‘Simplify me when I’m dead’: emotions and agency, an intersubjective and hauntological approach


I begin with Keith Douglas’s poem, Simplify me When I’m Dead (1946), whose title I incorporate in my own title. The poet’s imagining of what will be remembered of him after his death touches me as a historian and speaks to me of my professional practice. It opens: Remember me when I am dead/and simplify me when I’m dead. And I do remember, for I cannot, simply cannot resist that direct plea from people in the past to remember them. And I have encountered it many times. But there is more. As you can see, the poet reflects on how the passage of time will shape, perhaps distort how people will imagine him in the future. His desire to be remembered pains me and his knowledge that he will only ‘survive’ in a modified way discomforts me. He notes that some ‘learned man’ will ascribe agency to him: ‘you may/ deduce, from the long pain I bore/the opinions I held, who was my foe/and what I left’. It is this emotional relationship between the scholar and the historical subject and its dyschronicity, or confusion of time, that I explore in thinking about the relationship between the conference’s two themes of agency and emotion.

This is an excellent moment to explore these connections. The history of the ‘less powerful’ is so well established that agency, its ‘master trope’ has been thoroughly theorised in the last few years, while the more recent ‘emotional turn’ means that emotions scholarship is perhaps one of the most theoretically self-conscious. Although I am attuned to the ways in which historical actors’ agency was facilitated by emotions and achieved through emotional expression and acts,[1] my focus today is to explore the academic’s role in the relationship between emotions and agency, positioning the authorial self as the triangulating point between the two. Essentially, the question I want to address is: do emotions help us to recover historical subjects’ agency and what challenges do our own feelings present in that work? Thankfully, scholars are now far more able to forefront their own subjectivity in their work, offering reflexive accounts of how their own experiences and their feelings for the archive and their subjects shape their understandings of and responses to their research. Thus, I am going to reflect on my own positionality in my work on agency to date, suggest where emotions might play a part in identifying agency, and, since researchers are more prepared to grapple with their place in this nexus, summarise the complexities that can arise. I will conclude by considering how emotional intersubjectivity and hauntology might offer some ways to accommodate scholarly self-awareness, emotional connectedness, and their disruptive forces and potentialities without losing sight of our historical subjects.

Joanne and agency

The urge to recover both agency and emotions in the people I study in the past has informed all of my research interests. I have worked on three areas: marriage, marital relationships and intimate partner violence; parenting and parent-child relationships; and, thirdly, the history of masculinities. What is common to all these areas is that I work on the long 18th and 19th centuries and I’m interested in power dynamics, with a concern to expose the impact of various categories like gender, age, and class on those who held less power. In addition, I also tend to use materiality as the lens to uncover what we might call, for now, unproblematically, historical actors’ agency. By materiality, I mean the material determinants of people’s lives – their bodies, their physical and spatial environments, and their stuff. Thus, as you may infer, I’m also interested in non-human agency, in that my work shows that spaces and objects act upon people’s behaviour and feelings, often – to use Sara Ahmed’s concept – sticky with emotional meaning that disseminated and maintained various values that informed identities.[2]

My book Unquiet Lives and related articles sought to do more than explain how spouses suffering conflictual marriages sought solutions to their difficulties. It does that very thing, I hope, but it also returns repeatedly to the power dynamics between wives and husbands, seeking out how the household and its management, the family and community, and the everyday interactions of spouses constrained or enabled women and men’s personal and public actions. Like many historians, I used the court records and legal status of spouses, and, literally, the law of agency, to argue that what might look like the oppression of women could be read more sensitively as spaces for wives to manoeuvre within to resist patriarchy and, sometimes, set their own destinies. While compiling my data and analysing it, I sought to locate wives’ agency, finding that their important roles in household economies facilitated it. In turn, I was interested in how this wifely agency set some limits on men’s potential for unconstrained agency within and without their families and households. Interestingly, I see now how I resisted the view that wives might be complicit with patriarchy, although I acknowledged that they could achieve more by allying with aspects of its structures. You know, being asked to reflect on one’s body of work through the lens of a specific theme can be revelatory about oneself and one’s concerns. So, when I picked up this book again, when writing this paper, I was surprised by my conclusion’s final sentences, which revealed just how much I had set out to uncover agency in the first place:

The benefits of marriage for both men and women, therefore, outweighed any of its disadvantages. Husbands and wives were not puppets of an unfair gender order, but reacted to and against the circumstances of life-cycle, social and financial status, and changing ideologies. They determined themselves whether they had quiet lives.[3]

Alongside this, I’ve published on intimate partner violence. I’ve always found this aspect of my research a huge challenge, partly because the graphic physical and emotional details within the records distress me in their accounts of the fear, violent acts, and the pain that the abuser inflicted. I’ll return to that emotional response later in my talk. But I also realise that the subject troubles me further, largely because the extent to which wives could exercise agency in these situations was far more limited than in non-violent relationships. Thus, I found the handful of women who were described as escaping abuse, or, striking back, easier to cope with. This is a feature of the problematic role of the author in identifying agency, which I recognise in the critical accounts of agency that I will move on to later. Anyway, reflecting on my body of work in this area, I realise that, as a result, I focused instead, therefore, on the role of non-human agency – the ways in which spaces and objects had agentic force in shaping spousal abuse and responses to it. So, in a first article on this I traced the way the built environment defined and shaped men’s violent acts and in my second article I proposed that objects like beds and household stuff were emotional objects that helped manifest abuse, sites over which spouses fought to exert control. I also argued that spaces like stairs and landings were the loci for the enactment and visibility of assaults, conduits in the violence that flowed through multiple and single-family occupancy homes. As I argue, stairs were often points of egress, routes by which wives could leave their husband, and since they spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands may have been sites that especially antagonised controlling husbands.[4]

My second area of research addresses family relationships more broadly, with a focus on parenting and parental identities in the late Georgian era, but attending to parent-child and generational relations too. My approach in this work was more deliberately emotions driven, so, if you had asked me what my focus was at the time, I would have replied that I was not so compelled to identify the agency of those who were the dependents in these relationships. I’d have said that I was more interested in ascribing agency to emotions themselves, especially to structures of feeling that shaped parents’ construction of self and personal identities. In any case, far more of the individuals I worked on were from the professional ranks and the middle classes, those groups I tended to see as possessing more autonomy. Yet, if I look again at this work, I can see that my urge to delineate who had the capacity to intentionally shape their worlds had not really waned. When I describe the qualitative software I used, for instance, I state that ‘It shows when [people] used the vocabularies and cultural motifs [of feeling], flags up ambivalences, and demonstrates individuals’ agency where they adapt them in their own ways’.[5]

And of course, my focus on parental identities and self-fashioning brought moments of agency into sight. I wrote about women who selected and used maternal identities in order to claim greater authority and contrasted their self-declared ‘superior’ actions with their husbands’ ‘inferior’ ones. I described lower-status men who juggled the tropes of tender and providing fatherhood in order to justify their actions as fathers, and lay claim to ideals of masculinity, when their actions otherwise failed to meet the ideals of mature patriarchal manhood. I also added pauper parents, because I wanted to see how far parents who were hugely disadvantaged by their economic dependence might nevertheless deploy emotional strategies and vocabularies to improve their and their children’s situations. And, that is indeed what I discovered in their pleas to their readers’ sensibility and sympathy. I was also interested in locating how parents and children negotiated their duties, obligations, and privileges towards each other. After all, family structures and relationships shifted across life courses as people grew up, aged, and adopted new roles; experienced as a rise and fall of individual agency across a lifetime. Even men were not immune from this. A boy might exercise some agency derived from being away from home at school, able to dodge writing home if he wished, or use the ties of affection to request gifts of food and clothes. Yet his agency might wane again when trying to secure employment with family approval, only coming to the fore once he was established, more financially autonomous, and with a wife and offspring. As fathers got older, or became grandfathers, they in turn felt less able to influence others and turned to that rhetoric of the less powerful, affection and love, in order to impact family members. In 1812, for example, George Courtauld saw his own role expanding at his son’s approaching adulthood as he decided what business to take up. He explained,

my parental duties are not concluded, as they probably are at this juncture of more importance than at any other, (for upon a young man’s first start in life his future wellbeing most imminently depends) it would be a cowardly dereliction of duty—and impious dependence upon the Almighty—to give up the agency He has appointed me.[6]

Of course, here George used the contemporary sense of acting as a superior’s agent – in this case God, to exert autonomy and authority over others. Interestingly, he later blamed himself for the diminution of his children’s love, by having taught them to think for themselves.[7]

Researching fatherhood led me to focus more specifically on masculinity and my most recent work has been on manliness in the long nineteenth century. Here the connections between bodies, emotions, and material culture have been my primary focus. Reflecting on this book from a little distance (it was published in March this year) is quite interesting. The project began in 2012 with what I imagined was a shift away from a history of the powerless, since I was focusing upon men and the construction of manliness, the dominant form of masculinity in the long nineteenth century. Researched in the interstices between teaching and later my head of school role, I designed it so it could be primarily done from digitised print, visual, and material culture sources, rather than manuscripts in archives. About halfway through, however, the project transformed into a study of the way that men’s emotionalised bodies and emotional objects were key to transmitting the values of manliness to a wider audience. Here materiality is agentic, since the emotions that bodies and objects elicited were sticky with meaning. This utilises the cultural theorist, Sara Ahmed’s formulation of ‘stickiness’, whereby meaning sticks to objects, signs, and bodies which then transfer that meaning – conveyed through a process of substitution from one object to another. I argue that this ’intermateriality’ means that when people encountered the idealised manly attributes linked with men’s bodies in other forms and locations, they recognised them and the feelings they stirred acted to reinforce associated ideas around gender identities.

