‘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

Homesickness: emotions, families, and nations

In a brief visit to Manchester Art Gallery – snatched during a gap in the conference my husband was attending – I was stopped in my tracks by Benoit Aubard’s Homesick (2018). Aubard’s spray-painted graffiti style duvet cover is one of the critically-engaged works by young artists intended to respond to historical masterpieces in the gallery. So Homesick is situated near William Etty’s The Sirens and Ulysses (1837). While Etty’s painting focuses upon the abundant flesh of the sirens and the nude muscularity of Ulysses and his sailors, Aubard responds instead to the more abstract theme of Homer’s Odyssey – Ulysses longing for home over the ten years it took him to return to Ithaca from the Trojan War.

Benoit Aubard, Homesick (2018) My photograph taken in the gallery………………….

As the accompanying exhibition sign says:

Preoccupying thoughts of home and attachment objects can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety. Aubard has used a bedsheet, referencing the domestic, and added graffiti-like text, reminiscent of a protest banner. The text is not a question, asking whether we feel homesick, but a statement of fact. The artist often uses slogans on ready-made objects to explore the theme of home and refuge at a time when there is significant migration in the world. Homesick doesn’t necessarily refer to home as a building. It stems from an instinctive need for love, protection and security which are intrinsic to the human condition. These feelings and qualities are usually associated with home and are common to all of us.

As readers of my blog know, I’m very interested in people’s memories of home and its meaning for them and their sense of self. Aubard’s artwork captures the way in which homesickness is about place, security, and love in a changing world. Susan Matt put the emotion of homesickness at the centre of the making of the American nation in her brilliant book Homesickness: An American History (2011). She argues that it was a medical condition before the twentieth century, recognised as a trauma caused by migration, which could lead to death. In the twentieth century, however, homesickness was downgraded to an inconvenience and sign of failure as migration came to be associated with modern individualism. As she observes, people had to learn to repress the emotion in order to appear modern, mature, and successful.[1] Longing for home is a phenomenon that shapes national as well as personal and familial identities.

In Britain in the long eighteenth century, homesickness had two co-existing forms. One was a medicalised condition, nostalgia, which was experienced by people who were prevented from getting home – like soldiers sent to serve in a different country. It was thus primarily about space. The other was driven by notions of time, where the yearning was for their home when they were children, now lost in the past. After all, the memoirists I studied, who were writing in the later Georgian period, could, in fact, revisit their natal homes when they wished, for they not separated by long distances. This was especially challenging for writers born in the mid eighteenth century, since, in the post-revolutionary period, as Peter Fritzsche argues, people came to apprehend time ‘as non-repeatable’ and ‘irretrievable’.[2] I’m interested in the ways in which this more intangible, temporal form of homesickness was also influenced by broader social and cultural contexts, and I’ve written about this in more detail in an article, ‘Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain’ (2019).

This ‘backward looking aesthetic’[3] and emotion was also a response to instability and change. The Georgian life-writers I’ve talked about in previous posts recalled their childhood homes during a period of profound social, economic, cultural, and political change. They were formulating their deep attachment to the natal home just as the centrifugal forces of modernity were beginning to spin people out into the world in the imagined form of what Matt describes as ‘cosmopolitan, unfettered, happy individuals.’[4] In these new conditions, the home was reinvented as a ‘sanctuary of nostalgia.’ This development, which Fritzsche has traced in America and Jason Tebbe in Germany in the later nineteenth century, had a restorative, compensatory function at a time of change.[5]

Yet, the life-writers’ memories of parental homes were not simply consolatory and benign, a desire to return to an idyllic, safer, past home. Their homesickness was more a reflective than restorative act.[6]  For Thomas Bewick, Catherine Cappe, Mary Robinson and the like, the ‘longing, lingering look behind’ (an oft-used phrase from Thomas Gray’s poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751) at the childhood home, recalled through sounds and smells, was a personalised meditative act frequently associated with hard-edged negative emotions as well as pleasant consoling ones. The same homes could conjure resentment, sadness, grief, and despair, as well as love and affection, when recalled in relation to different family members and other points in their life-course. Here again, we see the importance of emotions to the forming of a personal identity bounded by historical circumstances: the domestic caught up with broader forces. The life-writers analysed were thus articulating national and personal identities in the face of modernity’s profound temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. Yet, as Fritzsche suggests, these broader historical forces were not simply disruptive, they also offered ‘imaginative possibilities for building subjecthood.’ [7]

