Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

This blog post is written by Joanne Begiato.

Joanne Begiato is Associate Dean and Professor at the School of History at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the keynote lecture by the author.

Drawing of a room with things and furniture scattered all over the floor. A woman sitting on a chair with the back to a man standing behind her.
John Leech, ‘Affectionate Husband’. Punch, 11 Nov 1848, p. 204.

Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

The crisis of lockdown in 2020/2021 changed our real and imagined relationships with home. As a historian of the home, I am struck by the ways in which crises also shaped ideas and experiences of home in the past. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, for example, war and rapid social and economic change, and the dislocation they caused, placed the home at the heart of personal and cultural reflection.

It is the emotional associations of the home that especially interest me. In the centuries I study, homes were freighted with feelings. They were often used as sentimental prompts to elicit emotional responses that bound people to family, locality, region, or nation, or to generate gendered notions of duty, patriotism, and sacrifice in the service of the state. People from all social groups also used the home and the emotions it produced to make meaning of their life trajectories and construct a sense of self and a public persona. Furthermore, as sites of emotional expression, love, desire, anger, fear, despair, and hope, homes were agentic emotionalised spaces that shaped and influenced behaviour, activities, and actions. This blog post focuses on just a few of these themes through men’s relationship with the home and through the themes of distant homes, men’s absence from the home, and men’s presence within the home.

Distant Homes

People often used spatial and temporal distance from home, and the emotions that this stirred, to assess their sense of self, understand their feelings, and construct selfhood and personal identities. My work (2023) on the emotions cluster of loneliness, itself a by-product of modernity, offers evidence of this. The writings of two young Scotsmen who left home to embark on their careers show that both the sense of a ‘distant’ home and encountering distance within other people’s homes contributed to loneliness and its physical and mental problems. At around the age of twenty-two, though separated by two decades, Henry Robert Oswald Senior (1790–1862) and John Dunlop (1823–1867), each spent several months writing a journal as they embarked on the early stages of their careers. Oswald wrote between 1812–13, describing his first six months as Government Surgeon to John Murray (1755–1830), 4th duke of Atholl, Governor General of the Isle of Man, and Dunlop recorded his experiences from 21 October 1845 to 8 August 1846, first as a medical student in Paris and then on his voyage to India after he secured the post of Assistant Surgeon to the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot.

At the end of 1845, John Dunlop recorded that he was leaving Paris, where he was a medical student, and would be ‘gazetted to an assistant Surgery in her Majesty’s service’.  While he ‘rejoiced’ about this, he was uneasy about its implications:

“I was also not ignorant that this summons to London would sever that delightful tie of domestic life, which I had so long enjoyed, that it would launch me forth into the world, and into the uncertain and adventurous life of a military surgeon, where separated from home and all its endearing connections I would require to form a home within my own circle, and in the narrow confines of a small quarter in a barrack, where I must live, all independent and isolated amidst the vicissitudes of a foreign climate and perhaps a foreign war.”

Dunlop understood his professional future to be ‘uncertain’, a state that causes anxiety and was compounded by his separation from domestic family life. He deployed happy, loving domesticity to envisage his potential loneliness, a pervasive cultural motif, which John Tosh has shown, shaped many middle-class men’s sense of self.

It was the emotional and physical distance that Henry Oswald encountered when obliged to board at his patrons’ homes, which led to his feelings of social isolation, physical and mental discomfort, and alienation. When living in their homes, he assessed them according to the patrons’ kindness but also through the provision of food and space. As scholars of loneliness have observed, loneliness is felt in the body and, thus, metaphors of heat are often invoked to capture or convey its impact. Home was crucial in these metaphors too. Oswald associated coldness with indifference, the opposite of the warmth of domestic comforts. Thus the family of his master George Bell showed him a cold heart in 1810, while the Farmer family were ‘coldly polite’ in March 1813, which left him feeling ‘indifferent or rather displeased’. After some months, Oswald took up his own lodgings and was reunited with his trunk that had gone missing on his journey to the Isle of Man. He discussed this good fortune through the tropes of home comfort, signalling the waning of his acute feelings of loneliness:

27th January spent the day as usual, walking & got my trunk, which has been long waiting, safely, the packet containing books – & dined at Home on beef steaks & ale & spent the eve in reading & noting & arranging accounts & expenditures with much comfort & satisfaction.”

Being reunited with his possessions soothed Oswald, acting as ‘emotional objects’ to convey the sense of home and comfort that he had hitherto lacked (Begiato 2018a).

Like many other people in a similar situation, Dunlop found solace in nostalgia, both for his family home and its inhabitants. He consoled himself on his long voyage by recognising that after an absence he could ‘return and enjoy the society of my dear parents, and as a melancholy solace, shall look back as on a pleasant dream, on the happy days of childhood, and a youth spent under the tender care of an affectionate mother and the careful guidance of a kind Father’. Indeed, nostalgia was a tool that was often used to manage the spatial, but also the temporal, distance from home, a way to navigate modernity’s temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. In its early, medicalised form, the condition was a response to spatial displacement and was thus diagnosed in soldiers and migrants who were unable to access their homes. The second type of nostalgia was temporal, where the sense of disruption was due to time passing and the yearning directed to a past lost in time.

Remembering a happy childhood home was fundamental in this latter version of nostalgia, and for memoirists writing in old age or at the end of their lives, the material, emotional, and sensory memories of the happy childhood home were central to constructions of the self and to articulating national and personal identities in the face of accelerating migration and mobility. For the generations writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was the natal or childhood home and its natural environs that was most evocative and reassuring (Begiato 2019).