When writing the book in a semester’s sabbatical in 2018, a further shift occurred as I suddenly realised that the men’s bodies depicted were predominantly working-class ones. This transformed the book again, and perhaps indicates that my interest in those who hold less power had not waned. And so – very late in the day – Manliness in Britain became an account of the cultural uses of imagined working-class men’s bodies. In this process I sought to queer the history of masculinities and its hierarchies, determining to avoid heteronormative assumptions when thinking about the ways in which gendered values were communicated. I show that manly bodies were objectified and intended to arouse feelings in those who encountered them which, whether specifically erotic or not, made the gender attributes they embodied desirable. The idealised, eroticised young working man was desired by some elite men as a lover, for others, he was alluring because his physical and emotional charisma displayed ideal manliness. In parallel, unmanliness was projected through abjectified working-class bodies, intended to stir disgust and aversion in viewers and readers. Both objectified and abjectified bodies were intended to be didactic lessons for the working classes, the former helped render the working classes less threatening for middle-class consumption by modelling a patriotic, well-behaved, hardworking, trustworthy citizen, acting as a counterpoint to the upheaval of modernity.

5614203 The Champion of England, engraved by G. S. Shury, 1860 (colour litho) by Maguire, Thomas Herbert (1821-95) (after); 57.7×44.6 cm; Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums; Published Feby. 1st. 1860; by E.Gambart and Co. 25, Berners Street, Oxford Street,_Nottingham, Shaw and [&] Sons bottom centre : inscription : printing : THE CHAMPION OF ENGLAND. \’The Challenge_\’ \’THE FOE THOUGHT HE\’D STRUCK_BUT HE SUNG OUT AVAST! AND THE COLOURS OF OLD ENGLAND HE NAIL\’D TO THE MAST!\’ From the original Picture in the Collection of J.L.Thackeray, Esqre, The Park Nottingham, to whom this Engraving is respectfully dedicated by this obliged Servants. Shaw and [&] Sons); © Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums; English, out of copyright.

The desire I identify troubles the standard account of the gendered gaze, which positions a male viewer as active and dominant and the object of his gaze as female and subordinate. When the body being objectified and gazed at is male, and the viewer can be both female and male, then the binary of the agency of the gazer and lack of agency of the gazed at is disrupted. This is because the idealised manly body was active, the agent of prized gender values. Yet, it was also passive, the object of both a male and female desirous gaze, and subordinate, since the majority of these idealised manly bodies were working class. My inclination to seek out the agency of those who operated in the domain of the less powerful also found its way into the final section of my book, where I look at how working-class men deployed the idealised manly working man in their own cultural products. Using the material culture of working-class organisations, like trade unions and friendly societies, I argue that working-class people depicted workers’ manly emotionalised bodies in less eroticised ways. Their heroic workers were less the subject of the consuming gaze, less objectified, and associated with values intended to serve working class ends.  I turn to the end of this final chapter, only to find myself once more beguiled at handing over agency to my guys: in this instance, working-class men, who I observe:

co-opted the imagery for their own organisational and political ends, reshaping it subtly so that it shed its condescension. The manly workers that they chose to represent them, and whom they performed in public for an audience, possessed remarkable confidence and assuredness. Perhaps in some small way, this gendered identity could, over time, take on less conciliatory aspects to aid workers in asserting their rights.   

Rethinking, troubling, and critiquing agency

Perhaps it is time for me to confess that, for all this engagement with agency, I’ve not grappled properly and fully with what I mean when I use the term. Agency has been an amorphous concept that I attach to human and non-human actors, acts and events with the assumption that everyone reading my work will understand what I mean. Actually, when writing this talk, I recalled that I was made aware of this from the start of my career. When I was a JRF at Merton College I was friends with a physicist who had an amateur interest in history and would read my work on marriage. On one of these occasions he asked me to explain what I meant by agency. I don’t honestly think I did that very effectively at the time; and, regardless, it certainly didn’t stop me using the term perhaps too unthinkingly in a number of my ensuing works. What strikes me, however, on outlining my work and where it explores human and non-human agency, is how much I am a fellow traveller with other scholars searching for agency among their subjects, following the routemap of agency as it has unfolded over the last seventeen years since my first book was published.

And I can see this in the rethinking, troubling, and critiquing of agency that has taken place in the last ten to fifteen years as a number of scholars have opened up agency to scrutiny. They include Walter Johnson on North American slavery, in 2003,[8] and Cornelia Hughes Dayton, on dispossessed early modern Europeans, in 2004.[9] Lynn Thomas reflects on African women and gender, in 2016, and Megan Webber, in 2017, uses case studies from early 19th century charitable organisations. Chris Pearson surveys non-human agency in 2015 and, more generally, historians of material culture have extended our understandings of agency to include objects. Together this body of work sharpens up our critical faculties on agency and its development as a field of enquiry over time. Thomas, in particular, encourages scholars to avoid the ‘agency as argument’ trap, where agency is both the predicable and safe endpoint of analysis.

Most of these critics trace scholars’ endeavour to recover agency from its emergence in New Social History, especially in E. P. Thompson’s work in the 1960s. They identify the limitations inherent in the concept of agency as we often apply it, in that it is, as Johnson observes, a product of 19th century liberalism, which over-emphasises independence and choice. Instead, as these scholars remind us, we should attend as much to the many constraints on people’s capacity to act and make decisions as to those who self-consciously exerted autonomy. Collectively, these critics point out that agency is not synonymous with intentionality, or resistance, or pre-meditated tactics. Thinking in terms of contemporary stereotypes of the passivity or victimhood of women, for example, enables us to acknowledge the individuals who selected dependence or conformed to hierarchical structures as exercising agency too. As such, these studies of agency include alternative forms of agency, such as compliance with and submission to those holding power, or to the divine will. Some propose that one way out of the cul-de-sac of agency is to focus on subjectivity.[10] Others advocate that scholars pay attention to the imagination and mind as much as to physical acts of agency. Thomas, for instance, urges us to reformulate agency by highlighting ‘psychical desire, [and] fantasy’ as well as social and political structures.[11] This critical work has been particularly helpful in delineating more recent developments in exploring agency beyond its human forms. As Chris Pearson comments, a focus on agency as resistance ‘obscures how human and nonhuman agents exist in close relationship to each other and how their ability to act is contingent on these historically situated relations’.[12] Like others inspired by Bruno Latour’s ‘actor network theory’, these scholars have begun to explore the agency of objects, space, non-human animals, and nature.

Do emotions offer insights into agency?

These thoughtful analyses of the concept remind us that agency is neither trans-historic nor universal, but historically contingent, differentiated by gender, age, time, place, as well as environment. In this opening up and criticism of the concept of agency and our uses of it, the elephant in the room, it seems to me, is scholars themselves. These thought pieces are not simply guidance on historicising agency, nor sharpening up our definitions so we find agency in more situations and behaviours. They also warn the academic about their own positionality and subjectivity when evaluating their subjects as agents in their respective historical worlds. Some – often implicit – criticism is therefore directed at scholars’ lack of reflexivity. So, scholars who critique agency are directing us to scrutinise our own political and intellectual stance when they remind us of agency’s liberal roots, or when they urge us not to adopt the role of saviour of the victim, the oppressed, and the dispossessed, and when they ask us to consider that agency can take many forms, which do not necessarily match with our own heroic concept of worthy resistance or autonomy. Dangerous too, as its critics observe, is the well-intentioned tendency to overemphasise the agency of our subjects in the past. One of the things that worries me is that scholars deploy agency as a form of approval – is it our favourite types of subjects who we see as exercising agency? Furthermore, shouldn’t the language of giving people ‘back’ or restoring and recovering their agency unsettle us? Isn’t this imperative both condescending and exclusionary to those we study? As Katie Barclay points out, historians of subaltern groups often understand ‘their ethical obligation to their subjects as giving them voice, of placing them back into history’. Perhaps this can be read as empathy, but I wonder if it could also be read as cultural appropriation.[13] Indeed, Megan Webber is explicit about this, recommending that historians be ‘transparent about how their political, personal, and historiographical concerns inform their portrayal of agency.[14] 

I suggest we go a step further as scholars, which is to explore our own emotional responses to our subjects when researching their agency. Scholars are only just beginning to unpick the role of researchers’ feelings around their subjects of study. Not only do they recognise that neutral objectivity is a myth, and urge the researcher to expose the role their personal experience plays, they go on to scrutinise the role of emotions as a constitutive rather than intrusive component of the research process.[15] This might include the ‘emotional imperatives that often drive research’, the range of feelings caused by research, as well as the emotional connectedness and power structure of the researcher-researched dyad.[16] One of the ways in which the latter is framed is through empathy. Rob Boddice points out that historians need to be cautious when they empathise with historical actors. They cannot, he points out, know what their historical actors’ feelings were, and since emotions have different meanings over time, scholars need to learn to ‘see’ in the way past actors saw – presumably advocating that we adopt a period feel as much as a ‘period eye’.[17] This still supposes the scholars’ capacity to achieve some kind of intellectual objectivity over their historical subjects.

