Stories about Individual Lives – or Intimate Histories?


George Morris and David Cowan

George Morris is a first year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His PhD looks at questions of intimacy, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain.

David Cowan is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, researching the memory of the inter-war years in Britain between the 1940s and the 1980s.


At the recent ‘Ways of Knowing’ conference hosted by MBS, it was notable that many of the papers were concerned with the stories of individuals. This way of writing history can be used for different ends; the historian can use individuals as ciphers for broader changes, as windows onto the operation of culture and power ‘close-up’, as cases of historical agents who shaped the society around them, or simply as the opportunity to tell a good story.[1] It is a method that has yet to be fully taken advantage of by historians of modern Britain.

We propose calling these studies ‘intimate histories’, a term that, unlike ‘microhistory’, captures both the emotional investment entailed and the depth and attention to detail of these micro-level analyses. This term also hints at the political stakes involved in this work. There are a number of important studies of intimate relationships in modern Britain.[2] Here, following Rachel Moss, we are more interested in intimacy as a practice; in being ‘intimate with our subjects,’ the material conditions in which we write, and our ‘own pasts and presents’. In this way of writing about the past, history can become an intimate enterprise, and intimacy can be a useful approach to our work; it concerns both what we know, and how we know it.

Emotional attachments to subjects form often and easily in the production of histories of individual lives. This was perhaps made most clear at the conference in the discussion of the ‘Writing Lives’ project, where Jess Brandwood and Tracey Hughes expressed a feeling of real connection to the people whose stories they had studied, and a sense of recognition, similarity and sympathy.

These forms of attachment are much less likely (though never absent) in other forms of historical research. When we think in terms of broader historical processes, individual lives can all too often feature only as anecdote or example, without the depth found in histories that take the individual as their main focus. But the history of an individual life might be useful not just for what it tells us about the story of modern Britain, but also how it challenges it, disrupting our assumptions about processes of social change. And while it is reasonable to question how far histories of individual lives throw light on broader historical processes, it is also reasonable to criticise broader studies for often neglecting the apparently small details that our emotional attachments draw us towards.

Sometimes emotional attachments seem to offer the opportunity of a ‘way of knowing’. A detailed personal archive or an autobiography that appears to be particularly frank and open, a particular style of writing or facial expression in a photograph, all invite us to believe that we really know the person we’re discussing, in the way that we know our families or our friends. During the panel on ‘Learning in Britain’, Lewis Ryder mentioned that he felt he recognised the voice of John Hilditch even when he was writing under a pseudonym. It’s unclear what he can do with that feeling of recognition; after all, the apparatus of academic writing makes little room for this ‘way of knowing’.

Along with files of unused thoughts and sources, every historian carries round a mental catalogue of confident feelings without a source to draw upon directly – the archival gap you’re certain solves your problems, the way you’re certain the subject felt about something even though they never recorded it, the subtle tone you’re certain you can detect in a letter. We can feel as confident in these feelings as we are about our citable findings. Both, after all, come from a position of careful research. We can feel that we know not just what the subject did but what they would have done, how they would have responded, what they were probably doing in those periods where the sources run dry, how they would feel if they knew that we were spending so much time thinking about them. We should be reflective about judgements like these, and not dismiss them out-of-hand. Emotional attachments can, if considered carefully, become a useful tool.

There is, of course, a risk that our identification with the people whose pasts we study produces a distorted perspective; that our feelings of sympathy or similarity iron out differences, contexts and historical specificity. But we are used to being aware of our biases and subject positions, to being reflexive about them and to accepting them as a necessary part of the production of historical knowledge – the emotional attachment we bring to our work is another influence that should be understood and worked with, rather than seen as a problem to be ignored.

Our emotional lives and mental health also shape how we produce history, whether it be our feelings shaping how we work, research and write, or a mental illness that can bring it all to a halt. And as Laura Sefton argued in her paper and in a recent blog, there are material and structural factors at play. On the opening day of ‘Ways of Knowing’ Laura, Ben Mechen and Michael Lambert, offered important commentaries on the constraints that precarity and market logic impose on PGRs and ECRs. In light of their papers, a renewed interest in individual lives might be seen as a product of the material, as well as intellectual, conditions in which we write history.

