A question to which the answer is no

This is the first of three interrelated posts about doing history across disciplines, time and space.  These reflections were inspired by two events I have attended in the past couple of months, the second of the Passions of War workshop series, held at the University of Leicester on 19-20 February, and the Globalising and Localising the Great War Graduate Conference on Spaces, Stories and Societies, which took place in Oxford on 17-18 March.  Both were interdisciplinary and both took place either coinciding with or within a week of other academic events I was either attending or wanted to attend. In this first post, I want consider the how interdisciplinarity can inform understandings of historical sexuality.

Recently the blogger Jeanne de Montbaston published a post asking ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?‘ de Montbaston is the pen name of Lucy Allen, a medievalist examining the relationships between popular culture and medieval literature, particularly in relation to gender.  It is a little unclear, but the post suggests that Allen has only begun reading the eleven novels by Dorothy L. Sayers featuring her aristocratic detective fairly recently.  As someone who has some small pretensions as a Wimsey (if not exactly a Sayers) scholar, in that an entire chapter of my PhD thesis analysed the construction of Wimsey as a post-war heroic figure, I would answer the question in the posts title with an emphatic ‘no’.  This is for two reasons: firstly, the weakness of the evidence deployed by Allen in her post; secondly, the wider problem of the relationship between effeminacy and deviant sexualities in the period under discussion.

Clouds of Witness  To begin with the actual evidence deployed by Allen which is drawn from the second novel in the series, Clouds of Witness, and relies entirely on the relationship between Wimsey and the barrister Sir Impey Biggs, QC.  There can be little doubt that, as a character, Sir Impey is coded as gay for all the reasons that Allen lays out.  What is more problematic is the reading of Sir Impey as Wimsey’s ‘good friend and oftentimes colleague’.  There may be a friendship between the two men to be read in their episodic encounters but, in the two novels and one short story where Sir Impey actually appears (rather than simply being referred to in conversation) their professional relationship is not that of colleagues.  In both Clouds of Witness and Strong Poison Wimsey is in the position of a pseudo-client, with deep emotional attachments to the accused whom Sir Impey is defending as well as that of detective.  But Sir Impey is not a fellow detective, or even a legal detective in the mould of Anthony Gilbert’s Arthur G. Crook or, later, John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole.  Indeed, in both novels, Wimsey’s detective work actively conflicts with Biggs’s legal interests, leading to professional, if not necessarily personal breaches between the two men. If Wimsey does have a good male friend and colleague in the novels, it is not Biggs, but Detective Inspector Charles Parker, with whom he gets incapably, childishly drunk at the end of Clouds of Witness. But Parker is a figure of such rigid petit-bourgeois social and sexual respectability that he ends up marrying Peter’s sister – after a long struggle with whether even asking her to marry him is a socially appropriate thing to do.[1]

What of Allen’s other evidence, Wimsey’s ‘husky’ voice when speaking to Biggs, the comparison of Biggs to Greek statuary, and Wimsey’s parody of Mother Goose in court?  The first two are matters of interpretation.  Certainly Wimsey later, particularly in Gaudy Night, speaks huskily on several occasions to his acknowledged love-interest, Harriet Vane.  But I have always read the emotion of that meeting as relating a) to the frustrating interview with the police that Wimsey has just returned from and b) the fact that his brother is in prison on a charge of murder which is referred to in the next line.  Similarly, the Greek beauty of the Charioteer of Delphi may be a hint at Oscar Wilde’s ‘Greek love’, but given the consistent playful use that Sayers makes of classical imagery and quotation throughout the novels, and which is clearly the overt intention of association the Charioteer with the (female) Oracle, I can’t help feeling Allen may be reading too much into this.  As I am sure she is in the case of the ‘Biggy and Wiggy’ rhyme.  There is nothing in the text to suggest, as Allen does, that Sir Impey is ‘blushing’ (or, indeed, ‘surprised’) in this scene, and ‘Wiggy’ is very clearly a reference not Wimsey himself, as Allen implies, but to Sir Wigmore Wrinching, the Attorney-General who is prosecuting the case against the Duke of Denver in opposition to Sir Impey.