Others try to go further and consider the relationship between the academic and past actor. Drawing on existing reflexive work on archival fever, subjectivity, ethical engagement, and affective memory, among other things, Katie Barclay investigates the capacity of ‘an emotional entanglement … to bring the past into the present’  in her 2018 article.[18] In order to subject her own critical practice to scrutiny, she explores the layers of her emotional response, from dislike to a kind of love, to Gilbert Innes, a somewhat unlikeable Scottish banker who died in 1832. For her, emotional reactions are not distractions, but ways to connect past and present and she advocates that we all should examine the ‘dialogic relationship’ between our emotions and the object of our empathy.[19]   

So, I need to ask, do these emotions assist in recovering agency or do they get in the way? Megan Webber worries that scholars’ empathic investment in their subjects can lead them to identify with and project onto historical actors their own values and hopes – and, thereby, preferred types of agency.[20] I suspect this may well be true. I’ve come to realise over my career just how much my own personal experiences and emotional connections have shaped my interests, and my identification with specific historical actors. In turn, this influences what I find, analyse, and prioritise, and, I suggest, where I tend to locate agency. Let me give you a couple of examples. Perusing my publications as a body of work, I realise I have strong emotional responses to certain ‘types’ of women and men in my records. I respect the wives and mothers who are described, or define themselves, as hard-working, stoical in the face of adversity, self-sacrificing, enduring. I espy agency in such women’s attempts to defy and outwit patriarchy, to circumvent sexist economic limitations in order to secure their families, and to seek autonomy. On the other hand, I am utterly beguiled by men who were self-proclaimed tender fathers, who spent time with their children, nursed babies, played with infants, and became their adult offsprings’ friends. Powerful cultural emotions, such as sensibility and domesticity, were agents here, creating self-aware men who, in turn, harnessed them in their self-fashioning. I was sort of aware that my delight in such loving fathers might be a problem when, around 2010, I had an article on the relationship between fatherhood and masculinities rejected because reviewer #2 pointed out that I was outright ignoring other types of late Georgian fathers and fathering. It may only have been at that point that I began to consciously scrutinise my obsession with particular historical actors. For those of you who are interested, I redesigned my research to take account of bad dads thereafter. And, you will not be surprised at my inclinations, perhaps, when I explain that my handsome, glamorous father died when I was twelve leaving me, an only child, to be brought up by my mother who devoted her life to providing a secure and financially stable home for me as a child, and, even, adulthood when I was myself a mother.

A second example. By the time I was working on manliness, from about 2015, I was far more reflexive and prepared to work with and through my emotional response to my subjects. By now, I avoided working on areas that distress me, such as unhappy relationships and intimate partner violence. While I think I am able to work with the feelings that such challenging material elicits in me and, even, use my empathy to productive ends, I realised that it causes me too much personal strain. I elected, instead, to work on areas that are less emotionally demanding: the power of manliness as a concept and identity, focusing on its transmission through handsome bodies and appealing material culture. This is because I am perfectly aware of my own emotional response to ideals of heroic men, conveyed through aesthetically pleasing faces, bodies, and objects. I am drawn to these representations and their deployment by men and society, and the work they do to make masculinity appealing, even while deeply conscious of their role in sustaining unequal power structures. I wanted, perhaps, to explore how I simultaneously acknowledge their seductive qualities and resist them. This, I think, is at the root of my insistence on the power, indeed agency, of emotionalised bodies and objects in fixing gender. No doubt my conception of the ambivalent role of the desirous gaze in all this is rooted in my own subjectivity too. Recognising my subjectivity and my emotional triggers in my research has thus been productive in exploring how I encounter and locate agency in my work.

Emotional intersubjectivity

All this self-reflection is good, up to a point, but it can leave me, the researcher front and foremost, and I suspect, for some, look a little like self-indulgence. Where are the historical actors in this reflexivity? Because, let’s be honest, whatever our personal experience and emotions about research, it’s still them we’re interested in. So, next I want to propose some ways to build in authorial subjectivity and feelings without losing sight of the subject of enquiry. This builds on Katie Barclay’s example of the benefits of ‘using emotion to think with’. By attending to one’s own feelings towards one’s subject, she argues, we can incorporate the historical subject without ‘overwriting past subjectivities’ with that of the historian’s.[21] Scholars can similarly use emotions to think with to analyse their historical subjects’ agency and their own role in identifying it. Perhaps emotional intersubjectivity is a helpful concept – where we as authors are self-aware of the mutual construction of our past subjects’ agency through a sense of shared subjectivity. This would help us avoid foregrounding our own subjectivity and preferences for types of agency. I would also hope that intersubjectivity could assist here as a way to counter the power of our emotional historical gaze in identifying and bestowing agency on our subjects. For – to return to Webber, there is a risk that an emotional connection with our historical subject can lead us to confer agency on those types of acts that we have a preference for – whether that be the rebellious rather than the complicit, the unconventional rather than conventional. I am proposing intersubjectivity here as a process of metaphorical co-constitution between the researcher and the historical actor rooted in both sensitivity towards one’s own emotions and subjectivity and a fully historicised understanding of theirs.

Katie Barclay is advocating something along these lines when she proposes that our affective responses to our subjects are products of engagements between people over time, not just between the reader and the text. In her case, this has provided ‘a reading of Innes that was both of the past and the present’.[22] Her proposal that acknowledging emotional entanglement helps bring the past into the present brings me to my final reflections on agency and emotion. It leads me to reflect on another aspect of the researchers’ emotions that emerges in analysing agency in the past, a more disruptive aspect. The most powerful of my emotional responses to the past has always been difficult for me to articulate. The best example of it is through my responses to old photographs and film. Since childhood, I’ve been unable to look at old photographs without some degree of distress, for I am constantly acutely, even agonisingly, aware that the people I look at, full of life, solid presences, engaging with the lens and the viewer on the other side of it, are now dead. Everything I see in these artefacts is dead or gone in some way, the pets they play with, the clothes they wear, even the buildings and landscapes they stand in are profoundly different. I feel the same when I encounter the traces of people in the manuscript and published sources that I read. Remember that I am a historian of relationships and bodies, and the spaces they inhabited, so I encounter people writing about emotional moments in their lives, when they feel sorrow, grief, despair, pain, fear, anger, and, sometimes, joy, excitement, and desire. They describe things they have done, seen and felt – all of which, I am constantly aware – are no longer in existence – and that they had no idea of their own futures at the time of writing.

Wikimedia Commons
Robert Adamson, David Octavius Hill Probably 1843 Accession no. PGP EPS 90 Medium Calotype print Size 16.60 x 12.60 cm Credit Edinburgh Photographic Society Collection, gifted 1987


My response to manifestations of the past is profoundly unsettling and, even, disorientating at times. The nearest I have come to defining my emotional response is through the concept of hauntology. Hauntology has been defined in several ways, since the term was coined by Jacques Derrida. In its broadest sense, it evokes the way the past returns to haunt the present. One manifestation of hauntology that especially appeals to me, is in its reflection on the way the present is haunted at once by its own past and its unfulfilled or lost futures. Indeed, it is theorised that hauntology is a response to new technologies which enable us to record, replay and store the past – a phenomenon that can be seen both in the nineteenth century following the invention of telegraphy, photography and cinema, and in the early twenty-first century where the internet has created an ‘ever-growing archive of the recorded past … instantaneously accessible.[23] Mark Fisher calls this the ‘technological uncanny’ – an atemporality of a present in which the past no longer dies.[24] I experience something akin to hauntology with my historical subjects, which is a recognition of time out of joint and potential of unrealised futures. It is neither a form of nostalgia, nor an attempt at recovery, both politically problematic positions. For me, when I work with historical records and individuals, time is out of joint because I am intervening in it. I am there doing something to re-assemble those people’s present [in the past] and, sometimes, imagine their future which they had not yet encountered. In effect, hauntology is a contracting of space and time and produces dyschronia, a confusion of time.

Ethan Kleinberg, explores a hauntological historical methodology in his Haunting History: For a Deconstructive Approach to the Past (2017). He describes ‘a past that is absent but haunts us and can return in ways that disturb our conventional historical narratives and understanding of what the past and history is’.[25] For him, hauntology is a way to escape ‘ontological realist dreams’ of a real and correct past.[26] The reason hauntology is a concept meaningful to my practice as a historian is that it captures my place in the contraction and confusion of time, which the archive and the past manifests. And it this position of the authorial self, if you bear with me, that I shall suggest has some impact on exploring agency. For, as the cultural theorist, Mark Fisher, reflected, the works he was analysing were ‘hauntological in the sense that … they were about the virtual agency of the no longer’.[27]

For me, the ghosts of the people and their materiality shape their potential re-inscription in my work; they are simultaneously gone and eternal. I don’t think this is just me. Katie Barclay cites Arlette Farge’s encounter with the ‘surplus of life’ that she felt in the archive and ruminated on in her wonderful, sensual account of historical research, The Allure of the Archives. Barclay notes that it is a type of ‘haunting that demands the acknowledgement of past subjects as ‘real’.[28] I think it does more than this. It also reminds us that what once was a surplus of life is now an absence.[29] Indeed, Barclay herself, turns to mourning as an intellectual process to unpick her responses to the archive and those she finds in it. She proposes that we recognise the ‘”excess of life” that continues beyond death and which brings the past to the present through us’.[30] This positioning of ‘us’ as the conduit is crucial, in my view. We have set up this relationship with our historical subjects and we are the means by which them, their actions, and their potential are realised. How does this impact agency? Well, I think we can use hauntology to understand and make explicit our emotional connections with our historical actors – and their haunting of us in the present. It also helps us to acknowledge our role in identifying their agency – both in terms of moving us (and thus shaping what we think about them) and in detailing what we determine as their acts of agency. Finally, a hauntological mindset reminds us that their futures, as realised or unrealised potential, shape what we construct out of their remains.  


I hope that my journey through the matrix of emotions, agency, and time has been thought provoking. What I aim to have suggested is that we should try to recognise our place in the construction of our historical actors’ agency and that we realise that this relationship is not entirely uni-directional, whether emotionally or temporally. The concept of emotional intersubjectivity approaches the co-constitutive creation of historical agency that I envisage. And the concept of hauntology acknowledges the disruptive force of time in the academics’ place in that relationship. Kleinberg advocates a ‘narrative [that] accommodates an understanding of …the past as something that is, as present and absent at the same time, as something and nothing entangled in a seemingly impossible way where the iterative position of the historian is woven into the past and the present such that it also presses upon the future’.[31] I like the way that the scholars’ dyschronic intervention in the telling of the past is acknowledged here, though I think we should also recognise the force of the historical actor in this process. I shall end with Keith Douglas’s evocative phrase, ‘Time’s wrong-way telescope’, as a metaphor for what we are doing where our subjects’ agency is concerned – self-consciously attempting to understand how people interacted with their world, ‘by distance simplified’.