This temporal homesickness also helped locate people in their specific regional and national culture. John Brewer shows how the generations born at the mid-eighteenth-century shaped a national culture from their aestheticized attachment to the local.[8] He traces the ways in which eighteenth-century sensibility had a provincial perspective, which celebrated the locality, particularly the sensual pleasures of its landscape, in contrast with the worldly metropolitan environment.  Nonetheless, this contributed to nation building since Britain was perceived to be formed from such provincial cities and defined by the landscape of the British Isles.[9] Indeed scholars have shown how a type of collective nostalgia is often seen in pastoral fiction, evident from antiquity to modern times, where the countryside is the imagined location of a better past; a feeling most resurgent in times of political, social, and economic change.[10]

We can see how this affected people’s practices. Susan Stabile shows how literary women in America between around 1760 and 1840 deployed genealogies of family and home in their national memory building. Their material and textual acts of preservation focused on the local, particular, and domestic.[11]  English life-writers’ nostalgia for the places and spaces of childhood homes likewise forged overlapping personal, familial, local, and national identities. With extensive emigration, the self-conscious rituals of curating familial and homely objects, heirlooms, and family souvenirs into ‘memory-palaces’ and ‘mini-museums’ were increasingly harnessed to new narratives of public, explicitly nationalist, memory in the later nineteenth century.[12]  Today, nostalgia is commercialised and politicised, less an act of personal memory or benign form of self-soothing than a collective desire to make-over the present into a mythologised national past. Its toxic potential when harnessed to notions of racial and gender superiority are all too clear.

These acts of memory through memories, objects, spaces, genealogies, and stories associated with families and their interaction with national cultures are something I will get a chance to explore further. With Katie Barclay, I have been awarded funding from the AHRC for an international, multi-disciplinary Research Network titled Inheriting the Family: Emotions, History, and Heritage.[13] Katie and I will work with Ashley Barnwell, Tanya Evans, and Laura King, all innovative leaders in these areas of research. Using emotions and material culture methodologies, we’ll explore the ways in which objects and ideas are transmitted across generations to help explain how, when, and why they become significant to familial, collective, and national heritages. I will be fascinated to see how much these family inheritances are bound up with the emotions of nostalgia, homesickness, and the imperatives of migration, alienation, and nation building, which often has exclusion rather than inclusivity at the centre of its hard-heart.  

[1] Susan Matt, Homesickness: An American History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), introduction.

[2] Peter Fritzsche, Stranded in the Present: Modern Time and the Melancholy of History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), 3.

[3] Jennifer Green Lewis, Victorian Photography, Literature, and the Invention of Modern Memory: Already the Past (London: Bloomsbury,2017). xix.

[4] Matt, Homesickness, 28.

[5] Fritzsche, Stranded, chap. 5; and Tebbe, Landscapes Of Remembrance: Home And Memory In The Nineteenth-Century Bürgertum,’Journal of Family History 33, no. 2 (April 2008).

[6] [3] Svetlana Boym, ‘Nostalgia and its discontents,’ The Hedgehog Review 9 no. 2 (2007): 14-15.

[7] Fritzsche, Stranded, 7.

[8] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1997), p. 493, 618-660.

[9] Brewer, Pleasures of the imagination, 493-8; 618, 659.

[10] Raymond Williams,  , The Country and the City (London: Vintage Classics, Penguin, 2016), chap. 2 and 3.

[11] Stabile, Memory’s Daughters: The Material Culture of Remembrance in Eighteenth-Century America (Icatha & London: Cornell University Press, 2004), pp. 3-4.

[12] Fritzsche, Stranded, 164, 188, 192-5, 200. Tebbe, ‘Landscapes of Remembrance,’ passim.

[13] A 24-month project, starting 1 October 2019. We have a Twitter account @InheritingFam and will be working on a series of workshops and ‘History Harvests’. More on our website, which we are developing as soon as the project begins.

