The history of emotions in modern Britain

Speakers: Charlotte Greenhalgh, Martin Francis, Celia Hughes

Chair: Claire Langhamer

Students of modern Britain can now read accomplished histories of love, of fear, of shame, and of tears, tantrums, and bared teeth—many of them published within recent years. The authors of these studies suggest that thinking about the experience and expression of emotions over time provides a valuable perspective on modern Britain and its institutions, politics, conflicts, and changing social mores. This panel presents three case studies of current research in the history of emotions in order to reflect on the state of the field and its contributions to Modern British Studies. Does the history of emotions provide new ways of thinking about the transformation of British society, culture, politics and economy in the period—the stated aim of Modern British Studies at Birmingham? Does this field provide an opportunity for political, economic, social, and cultural history to come into closer conversation? Or is the ‘emotional turn’ a further example of the fragmentation of the discipline that is identified and critiqued in the first Birmingham Working Paper?

The history of emotions is a mature field with its own textbooks, research centres, and theorists. Its concern with tracing the history of emotional expression and experience is not a dominant topic at British Studies conferences or in the field’s prestigious journals. Yet publications by Claire Langhamer, Deborah Cohen, Martin Francis, Michael Roper, and others, have made clear its interest and relevance. The speakers in this panel discuss the value of the historical study of emotions for understanding aspects of modern British history that include the end of empire, the development of the welfare state, the lifecycle, and the formation of individual subjectivity. Keeping the first Birmingham Working Paper in mind, the speakers ask whether the field engages with broad processes that reshaped life in modern Britain. To what extent does the history of emotions offer a useful, coherent, and distinctive perspective on this period of British history? Should more British historians adopt this approach?

Paper 1 Abstract: Private Feelings and Imperial Performativity in Second World War Egypt: Addressing the Intimate and the Global in Modern British History

Martin Francis, University of Cincinnati

Among the key imperatives identified by the Birmingham Working Paper Number One is an acknowledgment of Britain’s status as ‘a nodal point in a broader global history’. However an apparent commitment to the project of provincializing Britain is immediately compromised by a resort to a rather unimaginative reassembling of some historiographical categories—mass democracy, mass culture, governance, the public sphere—that appear to be stuck in a time warp from the 1990s, if not before. Antoinette Burton’s unforgettable call to arms in her 1997 essay “Who Needs the Nation” therefore remains as pertinent as ever, her plea to address the disavowals and confinements (both geographical and methodological) that dominate the writing of modern British history still only half-heartedly addressed, even by some of the more thoughtful and reflective scholars in the field.

The history of emotions—with its concern for the personal, the subjective and the intimate—might seem singularly ill-equipped to effect the broadening of the geographical and conceptual horizons demanded by Burton. In fact, this paper argues the very opposite. It uses the worlds of feeling of Britain’s ambassador to Egypt during the Second World War, Sir Miles Lampson, to uncover the psychic wounds created by the seminal event in modern British history: the end of empire. More specifically it argues for the value of so-called secondary emotions—pride, jealousy, disapproval, embarrassment (rather than the primary emotions of fear, love, anger and grief that have attracted most prior attention)—in creating a more holistic understanding of how imperial eclipse was negotiated at the level of individual subjectivity. By using the domains of the personal and the intimate as a primary mode of understanding Britain’s globalized history, this paper hopes to bring British history into closer dialogue with recent debates about the question of ‘scale’ in the writing of history.

Paper 2 Abstract: Writing the History of Old Age in Twentieth-Century Britain: An Age of Emotion?

Charlotte Greenhalgh, Monash University

Scholars and social scientists have long identified distinctive patterns of emotional experience in old age. They have theorised that emotional feeling is numbed with age, drawing an analogy with the waning of physical senses such as hearing and sight, or that the elderly are steadily cut off from personal interactions that cause emotion, experiencing a form of ‘social death’. These theories are disproved by interview and autobiographical evidence from the middle of the twentieth century that records the emotional intensity of older Britons’ memories and private lives. They do not fit with the widespread public interest in personal experiences of ageing during the period that produced these first-person sources. The historical record has captured the efforts of multiple varieties of the twentieth-century expert—including social surveyors, psychologists, old age advocacy groups, and welfare and voluntary organisations—to catalogue and address the emotional needs of the aged during the twentieth century, often reshaping public services in the process.

This paper is a reflection on the experience of researching and writing a doctoral thesis and a book manuscript (that latter is a current project) in the history of old age. Its central purpose is to interrogate the relationship between histories of old age and the history of emotions. At first I imagined that my doctoral research would become a history of the emotional experience of ageing. Yet the history of growing old is as much about politics and poverty as it is about feeling. What benefits and what challenges have resulted from thinking about this topic as part of the history of emotions? Now that I am writing for publication, how should the story of old age be told? How might it be received when framed as a history of emotions, rather than a history of political change? This paper draws on research in the history of old age in order to consider some of the possibilities and limitations of our historiographical allegiances, and, in particular, of engagement with the history of emotions.

Paper 3 Abstract: Writing the Young Everyday Male Self in Post-war Britain

Celia Hughes, University of Copenhagen

This paper will explore a selection of private diaries written by lower middle- and middle-class adolescent boys and young men during the long 1960s. Drawing upon recent historical work on gender, subjectivities and the ordinary diary, it will focus on the possibilities and challenges these texts present for how to read and understand the emotional experiences and self-making of young (selective secondary and higher educated) men coming of age in post-war Britain.

Although recent years have seen historians presenting new narratives of sixties girlhood and young womanhood, little is understood about what it actually felt like to be a young man growing up in this extraordinary decade. Since the nineteenth century the private diary has been seen as a space inhabited by women and associated with the domestic world. However, these young men’s diaries reveal that at a time of expanding educational and leisure opportunities, commercial youth cultures, travel, and sexual and moral change, the domestic space framing the ordinary diary was an important setting for young post-war men trying to make sense of who they were.

This paper will discuss what the diaries reveal about the writers’ lived experiences of parental relationships, friendships, love and early sexual relationships, and the place home and region played in shaping these. Through attention to the materiality of the diaries, and the style and form of self-writing young men employed at particular moments in time, it will reflect upon the role the diaries played in helping them to manage the social and emotional processes of becoming young adults. The paper seeks to contribute to the panel’s discussion by arguing that these rarely seen diaries offer new insights into the processes of making gendered subjectivities in a period only just starting to be addressed by social and cultural historians of modern Britain.





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