Paper delivered to The Centre for Nineteenth Studies Second Annual Conference 27 Nov 2020, on the theme of Agency and Emotions. I am very grateful to them for organising this conference and inviting me to close it with this keynote address.

[1] Megan Webber, ‘Troubling agency: agency and charity in early nineteenth-century London’, Historical Research, 91:251 (2018), 128,134-5

[2] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2004), pp. 89-92

[3] Bailey, Unquiet Lives: Marriage and Marriage Breakdown in England, 1660-1800 (Cambridge, CUP, 2003) p. 204

[4] Joanne Begiato, ‘Beyond the Rule of Thumb: The Materiality of Marital Violence in England c. 1700–1857’, Cultural and Social History, 15:1 (2018), 46

[5] Bailey, Parenting in England 1760-1830. Emotion, Identity, and Generation (Oxford 2012), p. 14

[6] Bailey, Parenting in England, p. 224

[7] Bailey, Parenting in England, p. 227

[8] Walter Johnson W. “On Agency“, Journal of Social History (2003; Fall),113-124

[9] Cornelia Dayton, ‘Rethinking Agency, Recovering Voices’, The American Historical Review, 109: 3 (June 2004), 827-843

[10] Lynn Thomas, ‘Historicising Agency’, Gender & History, 28:2 (August 2016), 327

[11] Thomas, ‘Historicising Agency’, 330, 332

[12] Chris Pearson, ‘Beyond ‘resistance’: rethinking nonhuman agency for

a ‘more-than-human’ world’, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, (2015) 22:5, 710

[13] Katie Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, Rethinking History, 22:4, (2018) 465

[14] Megan Webber, ‘Troubling agency: agency and charity in early nineteenth-century London’, Historical Research, 91: 251 (2018), 135

[15] Tracey Loughran and Dawn Mannay (eds), Emotion and the Researcher: Sites, Subjectivities, and Relationships, (Emerald Insights, 2018) pp. 1-2. For the role of personal experience, see Chris Millard, ‘Using personal experience in the academic medical humanities: a genealogy’, Social Theory & Health 18 (2020),184–198.

[16] Loughran and Mannay, Emotions and the Researcher, pp. 6-13.

[17] Rob Boddice, The history of emotions (Historical Approaches) (Manchester, 2018) pp. 126-131

[18] Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 460

[19] Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 464

[20] Webber, ‘Troubling agency’, 134-5

[21] Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 468, 469

[22] Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’,  468, 469

[23] Merlin Coverley, Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past (Harpenden, UK, Oldcastle Books, 2020) pp. 10-13.

[24] Cited by Coverley, Hauntology, p. 12.

[25] Kleinberg: Theory of History as Hauntology, 217

[26] Kleinberg: Theory of History as Hauntology, 218

[27] Mark Fisher, ‘What is Hauntology?’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, 2012, 21

[28] Barclay, p. 466

[29] Ethan Kleinberg: Theory of History as Hauntology, 2017 discusses presence and absence.

[30] Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, 467

[31] Kleinberg: Theory of History as Hauntology, 220-1

Manly beauty: what can boxers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part III


The other men in William Hogarth’s March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) that I want to talk about are the boxers. In the painting, so evocatively displayed at London Museum, a bare-knuckle prize-fight takes place in the middle-ground. This was a boxing booth opened by James Figg in 1719 on Tottenham Court Road, at the Adam and Eve pub. Figg was one of the first boxers to commercialise the sport, opening his Amphitheatre to teach boxing, fencing, and quarterstaff.[1] George Taylor took over the booth in 1734 and one of the boxers depicted may well be Taylor.[2] We can see its fenced stage, the boxers squaring up to each other, surrounded by a closely packed audience of men, women, and children so avidly watching the match that they pay little attention to the guardsmen behind them. 

Detail of William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

It is wise not to overlook the fight as merely a lively backdrop to the scenes in the foreground. Nor should we assume the pugilists are a pictorial symbol of cruelty or the brutal habits of the lower orders; a Hogarthian moralising vignette of the callousness of metropolitan life. For Hogarth, the boxer was a signifier of male beauty, his sport was patriotic, and both were closely associated with national identity. So, with that in mind, what can boxers tell us about Georgian masculinity?

Rather a lot, since they were public performers of the most visceral forms of masculinity; indeed, boxing matches were often advertised as ‘trials of manhood’.[3] They were popular with most social ranks. Aristocrats and royalty patronised them and gambled on them and their spectators and followers included most social groups.[4]

Like the soldier, the boxer was a plebeian patriot. Fighters were labouring men drawn most often from trades that depended on upper body strength, like watermen and blacksmiths. They shared other attributes with Hogarth’s soldiers. Controlled violence was their stock in trade. Pugilists were compared to gladiators in the first half of the eighteenth century, for example.[5] Both were prized for their bodily ‘superiority’ – height in the guardsmen’s case, muscularity in the boxers’. The physiques of both were considered ideal examples of manhood.[6] Indeed, it was soldiers and boxers who often acted as life-models for artists and anatomists in the Georgian period, as discussed in the lovely book Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body by Anthea Callen (2018).

Like soldiers, boxers also resolved some of the challenges for masculinity that politeness and, later, sensibility, posed. Karen Downing has shown that in the period from the 1760s to 1815 the ‘gentleman boxer’ answered the question of whether a man could be manly while conforming to the conventions of the ages of politeness and then feeling. A boxer like ‘Gentleman’ John Jackson (1769-1845) resolved these concerns by cultivating the courtesy and gentility of polite sensibility while displaying the vigour and force required to fight to extend and defend an empire.[7]

Charles Turner, after Benjamin Marshall, Mr John Jackson, 1810

We can see the early stages of this being worked out in Hogarth’s art and writings. His boxers offered a mode of manliness that was rough, plain, sturdy, and authentic. Like other artists, Hogarth admired boxers, featuring them in his art as well as discussing them in his 1753 publication The Analysis of Beauty. The English champions James Figg (1684-1734), George Taylor (1716-1758), and Jack Broughton (1704-1789) served as models for his art.

Figg appeared in Southwark Fair, 1732, the figure on the right, riding in on horseback, A Midnight Modern Conversation, and plate 2 of a Rake’s Progress – the wigged prize-fighter bearing his quarterstaffs. Hogarth also depicted a naked Taylor on his design for the famous prize-fighter’s tombstone. Taylor’s muscular physique in these plates demonstrates why boxers were used as nude life-models – like the other plebeian labouring men who acted as life-models, their work led them to have defined musculature.[8]

William Hogarth, George Taylor Triumphing over Death, c.1750, Tate T08212

The role of such men was to be living examples of classical statuary, in pose, proportions and physical type.[9] They were looked at and studied by both artists and anatomists in art academies and associated events. Hogarth, for example, likely used such life-models at St Martin’s Lane Academy, which had been reopened in 1735 under his leadership. Johan Zoffany joined St Martin’s shortly after arriving in London in 1760 and this is the only known depiction of a life-drawing class there. The figure in red is a porter and occasional model at St Martin’s, who was also the first porter at the Royal Academy, founded in 1768.

Johan Zoffany, An Academy by Lamplight, A Life Class at St Martin’s Lane Academy 1761-2

The Royal Academy appointed a Professor of Anatomy to lecture artists on the human form. The first holder of the post was William Hunter, who assumed widespread familiarity with boxers when describing motion and musculature as:

essential to painters and sculptors … Everything that we have seen acted in reality at Broughton’s Amphitheatre at Saddlers Wells, and such places and every thing that we see done on the Stage, in the way of imitation by the Comedian or the Tragedian, is nothing but a skilful exercise of muscular motion.[10]

Johan Zoffany’s painting shows Hunter alongside his lecture props: a skeleton, the Hunter écorché (aplaster standing-figure, flayed to display musculature) and a life model (most likely a pugilist) echoing its pose.[11] Hunter is even said to have stolen the hanged body of a famous Irish pugilist sentenced to death for murder, and made a cast of his corpse; which he used to teach anatomy at the Royal Academy.[12]

It is worth reiterating that these elite men were looking at labourers’ bodies not just to acquire knowledge about function and form; but because these plebeian men were considered aesthetic and gender ideals.[13] Classical bodies shaped ideas of the ‘beauty of proportion’ for men as well as women. Although we tend to think of Hogarth as an artist of satirical types – the faces and forms of his protagonists often distorted and designed to convey character, behaviour, and morals, he also saw beauty of form as crucial to understanding the world. In his Analysis of Beauty (1753) he theorised abut the aesthetic basis of art and experience, setting out the characteristics of beauty both in art and nature.[14] This was no elite discourse, his observations had their roots in metropolitan life. Thus, he used boxers as an example of people’s instinctive understanding of beauty and proportion.

As he says:

almost every one is farther advanced in the knowledge of this speculative part of the proportion than he imagines; especially he who has been used to observe naked figures doing bodily exercise, and more especially if he be any way interested in the success of them; and the better he is acquainted with the nature of the exercise itself, still the better judge he becomes of the figure that is to perform it. For this reason, no sooner are two boxers stripped to fight, but even a butcher, thus skilled, shows himself a considerable critic in proportion; and, on this sort of judgment, often gives, or takes the odds, at bare sight only of the combatants. I have heard a blacksmith harangue like an anatomist, or sculptor, on the beauty of a boxer’s figure, though not, perhaps in the same terms; and I firmly believe, that one of our common proficients in the athletic art, would be able to instruct and direct the best sculptor living, who has not seen, or is wholly ignorant of this exercise, in what would give the statue of an English boxer a much better proportion, as to character, than is to be seen, even in the famous group of antique boxers, or, as some call them, Roman wresters, so much admired to this day.[15]

Here Hogarth considers English boxers to be superior to the Wrestlers, a classical sculpture that was reproduced in antique cast rooms in large form for students to draw from, and in small form as a decorative ornament.[16] This is significant for notions of Georgian manliness more generally, since men’s bodies were a crucial factor in the construction and evaluation of masculinity with classical forms as the standard against which all ideals were compared.