Have His CarcaseSo no, I don’t think that even by innuendo can Wimsey’s relationships with Sir Impey or, indeed, any of the other male characters who are presented recurrently as his friends, be read as hinting at bisexual desire.  Which is not to say that Wimsey’s mas culinary and sexuality in the novels is unproblematic. Far from it. Throughout the novels he is characterised by others as sexually and morally dubious. Henry Weldon, in Have His Carcase, for instance, implies that Wimsey is ‘exploiting his mother for my private ends and probably sucking up to her for her money’, or, in other words, behaving in precisely the same way as the gigolo Paul Alexis (and later M. Antoine) behave towards her. [2]

Gaudy NightThe issue of Wimsey’s sexuality is, unsurprisingly, made most explicit in Gaudy Night, a novel whose overarching theme is the question of sex and relationships between the sexes.  It is Reggie Pomfret, an undergraduate infatuated with Harriet Vane, who demands:

‘Who … is this effeminate bounder?’

‘I have been accused of many things,’ said Wimsey, interested; ‘but the charge of effeminacy is new to me.’ [3]

Later, the criminal in the case, when confronted, accuses him of being a

rotten little white-face rat! It’s men like you that make women like this. You don’t know how to do anything but talk.  What do you know about life, with your title and your title and your money and your clothes and motor-cars. You’ve never done a hand’s turn of honest work. You can buy all the women you want. Wives and mothers may rot and die for all you care, while you chatter about duty and honor.’ [4]

On the one hand, both these accusations can be read as charges of (hetero)sexual impotence implied in the accusations of effeminacy and the inability to do anything but talk. But the anxieties which prompt the accusations are, on closer reading, of heterosexual jealousy and fear.  Reggie is outraged that Wimsey appears to be publicly wooing Harriet (and insulting him in the process).  The charge that he can buy all the women he wants is one of sexual profligacy and financial dominance, not of lack of interest in sex.

The sexual deviancy that is implied about Wimsey therefore is not homo or bisexuality but rather sexual exploitation – the man who views sex as transactionary in ways that are solely to his advantage.  These anxieties place Wimsey in a Victorian tradition of gigolos, seducers and flâneurs as much as in the Wilde-ean tradition of coded homosexuality.

Why does this distinction matter? Because the implicit accusations against Wimsey as a sexual character is a form of sexually threatening masculininty that, today, has relatively little social purchase.  Yet it is one that was dominant in late 19th and early 20th century popular and middlebrow fiction.  It is only by placing Sayers’s novels within this historic literary context that we can start unpicking multiple and complex levels on which her critique of sex and sexuality works.  Simply reading her novels through the prism of our contemporary understandings of homosexuality as the dominant form of non-normative (or at least non-hegemonic) male sexuality limits our understanding.

Which brings me to that question of interdisciplinarity.  Because sexuality is both historically contingent and historically unspoken, something beautifully demonstrated by Justin Bengray in his post on the Notches Blog, ‘The Case of the Sultry Mountie‘.  What Wimsey demonstrates is the way in which fiction can fill the silences around subjects like sexuality that exist in archives but he also provides insight into social and cultural norms that have slipped out of the contemporary reader’s view.  The first can be accessed and identified through the sort of close reading that the study of literature and methodologies of literary critics fosters.  The second draws on the perspective that derives from the contextualising processes of social and, above all, cultural history.

A call for close collaboration between these disciplines and methodologies will probably not come as any sort of shock to most of this blog’s readership, and most will I suspect be personally and professionally sympathetic to it.  When presenting at the GLGW conference in Oxford last week, I spoke of how I have used fiction to access women’s perspectives on war disability in the past, and was, in turn, asked the extent to which I intend to use such sources in my current project. (The answer is less than before simply because the archive I am working with promises to keep me more than busy enough over the next five years, but I would love other scholars to take up the analysis of wives of disabled ex-servicemen in fiction to develop my arguments and challenge my conclusions.)

Yet it is worth, once again, reiterating the importance of such interdisciplinarity. There are still enough historians who sniff at literature as unrepresentative source material and literary scholars who shrug off the complexities of historical context as unimportant to make this a case that still needs to be made.  Most unnerving of all is the backlash against cultural history which continues to rear its head.  At this week’s Social History Society Conference Rohan Mcwilliam apparently called for cultural history to be dropped from the title of the journal Social and Cultural History. I wasn’t actually present when this was said (which I will discuss further in my post on doing history across space), so am unclear how serious this suggestion was, but such comments reinforce the need for those of us who work across disciplinary boundaries to continue to make the case for why it is so vital to our understanding of ourselves, our culture and our history.