Sorrowful spaces: Mary Robinson and the material culture of emotions

This post combines two of my favourite things: cathedrals, spaces that have beguiled me since childhood, and are profoudly emotional, even for athiests like me, and my massive girl-crush, Mary Robinson, the eighteenth-century author and actress. The two come together in my interest in material culture, memory, and emotions, which began when I was working on the emotions of parenting, and wove its way into a blog post on the house as an object and a space that materialises emotions, another on nostalgia for the childhood home and its environs, and finally into a keynote in 2019, which developed into an article and, eventually, my part of an AHRC funded Research Network. Lots of this work is on domestic buildings and spaces, but this post shows how public and communal buildings and spaces can also generate or encapsulate meaningful emotions in individuals, which go beyond the religious or civic and are linked to family and life events.

One such is the cathedral. As a sacred space it has religious meaning, its function to evoke awe, and generate a range of emotions linked with spirituality, such as joy or grief, depending upon the life-cycle service or ceremony conducted there. Yet it seems to me that such a communally-used building and space can also symbolise moods and feelings that do not only originate in faith.

My example is Mary Robinson, born in Bristol around 1756/8, a woman who became a celebrity thanks to her beauty and acting talent, who reinvented herself as a lady of letters before her tragically early death in 1800. Indeed, she is now known as a major literary figure of the Romantic period. She began her memoirs a couple of years before her death; a successful attempt to rebut sexual scandal and reconstruct her public identity. It has to be said that she certainly made me fall in love with her personality and her mind with this memoir.

Perdita, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782. Wikimedia Commons.
This is my favourite portrait of Mary. I visit Waddesdon Manor annually so I can commune with it. Her side-eye is quite spectacular.

Robinson’s voice reverberates with finely-tuned feeling – the cultural language of her time. Her memoir deploys sensibility to display her capacity to feel deeply, often conveyed through her sadness and melancholy. As such, Robinson uses her birth place and the environs of her early childhood to create a melancholic, Gothic self-identity as persuasive as that of the best graveyard poets.

Her memoir begins with a description of her birth place: the Minster House, its back supported by ‘the antient cloisters of St Augustine’s monastery’, faced by a small garden, the gates of which opened to the Minster-Green [or College-Green], its west side bounded by Bristol Cathedral. As she declares,

A spot more calculated to inspire the soul with mournful medication can scarcely be found amidst the monuments of antiquity.

Robinson thus linked the house and its environs with her personality. Sharon Setzer has explored this in ‘The Gothic Structure of Mary Robinson’s Memoirs’ (Eugene Stelzig (ed) Romantic Autobiography in England), showing how Robinson evoked the Gothic cathedral in order to construct her identity as contemplative (not dissipated).

N.E. portion of the Cloisters of the Cathedral, and back of Minster House” drawn and engraved by J.Skelton. Copper engraved antique print published in Skelton’s Etchings of the Antiquities of Bristol, about 1825.

Robinson conjured St Augustine’s Cathedral three times in her Memoir: at her birth in 1756(?), and two visits in 1773 and 1777. Setzer argues that Robinson specifically used these descriptions to harness the cultural associations of the Gothic with the sublime and shape her identity. For example, Robinson says that her infancy was spent in a nursery that was ‘so near the great aisle of the minster’ that she could hear the deep tones of the organ and the singing of the choristers, which made a ‘sublime impression’ upon her feelings.

In her childhood, Robinson’s family moved away from Minster House to a large convenient one stocked with the luxuries of silk furniture, plate, and foreign wines. However, when she was nine years old her father left home to establish a whale fishery on the coast of Labrador. The result was his family’s downfall, since he separated from his wife and then failed in business. Robinson’s memoir located this as the cause of the chain of events which resulted in her agreeing as a [very young!] teenager in 1773 to marry a duplicitous lawyer.