Hogarth discusses, for example, the statue of Antinous, as ‘the most perfect… of any of the antique statues’, showing ‘a manly strength in its proportion’ from its head to its foot.[17] This is illustrated in his plate I, a statuary yard, where he depicts well-known classical statues.

Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753, Plate 1, Statuary Yard at Hyde Park Corner (Royal Academy). Antinous is on the left, next to the dance-master. The Apollo Belvedere is found on the right on a pedestal.

This demonstrates that the huge muscular form of Atlas or Hercules was less appealing in the Georgian era than the more youthful graceful forms of the Antinous and Apollo Belvedere. The ideal manly body of a dexterous carriage and poise and clean-shaven face was influenced by historically-specific factors as diverse as polite sociability, the culture of sensibility, Georgian military techniques, and ideas about physical exercise, diet, and health. The mature Herculean body-type only came to symbolise muscular Christianity in the later nineteenth century, shaped by ideas of empire and warfare, namely new weaponry that required skirmish and light infantry battle techniques (I talk more about this in my article).

As you will see from his art, Hogarth was a proponent of physiognomy, the practice of reading outward appearance, faces and bodies, to reveal inner character.[18] Thus, for Hogarth the body and its capacities and actions shaped function and character – but also, it should be noted – gender. He argues that ‘a fat, bloated person, does not call to mind the character of a Silenus, till we have joined the idea of voluptuousness with it’.[19] In Greek mythology, Silenus was an older satyr associated with wine-making and drunkenness. Here – and in his pictorial series – Hogarth was pre-empting one of the principal ways in which unmanliness would be represented in the Georgian period – as the inability to master one’s appetites. As I will explore at length in my book, vice and lack of self-control were understood to produce a corrupt, unhealthy, unappealing body which was deployed in representations throughout the later Georgian and Victorian periods to stimulate disgust and thus encourage men to avoid the behaviours that would undermine their masculinity – and, therefore, society (For more on the male body in the 19th century, see Joanne Parsons and Ruth Heholt (eds), The Victorian Male Body).

His manly bodies were not simply emulations of classical standards of male beauty. The inferior version of manliness that he contrasted with the ideal in his illustrative plate and details was the dance-master. He uses this less favourable type of masculinity, that I have discussed in part I of this series of posts, as the foil for both Antinous and Hercules. Check out the plate above, to see how Hogarth contrasts the fop’s ‘stiff and straight’ pose with the ‘easy sway’ of Antinous.[20]

Hogarth was an artist of urban humanity, not simply classical aesthetics, and thus he thought it essential to identify the role of function in creating form. As such, it was often the plebeian male body in motion that was the subject of his examination of male proportion, evident where he discusses the ways in which men’s labour shaped their bodies: ‘so likewise strength to support, and clumsiness of figure, are united, as well in the character of an Atlas as in a porter’. Don’t forget that one of the life-models at St Martin’s Academy was a porter.

Hogarth is fascinated by the working-man’ real body:

When we consider the great weight chairmen often have to carry, do we not readily consent that there is a propriety and fitness in the Tuscan order of their legs, by which they properly become characters as to figure?

Watermen too, are of a distinct cast, or character, whose legs are no less remarkable for their smallness; for as there is naturally the greatest call for nutriment to the parts that are most exercised, so of course these that lie so much stretched out, are apt to dwindle, or not grow to their full size. There is scarcely a waterman that rows upon the Thames, whose figure does not confirm this observation. Therefore, were I to paint the character of a Charon [Greek mythology: Ferryman of the Dead], I would thus distinguish his make from that of a common man’s; and, in spite of the word low, venture to give him a broad pair of shoulders, and spindle shanks, whether I had the authority an antique statue, or basso-relievo, for it or not’. [21]

The common man was important, he was not to be dismissed as low, and was the model for authenticity. It has been argued that Hogarth’s ‘language of aesthetics is an unashamedly predatory and erotized one, in which visual pleasure is related most closely to the perspectives of the wandering masculine eye, pursuing the alluring forms and outlines of the ever-elusive female body’. This is true perhaps, but it is not an entirely ‘chauvinist erotics’, since he viewed and described the male body as beautiful, typically the plebeian muscular body.[22]

Here again we see the roots of what developed even more strongly in the long nineteenth century, as I’ll show in my new book – the aestheticization, even eroticisation of working men’s bodies in textual, visual, and material culture. You can see that with Ford Madox Brown’s Work as an example (significantly, Mark Hallett notes how Brown was influenced by Hogarth’s art). Idealised working men’s bodies were offered as exemplars of manliness for middle-class men. Increasingly, working men were imagined, consumed, and deployed in constructions of manliness and by the second half of the nineteenth century idealised men’s physicality was not only associated with national identity and strength, they also symbolised economic prosperity.

Ford Madox Brown, Work, 1852-63

Boxers were an early progenitor. As we see in Hogarth’s art, from the early eighteenth century, they were offering entertainment and sport in fairs and prize-fights and selling training in various forms of combat in specialised locations to paying male customers. Their fans’ and followers’ emotions were stirred by their bodies, their actions, and their cultural representations. Hogarth shows the passion of the spectators – one man mirroring the fighters’ stance. Again, we hear Hogarth – the shouting, the sounds of blows on flesh.

This became more explicit over time with celebrity boxers of the later Georgian period, and the sale of their images in material culture, visual culture, and eventually photographs. Their diets and regimes would become fashionable for young men, most famously, perhaps, Lord Byron, who like other men followed such training as assiduously as possible to achieve health and physical fitness.


The March of the Guards to Finchley tells us more than we might expect about Georgian masculinity. It enlarges our understanding of what constituted manliness – beyond the polite genteel man, or the many forms of masculinity to avoid – by offering insights into the allure and ambivalences of the plebeian model of masculinity.

Hogarth has a reputation for making ‘popular heroes’ – as we see in Beer Street where the ‘stout and jovial’ men’s bodies represent ‘the body politic in a state of health and comfort’.[23] The Beer Street men, however, are somewhat too comfortable and prosperous to defend a nation.

So, in Hogarth’s robust soldiers and boxers we see virility and violence, both considered essential components of a forceful masculinity fit for a modern commercial colonising nation.[24] Like the guardsmen, boxers conveyed national as well as gender identity through their pugnacious and patriotic bodies. As Matthew Craske observes, Hogarth celebrated English people’s riotous tendencies as a feature of their national character: ‘a physical manifestation of the national proclivity towards liberty’.[25] This contrasted with the perceived authoritarianism of continental states, but also indicated the capacity of Englishmen to stay on the right side of libertinism.[26]

The men at the heart of The March of the Guards to Finchley embody the notion of the ‘plain’ man that the English have cultivated and admired from the eighteenth century onwards. It is a model of masculinity that prizes authenticity over artificial manners, demonstrated by a plain, bluff appearance and rough behaviours, supposedly indicating honesty and usefulness. It is a type of manliness that has its roots in a plebeian culture, and while potentially dangerous to society, can at times be seen to be the saviour of the nation and is often deployed even by elite men to gain approbation.

[1] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[2] David Day, ‘”An Art and a Science”: Eighteenth-Century Sports Training’ in Rebekka von Mallinkrodt and Angela Schattner, Sports and Physical Exercise in Early Modern Cultures: New Perspectives on the History of Sports and Motion.

[3] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, p. 26.

[4] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 26, 29.

[5] Kasia Boddy, Boxing: A Cultural History, London Reaktion Books, 2009, pp. 32-3.

[6] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 343

[7] Karen Downing, The Gentleman Boxer: Boxing, Manners, and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century England, Men and Masculinities, Volume 12 Number 3, April 2010, 334.

[8] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 73.

[9] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 79.

[10] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223. Joseph Turner drew the écorchéin 1791 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-full-length-corche-figure-r1140308

[11] Martin Postle (ed) Johan Zoffany RA Society Observed, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2011, p. 223.

[12] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, p. 82.

[13] Boddy sees Hogarth’s early interest in pugilists as life-models as related to his interest in proportion relating to function in the Analysis of Beauty rather than academicians later who she suggests saw them as approximations of pre-determined ideals of beauty. I think he saw them as beautiful. Even in the Taylor images he uses the linear curve that he associate with beauty above him. 66-7.

[14] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 240

[15] William, Hogarth, The analysis of beauty (1753), Paulson, Ronald Publication date 1997 Topics Aesthetics Publisher New Haven, Conn. : Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art by Yale University Press Archive.com pp. 144-5.

[16] Anthea Callen, Looking at Men: Art, Anatomy and the Modern Male Body, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2018, 69

[17] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 146.

[18] http://exhibits.library.northwestern.edu/spec/hogarth/physiognomics.html

[19] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150

[20] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 9

[21] Hogarth, The analysis of beauty, 150-1

[22] Mark Hallett, Hogarth, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 2000, 253-4.

[23] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 66-7.

[24] Matthew Craske, William Hogarth, London, Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd, 2000, p. 22,

[25] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 48

[26] Craske, William Hogarth, p. 49-50.