[1] The Hon. Freddy Arbuthnot makes a third in end-of-novel drunkenness, another male friend of Wimsey’s who recurs in the novels far more often than Biggs.  Like Parker, his sexuality is rigidly respectable.  Any suspicion thrown over it by his decision to marry Rachel Levy, the daughter of the Jewish victim of Whose Body? is counteracted both by the self-interested logic of the financially-minded Freddy in marrying the daughter of a City magnate and by the devotion of the bride’s parent’s own inter-religious marriage.

[2] Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase, New English Library Edition, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974, 156.  First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932.

[3] Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night, Perennial Library Edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, 385. First published London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1936.

[4] Sayers, Gaudy Night, 445.

The time has come, the Walrus said

to talk of many things

‘Tis the season. I have been conferencing, attending a workshop and a conference in the past fortnight which have both forced me to think very, very hard indeed. The two could not have been more different, but both have been hugely productive for a variety of reasons. What follows is my attempt to articulate what I have and am learning from both experiences.

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

Passions of War, Ghent, 20th June

The first gathering was not, officially, a conference, but rather a workshop, one of a series of three being organised by the Passions of War, an AHRC-funded network exploring ‘the influence of war on constructions of gender and sexual practices, and how these constructions and practices have, in turn, conditioned the ways in which wars are waged, mediated, felt and understood’. We were a small group, no more than 20 in total, and formal proceedings were limited to a single day’s presentation and discussion. The event, the theme of which was ‘Identities’ took place in a single room at the Dr. Guislain museum, with all participants engaging with all the papers and joining in with vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

And when I say wide-ranging, I mean wide-ranging. My own paper, which kicked things off, was an examination of why we need to explore the masculine identities of non-commissioned medical service personnel in the First World War, as well as those of wounded men and doctors. It formed part of a panel in which other papers explored nationhood, motherhood and death in war poetry (Marysa Demoor) and nostalgic conceptions of the Second World War in contemporary social and political discourse (Victoria Basham). A presentation on the now-closed War and Trauma exhibition was followed by an afternoon panel focusing on gender and citizenship in 18th-century conflicts, with papers from Marian Füssell, Stefan Dudink, and Simon Bainbridge. The day closed with a public lecture from James Wharton, including readings from his autobiography, Out in the Army.

On the surface, this range of papers might not seem to have all that much in common, other than the very broad theme of gender and war. They covered huge swathes of time, geography, media and disciplinary approach. Yet together they worked as jumping off points for intense and involving discussion. At the centre of the day’s debates, for me at any rate, was the question of the languages we use to talk about conflict, how that language is gendered and how it can and should be historicized. How does ‘shell shock’ translate into Dutch, and what are we saying if we don’t translate it? What does the changing meaning of ‘nostalgia’, from a nineteenth-century illness to a twentieth-century political tool tell us about the place of war in society? How do we analyse discourses and the literature of the past in ways which are both intellectually and historically rigorous, which speak to both the reality of past experience and the debates of today? The small group set-up of the workshop allowed these discussions to flourish, with ideas and connections developing in interesting and exciting ways across disciplinary, national and periodic divides.

While the formal procedures were enlivening, however, for me the most exciting discussions were those that happened between and around the formal sessions. It was, for instance, an honour and a pleasure to meet Holly Furneaux, whose forthcoming book on the masculinity of Victorian soldiers looks set to shape my own work in important ways. Indeed, on the back of the workshop she has sent me a copy of her chapter on Crimean stretcher bearers which I have been having a lovely time reading and engaging with this past week. Then there was the discussion I had with James Wharton at dinner (and much later into the evening than was probably sensible) about what motivates young men to enlist, how the memory and commemoration of a divisive conflict affects those who served in it, and the practical implications of the government’s current policy on military reserves. These are all issues that have arisen in my historical research; to explore their importance in a contemporary context was illuminating. And, in the end, as I traveled home on a very early Eurostar train from Brussels the following morning, the ideas that had been stimulated over the course of the day coalesced into a moment of inspiration about the argument my book is making and why it is significant. I had gone to Ghent with a paper that attempted to articulate the main argument of my introduction; I came home with the seeds of a conclusion.

