man who brought me to the House filled me with awe and pride when I was twenty, and today are even more a source of happiness and interest.

The house is indeed wonderful: I’ve visited it myself and I can see that the lucky resident would feel romantically attached to it, especially if s/he had a historical interest. But isn’t this more meaningful? For Mrs Edwin Gray (and is it more than convention which makes her jettison her own first name and take on the identity of the house itself?) the house is a living being that shapes its inhabitants. They love, admire, respect it and it in turn speaks to them of goodness, duty and discipline. Clearly, for Mrs Edwin Gray, her emotional attachment to her husband’s forebears was primarily driven by her feelings for the house. And it was only the Grays. For instance, she offers a potted history of its years directly before William Gray purchased it when Dr Jacques Sterne (uncle of Laurence Sterne and one of the north’s clerics being investigated by my PhD student Daniel Reed) owned it from 1742, citing William’s letter on Sterne’s residency, dated Nov 14 1840 to Canon Dixon, Vicar of Bishopthorpe:

The house I live in was Dr. Sterne’s, who in 1757 sold off to Dr. Topham the part now enjoyed by Dr. Simpson. His part came to me by purchase in 1788 when the Gallery was 80 feet long. In it the York Corporation met and supped with the Duke of Cumberland on his return from Culloden … Now concerning Dr. Sterne for whose exemplary conduct you say nothing can be said, for he was not only extravagant but vicious; he had, as a servant I suppose, a married woman with whom he lived immorally.

Given the notorious Butcher Cumberland’s visit and Jacques’ alleged bad behaviour with his mistress (in all senses of the term), for Almira the House must only have acquired its beneficent power after William Gray took it on!

So what can a historian make of this personification of a building, its space and objects into positive emotions? What accounts for the process and how does one trace it other than through Mrs Edwin Gray’s charming description? Was it simply a mode of writing, following a specific genre of the early 20th century when people penned such material-familial biographies? Was it another form of establishing personal identity through parentage or ancestry? Auto-biographers often used emotions to establish their personal links (of character and behaviour) with key ancestors, and material culture seems to have been one way to make this manifest – often through portraits and prized family possessions. As an incomer to the Gray family, did Almira try to forge her identity and self through the very house itself? Did knowing it, loving it, (writing its history as she did elsewhere) provide her with a meaningful place in the Gray lineage?