Intimate histories seem to offer a way of narrowing our research: a rational response to dried-up funding pots, tightened deadlines and the pressures of the job market. Of course, in practice, approaching the history of modern Britain through individual lives isn’t the straightforward exercise it would appear. As Lewis pointed out, historians producing intimate histories more often face the frustration of leaving out rich material than finding enough for a thesis. And even the richest archives contain silences that can never be filled. Martha Robinson Rhodes shared her frustrations about what she could not know about an archived oral history project, particularly the paths of enquiry that were ignored by the original researchers. Important information about the identity of the researchers themselves was missing.

Faced with inevitable silences, and the desire to ‘know’ our subjects, projects dealing with individuals invariably expand their bounds, growing exponentially like a rhizome as trace references are followed up and anecdotes are corroborated or complicated. Sean Male’s paper was a case in point. Starting with a reference in a file at Kew, Sean’s research spiralled out through a web of references in newspapers, digitised books and additional archives. In this light, working on intimate histories helps subvert conditions of marketisation. Following these chains of references might be essential to make sense of an individual life, but indulging the pleasure of making new connections also challenges the logic that research needs to amount to ‘outputs’ with a quantifiable impact.

The internet offers another way of using individual lives to challenge the drive towards competition. In what amounts to an astonishing act of scholarly generosity, ‘Writing Lives’ makes available a vast corpus of information on working-class life writing, including transcripts of hard-to-access memoirs and associated details about their authors. PGRs and ECRs, faced with the pressure to compete in the solitary process of job applications, have a model of scholarly collaboration in ‘Writing Lives’. This act of democratisation, one suspects, is one which many of the authors of the autobiographies would have supported.

The methods employed by the ‘Writing Lives’ project, such as scouring census records, suggest another resonance with the resurgence of interest in individual lives: family history. Historians such as Carolyn Steedman, Frank Mort, and Graham Dawson have long used details from their own family as entry points into broader histories, placing their own subjectivity centre-stage.[3] It is only more recently that writers like Tanya Evans and Alison Light have started to employ the methods of family historians—aided, no doubt, by digitisation.[4] But as Sean pointed out, the rich insights gained from digitisation also pose ethical dilemmas for historians. Feats of historical reconstruction that would have been impossibly laborious a decade ago are now possible relatively quickly—but our subjects might never have anticipated, or welcomed, the possibility that future historians would be able to reassemble their lives in this way. Historians have never been better equipped to produce deep studies of the lives of individuals, but this makes it imperative to retain the reflexivity of earlier work.

We also need to be careful not to forget that precarity doesn’t just constrain historians working in universities. The costs of a subscription to online census records—not to mention countless trips to local archives, nationally and internationally—mount up for family historians, too. As the discussion of ‘publics’ and ‘public history’ highlighted, historians are fortunate that many local history archives continue to provide subsidised or free access to these services. At the same time, like all council services, local history archives are facing cutbacks. Many are employing shortened hours, reduced service and—in at least one case—proposing to charge researchers to access materials (a policy which, thanks to public pressure, was dropped). Historians must defend the services and institutions on which we rely from continued cuts. It is in this sense that intimate histories might count as ‘working with the trouble’. Without continued advocacy on behalf of embattled local services, we run the risk that the toolkits of family history—which have the potential to generate such thoughtful, reflective histories of individual lives—are parcelled off.

Both our emotional attachment to the individuals, and the material, precarious conditions in which we work shape intimate histories. Distinct from histories of social change or grand narratives, but also unlike traditionally conceived biography, this mode of thinking about and writing history has the potential to be particularly enlightening, as the ‘Ways of Knowing’ papers demonstrated. Further reflection on these themes could prove to be a productive way of thinking about modern British history, and we are grateful to MBS for giving us a space in which to begin these thoughts.


[1] Carolyn Steedman, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class: Work, Self and Sociability in the Early Nineteenth Century (2013); Seth Koven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (2014); Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016).

[2] Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth-Century Britain (2003); Claire Langhamer, The English in love: the intimate story of an emotional revolution (2013).

[3] Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1986); Frank Mort, ‘Social and Symbolic Fathers and Sons in Postwar Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 38:3 (1999); Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (1994).

[4] Tanya Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History’, History Workshop Journal, 71 (2011); Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2014).

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