Rough and brave: what can soldiers tell us about 18th century masculinity? Part II


Let me begin with the guardsmen at the heart of William Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750), the subject of a great exhibition at the Foundling Museum. They are an evocative depiction of the troubling charms of the soldier. In the eighteenth century, officers might be considered examples of idealised masculinity: noble, courageous, and self-sacrificing. The other ranks, however, were considered with some suspicion by society – their form and appearance yet to take on the more solid, reassuring appeal they possessed by the mid-nineteenth century. Politically, after all, the military raised fears of standing armies as authoritarian tools of repression, and individually they were examples of the bad behaviour men were supposed to avoid, such as drinking, fighting, womanising, and gambling.[1]

So let’s unpick the masculinity of these soldiers. Firstly, their bodies matter, as Matthew McCormack’s book Embodying the Militia in Georgian England argues. Hogarth depicts a regiment of Guards, who were generally recruited because they were tall.  In the central figure, we see the elite of the elite – a Grenadier of the Foot Guards. In the 1760s it was said that ‘the best bodied Men in the Battalion’ became grenadiers, not only because they could throw grenades further due to their height, but also because they would flank the regiment in their distinctive uniforms at parade.[2]

Detail from William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

Hogarth’s mastery of the senses helps convey the power of such martial masculinities, since it was the form, sight, spectacle, and sound of soldiers that made the armed forces function effectively. Studies of fancy uniforms and martial spectacle, for example, show that both helped form regiments into coherent fighting forces, as well as making regiments more acceptable to a society suspicious of standing armies.[3] These factors also helped convey and fix those aspects of masculinity that were more salubrious and celebrated, such as bravery and self-sacrifice. These guardsmen were dressed in magnificent uniforms that were designed to flatter manly proportions and instil admiration and patriotism in those who saw them.

And yet, these guardsmen are hardly heroic figures: this is a picture of soldiers rousing themselves from a night of misbehaviour and debauchery – still ongoing in many instances, with drunk soldiers, one urinating against the wall, another stealing pies, and others casually sexually assaulting women traders.

Badly behaved, impolite, unruly, undisciplined: surely that was unmanly? Well the problem is that all these behaviours could indicate some degree of virility. Hogarth thus reveals the inherent paradox of masculine identity, since many unmanly behaviours were also those which, in a managed form, were central to the performance of normative masculinity. The question is – at what point did this virility become the immoral behaviour that rendered the perpetrator more bestial than manly in the eyes of society? 

This was always a delicate balancing act and historically contingent. Youth has long been recognised as a period of lack of control, when the juvenile male had not yet fully learned to master temptations and control or channel emotions. Some of these guardsmen might be young and unmarried and therefore given some licence. Some, as you can see, were mature, so that would not excuse them all. So, let’s return to the issue of politeness and its risks which I discussed in part I of my series of blog posts. 

Armies have often served as barometers of national masculinity. In the 1740s and 50s commentators were alarmed that politeness was undermining the manliness of the armed forces, with soldiers enfeebled by the comforts of civilian life and unable to cope with the rigours of war.[4] This was especially acute following the 1745 Jacobite rising and ‘the initial disorganisation of the British army’s response’.[5]  The novelist and editor Eliza Haywood, for example published the essay ‘Effeminacy in the army censured’ in The Female Spectator in 1745 in which she declared:

How long this over-delicacy will continue, heaven knows; but it is yet far from being extirpated:—even among the military gentlemen, there are some, who being infected with it before they become so, find it an insuperable difficulty to bring themselves to that hardiness and neglect of personal ornaments, which suit with the life of a soldier.[6]

Hogarth offers a very different portrayal of guardsmen to Haywood’s – no artificial social polish here or lack of hardiness! Combining fine physiques with behaviours deemed problematic in other men, such as fighting, drinking, and sexual liberty, these soldiers are not cautionary tales against succumbing to temptation. Instead, they answer the gender anxieties of their time, fulfilling the claim of a civic tract from the late 1750s that states that the ‘bravest’ and ‘honestes’t’ men were the ‘roughest’.[7] Roughness is presented as the antidote to a fighting force made inferior by social conventions deemed to weaken manliness. The manliness Hogarth displays here is one that is successfully navigating between the two extremes of the period: the villainous blackguard and the weak fop. The former was part of a counter-culture of anti-civility where socially elite men behaved badly, but whose boorishness was a risk to society, and the latter was equally problematic due to his womanly inferiority.[8]

In some ways Hogarth proffers a martial masculinity more attuned to that of the Jack Tar (the nickname for a sailor), who in popular culture combined carousing with comradeship, sexual prowess, and bravery.[9] Never as reassuring as the Jack Tar, soldiers took longer to be domesticated in popular culture (for which, see the volume I have edited with Michael Brown and Anna Maria Barry: Martial masculinities: Experiencing and imagining the military in the long nineteenth century (MUP 2019)). Two of the guardsmen most reveal the ambiguities of martial masculinity: the grenadier in the centre who takes his leave of his pregnant sweetheart, and the regimental drummer pulling away from his tearful wife and clinging child.

These are early examples of a symbol of martial masculinity that became immensely popular by the later eighteenth century and into the next century: the sailor’s and soldier’s farewell. In these later popular sentimental images, the handsome military man takes his leave of his pretty family; in so doing proving his self-sacrifice, his patriotism, and his feeling – symbols of moral manliness in the age of sensibility that marked out the decades from the 1760s to 1830s. In The March of the Guards to Finchley, before the full grip of sensibility, Hogarth’s departing guards are less comforting and sentimental. Is the pregnant woman a sweetheart, rather than a wife, likely to be abandoned to bear a bastard? And note the difference between the toddler with face buried in its mothers’ skirts and the grumpy boy with clenched fists.

Still, though these men are not yet fully formed as heroic, since their manly roughness is necessary to show their effectiveness as soldiers, their potential for valour, discipline, and self-control is literally on the horizon. As Mark Hallett explains, Hogarth shows the transformation of a ‘sprawling, inchoate mass of men into the well-drilled fighting unit that starts to take shape in the shadowed mid-ground and then marches in perfect formation across the distant, studiously illuminated landscape’.[10]

Detail from William Hogarth, The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750)

He describes the regimental drummer just beginning to drum the beat that will bring these soldiers into fighting order, if still staggering, somewhat punch drunk, into the scene from the left, his bloated face bearing the marks of drinking and fighting.[11] Hogarth’s acoustic talents are heard here as the elaborately uniformed man and boy play fife and drum; crucial sounds of army life since they regulated soldiers’ daily routines, set the tempo of the march, and communicated battlefield signals to company commanders in battle.[12] Military music, we must not forget, also stirred the emotions and senses of civilian onlookers not just to patriotism but to emulate the gender of the martial men. No wonder that men writing in the later eighteenth century recalled their excitement at seeing soldiers and regiments as children and its impact on their sense of selves as men.

These guardsmen surely stirred humour and perhaps some envy in their contemporary audience – as men who could enjoy licence, escape familial obligations, and still emerge as ideals of masculinity. In fact, men in general may well have found martial manliness appealing and something to emulate because it resolved the often-competing aspects of manliness and unmanliness. Thus, military men were useful gender role-models for civilian youths and men because they battled with and overcame the challenges of self-mastery, often in extreme situations.

In the next post I turn to the boxers in The March of the Guards to Finchley, another plebeian patriot who influenced ideas of manliness in the Georgian and Victorian periods.

[1] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, p. 10.

[2] Matthew McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England, p. 89.

[3] Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle, passim.

[4] Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800, Harlow, Essex, Pearson, 2001, pp. 130-1 and McCormack, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England passim.

[5] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 131

[6] Haywood, Eliza. “Effeminacy in the army censured.” 1745. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 12 Oct 2007. 16 Jul 2019 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/haywood/effeminacy_in_the_army/&gt;. NB – longer quote sought after reading Carter, p 131.

[7] The Tryal of Lady Allurea Luxury 1757 p. 77, cited in Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 135

[8] Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, p. 137.

[9] Joanne Begiato, ‘Tears and the manly sailor in England, c.1760-1860’, Journal for Maritime Research, 17:2 (2015), 117-33.

[10] Mark Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’, p. 218.

[11] Mark Hallett, ‘Patriotism, Portraiture and Politics’, p. 218.

[12] Steven M. Baule, ‘Drummers in the British Army during the American Revolution’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 86, 2008, p. 20.

Military Masculinities in the Long Nineteenth Century

The conference on military masculinities (20-21 May 2015) was one of the most interesting I have attended, thanks to excellent organisation by Anna Maria Barry and Emma Butcher, and to the innovative and interesting research presented throughout.

Speakers were a brilliant mix of new, early career, and established scholars (the programme is here) and the audience was unfailingly convivial and supportive. It was great to meet people I only knew through Twitter and to discover tweeters new to me while tweeting about the papers.

One of the things I found really surprising was that I could listen to the speaker, tweet about his/her paper, while reading other people’s tweets on the same paper (less difficult than it sounds) and engage in a ‘live’ conversation that really sparked ideas, thoughts, and questions, which the speaker could join in during Q&A and later via Twitter.

I’m a historian of emotions and materiality and thus my paper explored the role of both in circulating and ‘fixing’ ideals of military masculinities – soldiers and sailors – to individuals and society more broadly. You can see the Prezi presentation of my paper here:


– not much substance available because I’ve yet to write up chunks of it, but lots of gorgeous images and objects!

Perhaps one of the things that struck me most is the extent to which many scholars from different disciplines are using both emotions and materiality to think about research questions and issues. It seems to me that this is going to open up so many possibilities and different directions.

Many of us considered soldiers, sailors, and their families’ emotions and inevitably we began to consider how these might change within the different periods and technologies of the Napoleonic wars through the Crimean to the modern, mechanist wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Military men’s bodies were often central too, and we discussed idealised bodies, inadequate bodies, ill, broken, and abused bodies, and, even, immaterial bodies in the form of ghosts.

The conference was also a feast for the senses. It was wonderfully evocative to hear military songs sung live and early recordings of music. So too was seeing so many glorious images and objects on speakers’ presentations. I was just stunned by the lovely objects that were on display from the York Army Museum, which we were able to handle. These highlight what a wonderful resource military ‘sources’ are for scholars beyond the field of military history.