Of cabbages and kings

Modern British Studies, Birmingham, 1st-3rd July

The second conference (and this one was a conference) was the Modern British Conference, held in Birmingham this last week. Organisationally, this could not have been more different from Ghent – 280 delegates, three days, 6 keynotes, four parallel panels each session – and my own contribution reflected this difference, being on the project to come rather than on my work at present. The sheer size of the conference meant that my own path through the various ways in which the rethinking of modern British studies is being addressed by contemporary scholarship was particular to me and my interests. It was, quite simply, impossible to attend all the panels that I would have liked to attend, at least not without learning the neglected art of being in two places at once.

The panels I did attend were excellent. Most were flat-out entertaining, many were innovative, all were thought-provoking. Standouts were those on ‘Interrogating British Boundaries’, which pushed me to think again about how I will approach the ‘Overseas’ section of the PIN 26 archive, ‘Money, Belief and Politics in Modern Britain’, where Sarah Roddy’s work in particular was highly suggestive about my methodological practice and the wonderful ‘Humour and Comedy in Modern British Studies’, where not only did Lucy Deplap’s exploration of anti-suffrage humour suggest an angle on hospital journals that I now plan to pursue further, but Peter Bailey gave a demonstration of conference paper presentation as performance that was as powerful as it was funny. I have never experienced a conference panel as joyful – this one, for all its potentially uncomfortable subject matter, was.

I was sad to miss panels on regional histories and creative histories, and it sounds as if panels on the 1970s, subcultures, and ‘The Future History of Race’ were all extraordinary experiences for those who did attend. However, I was able to get a flavour of all through Twitter, this being the most Twitter-active conference I have ever attended. Indeed, this was the first conference I have ever attended where live tweeting made sense, one where the sheer quantity (and quality) of online participation facilitated participation and discussion rather than distracting from it. The extent of online engagement, in addition to the normal face-to-face interaction of a large conference, was, however, more than usually exhausting. As intellectually exciting as it was, I’m not sure that level of critical engagement over three days is entirely healthy or productive. Given the many calls for self-care made throughout the conference, this may be a facet of conferencing that needs revisiting on a regular basis both by individuals and ‘twitterstorians’ collectively.

Of course, not all aspects were equally impressive, and I did come away with a number of reservations. The first of these was about an uncomfortable tendency to try to periodize Modern British Studies as a historic undertaking. James Vernon gave the most overt example of this in his keynote address, where he sought to define the field generationally, starting with the ‘generation of 1945’. I found this sort of grouping of scholarly endeavour, which also found expression in the focus on established scholars as opposed to PhD and early career scholars mildly alienating. As someone who has not had the opportunity to define myself as part of a generation, indeed has only just moved from the precariousness of a temporary contract to the security of a permanent position, I certainly don’t feel ‘established’, although I do feel the responsibility to support the intellectual endeavours of those in less secure positions within the academy. I was not clear where I and people like me fit into to this mapping of the professional field. And if we are going to talk about self-care and support within the profession, we do need to discuss issues that arise at different points in the life-cycle, not least the caring responsibilities that impact on the time and energy of so many mid-career scholars, a subject that, as far as I was aware, was simply never mentioned.

The second issue to disturb me was the rather startling absence of gender as a category of explicit historical analysis, particularly in the keynote speeches. Where gender was specifically discussed, in Geoff Eley’s public lecture, it was, shockingly, in a way in which women were viewed as the only gendered sex, thereby completely ignoring quarter of a century’s work to make men visible as gendered historical subjects. The story of gender and the political aftermath of the First World War, for instance, is far more than one of maternalist discourse v. fear of the flapper, not least because the ‘Lost Generation’ was, for most politicians in Britain, exclusively male.