Once wed, the couple travelled to Wales to meet his father. They visited Bristol and Robinson revisited ‘The house in which I first opened my eyes to this world of sorrow’ and the cathedral with a ‘sweet melancholy interest’.  She uses the nostalgic visit to weave together her melancholic personality:

I hastened to the cloisters. The nursery windows were dim, and shattered; the house sinking to decay. The mouldering walk was gloomy, and my spirits were depressed beyond description: – I stood alone, rapt in meditation: “Here,” said I, “did my infant feet pace to and fro’; here did I climb the long stone bench, and swiftly measure it, at the peril of my safety. On those dark and winding steps, did I sit and listen to the full-toned organ, the loud anthem, and the bell, which called the parishioners to prayer.”  … Ah! How little has the misjudging world known of what passed in my mind, even in the apparently gayest moments of my existence!

Setzer observes that Robinson’s final return to the cathedral in 1777 followed her becoming an actress that year. For Setzer, ‘The sequence as a whole demonstrates Robinson’s artistic endeavour to identify a meaningful pattern in her life and to define an essential, coherent self, dating back to “earliest infancy.” (34)

There is no doubt that literary self-identification was a crucial aspect of Robinson’s memories of Bristol Cathedral and Minster House. Yet I think that these buildings were not solely a vehicle for a literary reputation. These physically connected buildings (of home and early childhood) were also vessels for Robinson’s emotions. In the first place, both nostalgia and melancholy are historically-specific moods and feelings. Both can be historicised, so it is likely that over time emotional objects differ in which feelings they trigger.

Sorrow was the emotion that Robinson most notably associated with these buildings and their spaces. For instance, as soon as she describes her gloomy birth place and time, she quotes her mother:

I have often heard my mother say that a more stormy hour she never remembered… Through life the tempest has followed my footsteps; and I have in vain looked for a short interval of repose from the perseverance of sorrow.

I don’t for a moment suggest that her sorrow was simply a motif of her melancholic persona. It was also a response to events which marred her life. Thus the accounts of Bristol Cathedral were placed alongside or following descriptions of powerful relationships and crisis moments in Robinson’s life.

The cathedral space was linked to her mother whom she adored and often lived with during her adult life. Thus the first account establishes the hugely significant role of her mother in her life-choices and their resulting sorrows. Her birthplace and the cathedral also seem to have been places she visited in response to sorrow and which thus were imbued with this feeling.

The 1773 visit occurred at the time of her disastrous marriage. Robinson recounted the events of her life in her attempt to rebut scandal, and she made this unsuitable union the cause of the sexual scandals that followed. In some ways she blamed her decision on her mother persuading her to wed Mr Robinson in order to safeguard her reputation, which was threatened by her extreme beauty and lack of paternal protection. She was, after all, only sixteen (perhaps even fourteen) years old and as she says, laid aside her dolls to marry. Thus when she recalled the mouldering decay of the house in which she was born, and sat in the cathedral to listen again to the organ, she seems to materialise the loss of her childhood through form and space.

Robinson had an adored child, Maria, from this marriage, who aided her in her final illness and published her memoir. She also had a second infant: Sophia, in 1777, who died all too soon.

At the end of six weeks I lost my infant. She expired in my arms in convulsions, and my distress was undescribable.

Thus Robinson’s return to Bristol in 1777 followed the death of her second child. As she observed, Sophia’s death affected her spirits so much that she couldn’t appear again on stage that season. Thus she went to Bath to recover; from Bath:

I went to Bristol – to Bristol! Why does my pen seem suddenly arrested while I write the word? I know not way, but an undefinable melancholy always follows the idea of my native birth-place. I instantly beheld the Gothic structure, the lonely cloisters, the lofty aisles, of the antique minster: – for, within a few short paces of its walls, this breast, which has never known one year of happiness, first palpitated on inhaling the air of this bad world!

By this time, perhaps, and with hindsight in 1798 when she told her life story, the buildings of her childhood did not only generate fashionable eighteenth-century feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, or offer a means to adopt a romantic literary persona, they were literally symbolic of sorrow in a life that never knew ‘one year of happiness’.

In the end, what fascinates me about the intersection of material culture, memory, and emotions is how amorphous it can be. Not only is it necessary to historicise the feelings attached to material culture, scholars must try to individualise them – particularly when they encompass public, collective objects, buildings or spaces. For Mary Bristol’s Minster House and Cathedral were vessels of pain and sorrow, due to her life-story. Of course, for other people these buildings might materialise entirely different emotions. All, nonetheless, share historically- and culturally-specific understandings of space, buildings, material culture, and the emotions associated with them.

Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson, written by herself, with some posthumous pieces, in four volumes, London, 1801.

This post was originally written in 2015 and updated in 2019.

A lesson in domesticity

Historians of material culture are interested in the history of objects and how they were designed, manufactured, retailed, sold, used, thought about, lost, discarded, kept and treasured. It is a multi-discipline scholarship with many approaches and many types of objects – or things and stuff – which are now, delightfully, technical terms. One of its areas is the domestic environment, the acquisition of stuff to go in it, or ideas about the home bound up in the terms ‘domestic’ and  ‘domesticity.’ I’m interested in this and when teaching or discussing it, I’ve noticed that people’s first thought about domesticity or the domestic environment in the past is that it is female. This is part of the assumption that life was separated into the female private and male public spheres. I really like to get students to challenge these assumptions and thinking about men and the setting of domesticity is one way to do this.

This was the basis of a short lecture and seminar on the culture of domesticity that I gave to MA students studying the materiality of Regency and Victorian domesticity (Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art). They are working on domestic life from a very different angle to the one I’m used to, which focuses on textual descriptions and drawings of homes and objects. The History of Design MA students use these too, but are much more hands-on with objects, from those uncovered in archaeological digs in London to the wonderfully designed objects in the V&A. You can see some of their ideas and work on the Unmaking Things Blog. This meeting of two approaches was fascinating and gave me a lot to think about.

For my part of the session I talked about men and domesticity. This is a growing area ranging from John Tosh’s study of middle-class Victorian men to Julie Marie Strange’s very recent publications on working-class fathers.[1] Yet despite some fantastic recent work by historians like Amanda Vickery (who managed to get this point across on TV – hurrah) and Karen Harvey, historical men’s interaction with domestic stuff is still not often widely recognised or given much importance.[2] Yet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries those men who were lucky enough to have disposable income were involved in purchasing household things, both big and small.More than, this, though, their domestic life had great meaning for them as individuals and as men. As historians like John Tosh have pointed out, Victorian domesticity was not just a place; it was a state of mind.

For this reason, we can’t think of the home as primarily a female space while outside the home was men-only, as the idea of separate spheres suggests. To middle-class men home was a refuge from work, which was increasingly moving out of the house thanks to industrialisation, and a sanctum where wives offered them attention, solace and comfort on their return. Domesticity and men’s role in it also formed an important part of these men’s self-identity and public reputation. Modern society remains interested in men’s domestic lives as male celebrities who invite the public into their family lives and homes in Hello Magazine clearly understand. For them, this is one way to promote themselves and their status.

1840 drawing room

© V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum (Domestic Interiors Database)

Domestic objects were crucial both in constituting a home, but also in developing the concept of domesticity. John Tosh dated domesticity to the high Victorian period because by then there were enough objects available to fill homes and convey the meaning of domesticity. If you look closely at eighteenth-century men, however, you realise that the feeling of domesticity did not depend entirely upon a certain level of ownership of goods. A more limited range of decorative goods could also convey the feeling of home and the domestic. This applies, therefore, to working-class homes I suspect, though the kinds of evidence for this are scarcer until later in the nineteenth century.

One of the reasons for the power and deep-rootedness of this abstract idea of domesticity was due to its emotional links with family members. In 1821 Samuel Courtauld wrote to his younger brother who had gone with his father and several of Sam’s adult siblings to try out settling in America. Sam refused to go, instead building up his successful silk manufactory instead. But he missed his family, as he explained:

here I am in my comfortable quiet parlour sitting by Mo’s Work Table writing by the fire, aye the fire, and glad to get close to it. Mo, Lou, & Miss C sitting by the round table with blue cloth, Miss C looking out some music to give us presently … Now all this is as comfortable as one could wish, and I were well content so to live – were those I love within a walk of me -: as it is, I have no home on this side the Atlantic

Sam had his own home, with his mother as his housekeeper. He described a very domestic scene of a parlour: writing at a sewing table. He could ‘fix’ this in his brother’s mind by describing its cloth and its ownership. He sat in the company of his mother, his older sister, and a friend he had once hoped to marry. Yet he had ‘no home’ because his other family members, including his favourite younger sister were so far away. I’m struck by the resonance of the furniture, the textiles, and significance that the hearthside had for him in constructing home. Sam recognised that all should convey domesticity yet they did not. In his other letters we glimpse the other component which he felt was missing: a wife. Men often felt that the materiality of a home was not enough in itself – a wife was needed to fulfil true domesticity.