I am so excited by the prospect of an edited collection published from this conference because it will showcase inter-disciplinary and important work on the power of military masculinities.

All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor

I’ve just finished writing up a paper on images of Jack Tar between 1760 and 1860. I’ve rather fallen in love with Jack Tar. When my analytical brain was idling, I wondered why his figure appealed to me. After all, he’s often thoughtless, drunk, and womanizing.

Perhaps I am following my heritage? My family often lived in port- or dockyard-towns – from the mundane to the glamorous (Sunderland and Chatham, Venice and Genoa). My English maternal grandfather was a shipbuilder, my Italian paternal grandfather a ship’s engineer; my father was Venetian and could do the whole gondolier-punting-thing.

I have a further (weird) quirk that might contribute to this romantic yearning – a love of Hollywood golden-age films. Thus I grew up obsessed by dancing pirates, and tap-dancing sailors. Indeed, in some ways, my paper might just have morphed into a personal quest to think about why the manly sailor was so appealing – to both sexes.

I realise, you see, that it is not just me. The sailor has long been appealing. And as this image shows, the sexy Popeye still figures in the popular imagination (http://chriswahlart.blogspot.co.uk/2006/04/tattooed-toons.html). He graced songs (sweet and lascivious), poems, pictures, plays, pottery, and textiles with his virile daring. New cultural forms simply adopted him. So you’ll find him in the 19th century music hall and 20th century cinema. The knowing quality of his appeal is perfectly captured in all its innuendo in the song ‘All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor’ (1909). Here’s the chorus (you can listen to it here):

All the nice girls love a sailor/ All the nice girls love a tar/ For there’s something about a sailor /(Well you know what sailors are!) /Bright and breezy, free and easy,/He’s the ladies’ pride and joy! /He falls in love with Kate and Jane, /then he’s off to sea again, /Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!
Just to make things even more exciting ‘All the Nice Girls’ was often performed by a woman dressed as a man.

My theory is that Jack Tar always slightly sidestepped the censorious versions of manliness. He operated at the side-lines of manliness, combining just the right amount of virtue and vice: fearlessness, tenderness, fidelity, duty, and self-sacrificing love for his brother sailor, his sweetheart, and his nation. But he still loved grog, dance, and girls. The Jack Tar was thus the everyman, which aided his popularity for both men and women.

I take just one example here of how Jack Tar may have managed to have his way without being deemed too disorderly and too threatening (for the most part, and ignoring mutiny!). Why did Jack get to be a bit of a lad where women were concerned? Remember that most manly men from the later eighteenth century onwards were supposed to exert rigorous self-control. Not the sailor. I think, however, that ideas about the life-stages of masculinity helped him out here. Achieving manliness was about moving from boyhood to manhood and the navy was one of the most potent arenas for making boys into men.

So where sexual virility was concerned Jack Tar was granted some leeway because of his youth and according to whether he was unmarried or married. And of course this probably reflected the nature of naval service where most ordinary seamen were young and unmarried.[4] In Dibdin’s ‘I’ve sworn to be constant to Poll’ the sailor struggles with the temptations of women: ‘tawney, lily, and black’ in his aim to be constant. Yet his likely failure is treated light-heartedly and once he gains his fortune he promises

So I’ll bring up young tars, do my duty ashore/ And live and die constant to Poll’.[1]

Prize money was a further element of this life-phase aspect of the sailor’s manliness. Sailors were granted a share of the cash value of an enemy vessel that they helped to capture and returning sailors were often depicted in the act of proffering money to a woman.[2] In some instances this was indeed for sexual services. For example, the woman in an engraving by Rowlandson 1799 is bosomy, beautiful, and the exchange occurs in a pub.[3] Yet these images were not particularly censorious, partly because youths were permitted greater sexual freedom.


(Women were besotted enough by Jack Tar to stitch him. This is a Sailor’s Farewell)

Also, Jack was redeemable. All he needed was a good woman to make him over! So other versions of the sailor returning with prize money were more about love than sex, where the recipient was Jack’s sweetheart. In two earthenware figurines, for example, Jack greets his girl, posing with one foot resting on a box of dollars and with a bag of coins in his hand.[5] The song ‘Faithful Tom’ states the sailor’s aim:

With conquest to come home at last,/And deck our sweethearts with the spoil.[6]

In some paired Farewells and Returns, the sailor is better dressed at his return, indicating his financial improvement. In a rather more cynical depiction, Molly’s mother is shown attending only to the riches her prospective son-in-law has returned with.[7] The implication is that the money enables Jack and his girl to marry. This followed societal expectations that a couple should not wed until they had acquired enough means to support a household and family.

 Thus it is likely that the frequent image of Jack returning with cash was both a symbol of his sexual virility, but also marked his attainment of mature manhood by proving his capacity to attain financial independence through employment and to become the family provider. In the depictions of sailors returning to families, therefore, the prize money was not so blatant.

This was about youths acquiring self-control as they became men. As Isaac Land observes, in order to demonstrate more manly, patriotic status the Jack Tar was likely to be shown as self-controlled in two fundamental areas: converting battle bravery into heroism through coolness and self-composure and redirecting unconstrained sexual virility into reproductive sex. Through these acts he defended and produced a strong nation.[8]

In fact the prize money and family life that ensued were considered recompense for the sailor’s hardships and bravery. As the patronising Old Sturdy, the veteran tar of a play of the same name states:

Women, bless ‘em, they’re the sailor’s sheet anchor, his joy ashore, his hope at sea, they’re the treasures that reward the toils of life and the sweets that enable us to taste its sours without making wry faces.[9]

Thus the bravery was softened by tenderness. The bold tar explains to Poll in Rev T Browne’s ‘The Sailor’s Bride’:

I travel to the distant shore,/To bring back treasures to my dear’/For this thy sailor fearless braves/The danger of the ocean’s waves.[10]

In ‘The Sailor’s Love Letter’ the sailor tells Poll that he will be steadfast for

repaid are the perils I meet with at sea,/In the joy of returning, sweet Polly to thee.[11]

Difficult to resist that eh?

Jack Tar united a number of masculine qualities, some virtuous, some not. The intemperate behaviour, however, was accommodated and ameliorated by the good. In his figure, a bit of vice was the price for lots of virtue. Carefree, brave possessors of hearts of oak alleviated the strains of fighting and harsh conditions with alcohol and sociability. Occasional surrenders to temptation were forgiven because of their true-hearted loyalty to friends and wives.

[1] Universal Songster, p. 90

[2]Land, War, Nationalism, p. 6.

[3]Thomas Rowlandson, The Sailor’s Return (caricature) (PAD4768), National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

[4]85% of ordinary seamen were twenty-five or under and it is estimated that no more than a quarter of naval men were married, mostly the officers, petty officers and older seamen. Rodgers, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy Glasgow, 1986, pp. 78-9,

[5] C9562 National Maritime Museum

[6]Cited in The Chearful Companion, or Songster’s Pocket Book, ‘Sailors Songs’, p. 154 and in The Universal Songster, vol. 2, 1777)

[7]PW380, National Maritime Museum.

[8]Land, War, Nationalism, pp. 77-8, 83-5, 102.

[9] Robinson, British Tar , 235. No date given.

[10] Universal Songster, p. 89

[11] Rannie, ‘The Sailor’s Love-Letter, Universal Songster, p. 439.

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?


There be dragons: research outside my expertise

I’m doing some reading on St George, a (probably mythical) Roman martyred for his Christianity in the third or early fourth century, eventually patron saint of England, as well as lots of other countries. This is not my usual field of research. But new projects take you in surprising directions. I’m working on what it meant to be a man in England from 1750 to 1918 and without actively looking I have been noticing images of St George appearing in my sources. This might be because I am a great fan of a man in armour.

St George c 1500 German engraving

Wikimedia Commons German Engraving c 1500

Yet, more pertinently, I’ve arrived at that stage of analysing lots of data where I’ve begun to see some wood for the trees. I’m detecting what values made up the concept of ‘manliness’. And guess what? St George seems to embody lots of the features I’m identifying. This might not surprise anyone who is familiar with the late Victorian and Edwardian period who thinks of a chivalric style of muscular Christianity as shaping masculinity. Although my impression was that no-one had really unpicked the association. Furthermore, it is important for my overarching research in the long run, because I’m coming to think that manliness was the way people thought about being a man much earlier than the later nineteenth century.

In the short term, however, I’m preparing a symposium paper. You see, when I was asked to speak I happened to be thinking about St George and the Dragon and so I suggested this theme for the paper. Thus, now I have to pin down some nebulous thoughts, provide the historiography, gather some evidence, construct an argument and write the paper! I’m writing about the process of doing this for a couple of reasons. It is partly to force myself to write about a topic which is scaring me off because it leads in several directions away from my comfort zones. It is also in order to share what I do as an academic with others. I have already written a post on the theoretical framework which I need to address – that is always the most difficult bit for me, so I did it first here.

Now I am turning to the patron saint himself. Like most of us I imagine, my initial stage of research is to Google – so I googled St George. Then I did some searching on Historical Abstracts, and Bibliography of British and Irish History to see what historians have published on him. This showed a fairly limited set of works devoted (ha, ‘cult’ joke there) to St George. On reading this secondary literature, I felt reasonably confident that my first instinct was correct and that not much has been published on St George and masculine identities, although there is fascinating analysis of the medieval cult and St George’s role in national identity formation.

Jonathan Good’s book The Cult of St George in Medieval England (2009) for example traces St George’s meaning and popularity from his origins and arrival in England to the late medieval period, with a particularly useful last chapter (for me) on his history after the Reformation. I’ve learned that the saint’s military qualities appealed to English medieval monarchs (Edward I to Henry VII) who used him to cement their authority, justify war with parts of the British Isles, and support crusades. In fact, with striking (and unexpected) resonance for me given my focus on the ‘intimate public sphere,’ Jonathan Bengston’s article ‘St George and the Formation of English nationalism’ argues that by making George ‘a divine national hero’ the monarchy deployed his cult to establish ‘an intimacy with the people which it could not otherwise have easily achieved’ (p. 317). Indeed, as Good demonstrates, guilds dedicated to the saint suggest that his cult was popular with a much wider section of society until the eighteenth century.


