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.

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.