The final part of my seminar drew links between the abstract idea and the material culture of the concept of domesticity in the Regency and Victorian periods. I asked the students to identify an object that they thought was not just domestic but evoked domesticity. This led to a really interesting discussion which challenged my tendency to generalise from objects to feelings like love and sorrow. Some students suggested very mundane objects, like a child’s chamber-pot. Was this so domestic that anyone looking at it would think of home; but more crucially was it associated with domesticity because it had been used by an infant who prompted memories of love? Others selected textiles, largely hand-made textiles like blankets. Here the link was that the textile was made by a family member and embraced an individual in warmth, reminding him or her of security and affection, care and attention. Another group offered a decorative ceramic paraffin lamp, designed in 1864. Now this one did not fit a framework of a domestic object evoking feelings. Instead, we thought about its novelty and appearance, factors which might have prompted its purchase to heighten its owners’ status in their peers’ eyes, and considered its function which allowed people to work and play longer into dark evenings.

As material culture students, however, the group were keen to prevent me from speculation about what objects might represent. They sought evidence to demonstrate a link between an object and a concept. It is not sufficient to identify an object as domestic and therefore locate it in a home and link it to a feeling rooted in domesticity. These students are training to think from the object outwards, something that historians like me have to be reminded to do. We have to ask a range of questions of the objects. Does the archaeological record show that this kind of object was present in homes? Was it mass produced? How did it get to the home? Where was it made, sold, advertised, bought? What did owners say about such objects? It is possible to contextualise an object in contemporary attitudes about the home and idealisations or criticisms of it, but all the time the materiality of the object, whether table, hearth, textile, or bed, needs to be kept in view.

I think the seminar ended with some important conclusions that the materiality of domesticity was rooted in the appearance, creation and use of domestic objects.  People bought some objects to decorate and use in their homes because they were novel or fashionable and helped show to others that their home fulfilled idealised notions of domesticity. Other objects, particularly textiles, literally embodied domesticity because they were made by family members, or used by them, smelled like or felt like them.  Here a history of the senses as well as the emotions could be used to advantage. We decided that there are two aspects to domesticity, therefore. One is the ‘collective’ and the other nostalgia. People shared ideas about what a home was and what it represented to its members and society (a cultural collective) and consciously used objects to materially demonstrate this.  Domesticity was also individualised, however, and frequently bound up with memory – especially that form of memory which we define as nostalgia. Objects associated with domesticity could be imbued with positive emotions and kept (those with negative emotions might be discarded), ready to stir those feelings when required.

I want to end this post by returning to men and domesticity, for I am often struck by the way in which 19th and 20th century autobiographers remembered their fathers in a domestic setting and through a domestic object. Late in life Elizabeth Bryson remembered her father returned from work:

I ran to meet him when he came home, clung round his knees and swung on his hands and climbed up until he hoisted me on to his shoulder to enter the house in triumph. I was a great giant who had to stoop to get through the doors.

As Julie Marie Strange observes: ‘the emphasis on men’s provision as the key indicator of their contribution to family life has left fathers knocking at the door of home rather than embedding them in the dynamics within’.[3] The same thing can be said for men in general, and historians of material culture need to open that door and let them in.

[1] John Tosh, A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class Home in Victorian England, Julie Marie Strange, (2013). Fatherhood, furniture and the interpersonal dynamics of working-class homes, c. 1870–1914. Urban History, 40, pp 271-286.

[2] Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England, Karen Harvey, The Little Republic: Men and Domestic Authority in Eighteenth Century Britain.

[3] Strange, Fatherhood and Furniture, pp. 274, 275-6.