Wikimedia Commons, The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon, artist unknown.

In many respects it is St George’s famous association with chivalry that interests me with regards to manliness. This was in place from early in his history as national patron, encompassed in his image as warrior and knight, but cemented – of course – by his association with the dragon (date of this is debated) enabling him to become the rescuer. It was perhaps George’s chivalric associations that help explain his decline in popularity in the long eighteenth century and rise in the nineteenth, alongside a more general enthusiasm for an imagined chivalric past, as described in Mark Girouard’s book The Return to Camelot (1985)

Okay, so far so good. Last week I was still congratulating myself on the novelty of linking St George more explicitly with masculinity; a connection that seems only to have been identified in passing in the scholarship I’d come across, including Joseph Kestner’s Masculinities in Victorian Painting (1995). My Googling had even paid off by alerting me that Sam Riches, a historian of art has written about St George, via her electronic review of Good’s book.

Next day: bump. Down to earth; for my final stage in considering St George as a marker of masculine identity came along. This one which always strikes me at some point when entering the uncharted lands of another era/topic/approach. I found a publication whose title suggests someone else has been there and got the t-shirt. Scanning Good’s bibliography I saw: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites, St George and the construction of masculinity’ by Joseph Kestner in Collecting the Pre-Raphaelites: the Anglo-American Enchantment edited by Margaretta Watson (1997).

Why hadn’t I seen this on the bibliographic databases? Don’t know. I don’t think I missed it, and I wonder if it is because Kestner is categorised as art history. Anyway – crappity crap-crap.


Wikimedia Commons, Edward Burne Jones, The fight: St George kills the dragon VI 1866 (gorgeous isn’t it?)

Okay, so I have confirmed again that I have no new ideas. But I steeled myself and while waiting for my son while he had his hair cut on Saturday, I read the chapter. Thankfully, it is short and it is focused. Kestner states that St George was ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship)’ (p. 150), thereby summing up much of what I was delighted at noticing – except nearly twenty years earlier. And yet, yet; I realise I can still go somewhere with this.

I want to explore these manly values far more explicitly. They are too often taken for granted by historians, perceived to be ‘obvious’ later Victorian and Edwardian symbols of masculine identity. The longevity of St George helps me think more about this chronology, which is something I’m already doing more generally with manliness. Kestner is interested in what painting the subject of St George did to reinforce the masculinity and status of the Pre-Raphaelite artists themselves. Rightly or wrongly I want to look at the way the imagining of the appearance of the Saint evoked changing styles of manliness. Also, Kestner frames his consideration of St George in the theoretical framework of a curious (for me) focus on the phallus as representing hegemonic patriarchy. This has little appeal for me as a historian. Instead, I want to think about the imagery as a way to gain insights into a wider cultural understanding of masculine identities in the context of a more nuanced approach to hegemonic masculinity. Thanks to the theme of the symposium at which I’m first airing this, I am using a theoretical framework of intimacy, power and authority.

The next tasks in writing this paper (and ones I’d better get on with ASAP) are (1) figure out a bit about how St George fits with ideas about manliness and (2) put that together with the theme of intimacy, power, and authority. That’s all.

Is masculinity to blame for men who murder their children?

I have written this post in response to an article in The Observer today, titled ’Masculinity Crisis leads to family murder, according to new study.’ It is a short piece, which states that Birmingham City University criminologists have studied 59 men who between 1980 and 2012 killed their children and, sometimes, their wives as well. It states that the study concludes that:

the increasing instances of the crime were a reflection of “masculinity in crisis”. He [Professor David Wilson] said: “Some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past.”

The same study’s findings were reported in The Daily Mail in May this year. In this report, the causal factors of marriage breakdown were highlighted. Elizabeth Yardley, one of the criminologists working doing the research comments that the murders ’find it impossible to cope when their families break up’. All ’seem to have one thing in common. They feel that their masculinity is being threatened’.

Binding of IsaacI have to say that I am delighted that this crime is being investigated. Like everyone else, I have found the incidents reported extremely troubling and, as a historian, have been struck that this phenomenon seems to be relatively ‘modern,’ in that I am not aware of similar cases in the past. Moreover, the press reports which call these crimes ‘tragedies’ seem to me to be obscenely recategorising terrible pre-meditated murder as family breakdown tragedy. Thus, I want criminologists and social scientists to help explain why this happens and how it can be prevented.

But today’s article really worries me and seems to represent a trend in discussing gender more generally. I want to point out that I have not been able to track down the study itself, which is published, so my comments are reserved for these articles themselves. Yet, this is significant since this is where most people will meet the information and – rightly so – will assume that it is unproblematic because experts have carried out empirical reserach and drawn conclusions from it.

In the first place, to assign 59 men’s killings of their children over 32 years as the result of a crisis in masculinity is strikingly problematic. Surely a crisis cannot last that long? What about the concept itself? Historians of masculinity (like John Tosh) show that the notion of a ‘crisis’ in masculinity is flawed; for each supposed example, such as in the seventeenth century or the late nineteenth century, when societies shifted due to changes in labour or because women’s status improved, there is little evidence that ALL men experienced anxiety about their identity, their position relative to women, or their autonomy.

Nor is this weight of historical evidence unknown to the social sciences. Harry Beynon’s Masculinities and Culture, published in 2002, devotes a chapter to ‘Masculinities and the notion of crisis’. He points out that the concept is at best ’ill defined and elusive’ (p. 75) and after describing the problems concludes that the crisis has:

become a contemporary cliche, a catch-all container into which anything negative about men is simply poured. (p. 95)

I hate this tendency to talk about men as a collective who are all ‘naturally’ violent, sexually predatory, and liable to exploit women and children given the ‘right’ circumstances – which seem to include both not being in control and being in control. Thanks to unreflective articles of the kind we see in The Observer today, to use Beynon’s words:

Boys are constantly confronted with the notion that men are by nature brutal and emotionally damaged. (p. 97)

Indeed The Daily Mail’s report ends with the shocking claim that as marriages continue to breakdown:

there is no way of predicting which men are going to carry on being loving fathers — and which are going to act on these feelings and turn into Family Annihilator

But the men who who spitefully murder their children as a way to damage further their estranged wives are not representative of men in general, nor of men who find it difficult to cope with changing gender constructions. They are psychologically damaged, no doubt, since they seem unable to comprehend of their children as individual humans with rights of their own. Indeed, I wonder if they see their offspring simply as extensions of their mothers and therefore abuse them as such. Arguably this may have links to some models of masculinity since the study found that many of these killers were policemen or soldiers. These institutions do promote forms of masculine identity that use controlled violence to achieve specific ends. However, of course, it is the word ‘controlled’ that is important. Neither of these institutions should automatically produce men who can kill their children.

All in all, I would like to see more precise language and concepts being used to think about domestic violence in all its forms. This kind of reporting is crass and insults men as well women by following the usual ’victim blaming’ route.

Please note that this post is also hosted on Ending Victimisation and Abuse Website.

Image is The Binding Of Isaac, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Savagery and Sadness Part 3: the Ettricks get married

In 1752 William married Catherine Wharton (1730?-1794), the daughter of a mayor of Durham. As was reported in Read’s Weekly Journal Or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, February 8, 1752: ‘Last Monday was married William Ettrick of High Barnes …


William was about 26 years old. He obtained a fine wife, it would appear, at marriage. After all, the young Catherine was a beauty, and her portion was substantial as the announcement of their wedding in the newspaper noted: she brought a ‘large fortune’, and her social status was solid.

William was even more blessed. In the same year he wed, his father died and he came into his inheritance. This was typical timing for a gentleman, for the two major life-cycle events combined well: a wife brought property and cash with her, in the form of a portion (previously known as a dowry), which enabled a husband to fund his newly owned property. Some men refurbished their house, and others like William paid off a mortgage.

So William was now entering the prime of his life: master of himself, his wife, his servants and his property. What could go wrong?

Well according to Catherine, everything did. We know this because after thirteen years of marriage she reached her personal breaking point and in 1765 sued William for separation on the grounds of cruelty at Durham Consistory Court. In this period, divorce with remarriage was impossible. Couples could obtain a decree to live apart from the ecclesiastical courts, on the grounds of either adultery or cruelty. If a wife could prove that her husband was cruel (the legal definition for acts that went beyond legitimate correction) then she could live separate and have maintenance granted.

Some cases went through the courts relatively quickly, or were abandoned when terms were agreed. The Ettricks’ case did not; it lingered in the courts for years. William defended his behaviour and in turn the case was appealed to York and then to the Court of Delegates. My account comes from these astoundingly detailed written legal documents. They began when Catherine’s Proctors presented her Libel which set out her case in numbered, detailed articles. They continued as William responded, point by point. Their servants, friends, family, and even their daughter were called as witnesses.

When you read them, you might see Catherine as a long-suffering woman, something of a victim. Maybe she was. BUT you must remember that to leave her husband and accuse him of cruelty was an immense – almost catastrophic move – on Catherine’s part. To sue William, she had to leave him, but more agonising, she had to leave her children with him, because ALL fathers had automatic custody of their children. It was only in 1839 that the marvelous Caroline Norton’s vocal campaign successfully obtained custody of infants for their mothers.

Then Catherine had to employ legal representatives: proctors, and such cases were even heard in the diocesan court itself. In this case Durham Cathedral.

galilee chapel

Catherine was certainly desperate, yes, but she also had immense courage as you will come to see.