Is this a piece of special pleading on the part of a gender historian? Well possibly. There is, of course, only so much that can be said in a thirty-five minute paper and the subjects addressed by Seth Koven, Stephen Brooke, Deborah Cohen and Catherine Hall were all wonderfully rich and complex in ways that defied simplification or easy summation. But given the focus on specific families in Koven and Cohen’s papers, and the discussion of domestic violence in Brooke’s, a more explicit acknowledgement that the power structures being uncovered and analysed have a gendered element would have made clear what was only in the end implicit, that gender histories continue to have relevance at least as significant as those of race. If the point that the history of modern Britain is the history of imperialism could be made as clearly and emphatically as it was over the course of three days, then I only wish there had been the space to make the parallel point that it is also the history of gendered relations of power.

Despite these reservations, in the end it was Catherine Hall’s keynote, of all the panels and plenaries over the three days, that spoke most deeply to me. At once a razor-sharp analysis of a rich, deeply problematic source with powerful implications for our understanding of both the past and the present, and a rallying cry to the profession to use our passion to demonstrate the undoubted relevance of the work we do, it left me energised and even inspired. I left Birmingham knowing that the practice of history is hard, should be hard, but however hard it is, it is also fun and undoubtedly worth doing.

And why the sea is boiling hot/ And whether pigs have wings

So, two very different events in two very different venues at which I attempted to grapple with two very different facets of my work as I understand it at the moment. Yet there were also themes that connected them. The invisibility of men as gendered historical actors, for instance, formed the basis of a question raised in Ghent, reinforcing my sense that historians of gender, and masculinity in particular, still have work to do in making our political and theoretical project clear and accepted. More positively, the relevance of the study of the past to questions of social, cultural and political import in the present was made crystal clear at both events. Every panel I attended in Birmingham contained at least one paper that addressed a contemporary debate or concern, illuminating the connection between past and present as clearly as my post-workshop discussion with James. Oh, and both were wonderful social events, where the pleasures of reunion with old friends was only matched by that of forging new friendships.

There is still much that I absorbed both in Belgium and the Midlands that I have yet to fully process. But in sum, if Ghent provided me with inspiration, Birmingham was a source of exhilaration. The remainder of the summer, then, will have to provide the perspiration that will, I hope, result in, if not a work of genius, then at least a good book.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Tears, idle tears

Never let it be said that the BBC’s flagship television programme marking the centenary of the First World War, Britain’s Great War, has had no impact on academic research. Following a flippant comment on Twitter, in response to Jeremy Paxman’s description of members of the British cabinet crying at the outbreak of war, I seem to have rather publicly committed myself to writing an article on British soldiers crying during the First World War.

This is actually slightly less ambitious and out of left field than it might first appear. I have a number of examples of men crying, and commenting on crying in relation to their masculine sense of self, while at the front. I am also actively looking for examples of men showing emotion through tears in hospital. These are examples of men crying as a response to fear or to pain. Following from André Loez’s article in Macleod and Purseigle (eds.), Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in War Studies (Brill, 2004), on French soldiers’ tears, I suspect there are also men who cry out of grief and relief/joy.  I would love to find more examples of these, so if anyone comes across any, please do let me know.

I have also been working my way through quite a lot of literature on the history of emotions, as I try to work out my theoretical and methodological approach to the study of masculine subjectivity, something that has definitely changed since I published my book five years ago.  This is a fascinating and complicated subject that I will be posting about at greater length in the near future.  Having a discrete, concrete project to work on that allows me to put a mass of theory into some sort of practice should be quite a useful discipline.  I have always been the sort of researcher who needs to write as she goes, if only to keep my ideas in order.

So I will keep hunting for examples of men whose stiff upper lip trembled far more often than we might believe, and work at locating them in the context of the history of emotions in wartime.  Thank you, BBC and Twitter, yet another job to add to my list!

Masculinity in crisis (again)?

Another week, another Observer article prompting me to blog, this time one concerning ‘masculine crisis’ and domestic violence, specifically the murder of children by their fathers.  Or rather, this blog post from Joanne Bailey (whose blog I urge you to follow; it is fabulous) questioning the historical construction of family murders as masculine crisis.

First of all, I absolutely agree with Joanne and the many commentators on the original article who point out that a ‘crisis of masculinity’ is no excuse for family murder (or indeed murder of any sort) and that this sort of argument amounts to victim blaming.  The men who commit the murders are responsible for their own actions and, as Joanne so eloquently argues, not representative of ‘masculinity’ in its entirety or even, from the evidence available, of a particular type of masculinity, although speculation on this latter is quite interesting. The children and their mothers who are the ultimate victims of these murders should never be presented as the cause of their own deaths through the threat they pose to the masculine identity of the men who killed them.

There has been a general consensus on this from the comments on the subject that I have seen.  What interested me, however, was the general assumption that ‘masculinity in crisis’ meant masculinity threatened by the increased power of women, as if gender relations were a zero-sum game.  Yet there is a history of ‘crises of masculinity’ dating back to at least the beginning of the 20th century which sheds a rather different light on the subject.

In my own work, the earliest ‘crisis of [British] masculinity’ I have come across (and I would love to hear from anyone working on earlier examples) was the one that resulted during the Boer War as a reaction to the poor physical fitness of many of the volunteers.  This prompted much national soul-searching about the ability of the British man to match a masculine ideal embodied by the soldier, particularly when set against the rugged frontier masculinity of the Boer farmer who was defeating the British soldier in battle.  By the eve of the First World War, these concerns about the physical state of British masculinity had been supplemented by concerns about its moral state, with the 1918 Pemberton Billing libel case giving voice to the moral panic that conflated homosexuality and fears about the success of the war effort. This was not masculinity threatened by the economic and social power of women; rather it was masculinity threatened by urbanisation and poverty on the one hand, and luxury and decadence on the other.

During the war, the ‘crisis of masculinity’ found another popular name, shell shock, a condition which appeared to emasculate men who suffered from it, depriving them of the ability to be either successful soldiers or self-supporting wage earners in civil life.  Historians and literary critics such as Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert have long argued that shell shock can be (and was) read in part as a response to growing female power on the home front.[i]  Yet, as I have argued at length, this crisis was just as often constructed as a crisis of masculine maturity, a response to the growing authority of the state over men’s bodies and actions in wartime that resulted in infantilisation rather than either the effiminisation feared by Pemberton Billing and his ilk, or the brutalisation that structured post-Second World War anxieties.

The association of brutalisation with masculinity in crisis developed, I believe, much more strongly after the Second World War.  Certainly work on American culture suggests that fears over the state of post-war masculinity were played out in fantasies of male violence and hypersexuality such as the ‘true adventure’ pulps of the 1950s and ‘60s which were constructed in direct opposition to ‘dynasty of the dames’ railed against by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers (1942).[ii]  Here we have the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as it appears in the comments in The Observer being spelled out: masculine identity is undermined through the domesticity imposed by powerful women who are invading the public domain, and men are attempting to reclaim it through violence against women.

The problem with this reading, as I think the history of the first half of the twentieth century shows, is that it is a limiting way to define masculinity.  Not only are there multiple masculinities at any one time, encompassing the domestic, the heroic, the alternative, to various degrees but these masculinities can be, have been and still are defined against many other identities, not just women.  My own research is suggesting that the image of the child/boy was a far more significant ‘other’ against which to define masculinity in the early twentieth century than women, whatever their growing social and political power.  Race and class have been equally powerful structures for masculine definition, and thus have as much power to precipitate crises in that self-identity.  None of this starts to answer the question raised by Joanne, as to why violence against the other is seen so often as the appropriate way for individual men to attempt to define their masculinity.  But perhaps by exploring the phrase ‘masculinity crisis’ in more depth we can begin to perceive its limits as a way of categorising men who commit these heinous acts.


[i] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), 172; Sandra Gilbert, ‘Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War in Higonnet, et. al., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 197-226.

[ii] See Bill Osgerby, ‘Two-Fisted Tales of Brutality and Belligerence: Masculinity and Meaning in the American “True Adventure” Pulps of the 1950s and 1960s’ in Ellis and Meyer, Masculinity and the Other: Historical Perspectives (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 163-189.

Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers?

A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post.  While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:

The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces).  My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor.  My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.

Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in.  And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow.  Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course.  Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.

Is this because of their respective sexes?  I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex.  And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).

And yet, and yet…  My son has always built things.  He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work.  My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can.   I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex.  As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.

Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the  war.  No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.

In which I go multimedia

It has taken some time (copyright queries now all answered) but the podcast of my talk to the Legacies of War seminar series is now available:

I admit that I have only listened to a few seconds of it, but the editor assures me that it sounds okay.  If you enjoy it, please check out some of the other talks from the series which can be found here.