Thomas Bewick (1753-1823) offers one example. The son of a tenant farmer and collier in Northumberland, this celebrated naturalist and engraver, whose works were widely read by children and adults, began his memoir in 1822. He lovingly evoked his parental home at Cherryburn, Mickley, in the South Tyne Valley: “Cherryburn House the place of my nativity, and which for many years my eyes beheld with cherished delight”. When he left home, and until his parents died when he was in his early thirties, he walked every week from his workshop to visit them. As a nationally successful engraver, his happy natal home was part of his regional, Northumbrian ‘natural’ sense of self, which was constructed as a rejection of a metropolitan identity.

These writers used the term ‘happy’ home, projecting onto it their anxieties and taking solace in it when separated by space and time. But what did society consider made a home happy or unhappy? Unsurprisingly, women’s actions were deemed enormously significant through their upkeep of the home, and they were held responsible for their husbands’ encounters with it and subsequent behaviour in it. But it was frequently men who were seen as the primary catalyst for the home’s emotional register, forging ‘happy’ homes not only through their economic provision and frugality, but also through kindness and displays of love and affection.

Absent from Home

For all their cultural centrality to the happy home, representations often imagined men as physically absent from it, working and providing for it, or defending it and fighting for it (Begiato 2015; Brown and Begiato 2019). As such, it was often their absence that society and culture imagined, depicting them leaving and returning home, dreaming and yearning for it, forever on the peripheries of the happy home. Labouring men and military men were most often depicted leaving home, the former standing on their cottage doorstep, the latter the subject of countless Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Farewells. In most of these, happy homes were only glimpsed, functioning as spaces of emotion and sentiment. This sentimental trope of the home and its absent master was especially valorised during periods of war, a response to unsettled times and crisis. When the idealised military man left his home and family to serve the nation, his sentimental manly form stirred patriotism through his self-sacrifice (Begiato 2020).

Absent men were also expected to yearn and long for home, to be psychologically and emotionally inseparable from it. This is seen in the cultural figure of the homesick soldier, where nostalgia was at first a medical condition and then by the mid nineteenth century an expression of patriotic manly self-sacrifice. Such men were intended to retain, moreover, what we can call an ‘absent presence’ in their home. Visual and material culture entreated men’s loved ones to ‘forget me not’ and ‘remember me’. These pleas were often printed on decorative objects in the home. One common verse on vessels variously dated from the 1830s through to the 1860s, was taken from Bernard Barton’s (1784–1849) poem ‘The Heart’s Motto: “Forget Me Not”’ (1820s).

Men’s Presence in the Home

While men were often envisaged away from home, depictions of their presence within the home were ambivalent. For all that working-class men were urged, as the British Workman declared in 1861 ‘to make “home” the happiest spot on earth’, their presence within the home was often characterised as disruptive, even violent. Indeed, ‘Unhappy Home’ was a typical title for reports of marital violence. Like the happy home, it was imagined through the material culture of the home, with pictures and cartoons from the mid-nineteenth century showing the violent husband as a large figure dominating the domestic environment, destroying its comfort, shattering ornaments, and turning over furniture. Men’s presence in the home in these accounts represented a threat, especially in those with a moral message about alcohol consumption, where the drunk husband was the most disruptive force (Begiato 2018b, 2006).

This is because the spaces of home, whatever the scale of that dwelling, were imbued with and directed by patriarchy, which structured both household forms and relationships. Homes could become sites of tension that encouraged spouses, particularly husbands, to assert physical and metaphorical dominance. As geographers have shown us, the space of the home was transformed by domestic violence and by the presence of the abuser, from a haven to a place of terror. Indeed, the home itself – when a man was present – acted as an agentic force, since its spaces and objects shaped marital violence as an act and an idea. This is seen acutely in the ways in which men were able to eject wives from homes and attack and confine them in specific rooms, as well as through the spaces of refuge which wives sought out.

Beds and stairs featured regularly in court cases as spaces in which abusive husbands attacked their wives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bed was not a private space in any social class, due to its centrality to several life cycle functions related to childbed, sickbed, and deathbed. The convergence within the bed of various activities, emotions, and symbolic meanings could be toxic. Indeed, the bed was a space over which spouses sought to exert marital control. The descriptions of Joseph Bentley’s violence reveal that it was often enacted around or upon the bed. On 6 April 1844, Mary Bentley and her cousin gave up waiting for Mary’s husband, Joseph, to return home, and each retired to her bed. When the drunken Joseph came to Mary’s bedside in the early hours, swearing and insisting she rose, she fled to her cousin’s bed. Joseph followed, threatening to pull her out of bed and tear-off the hangings if she did not get up and then punched her with ‘clenched or doubled fist’. On another occasion in the presence of a servant, he slapped Mary in the face and dragged her from the bed by the feet. Joseph Bentley used extreme violence not only to subordinate his wife, but to reassert his power over the home and its servants, which he perceived Mary to threaten.

Court cases also show that men of all social ranks attacked wives on stairs, throwing them down, dragging them up, or pursuing them as they tried to escape. Violence spilled over into these spaces of the home, transforming them into a place of fear, because they were points of communication between rooms, and, in multi-resident buildings, they were points of egress. Thus, stairs spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands and seem to have been sites that especially antagonised controlling men. Such men were exerting their dominance not only physically, but metaphorically too: the stairs were shaping their thoughts and actions.

The home’s contents took on similar power and court cases frequently detail men’s destruction of an array of domestic objects in the home. One example will suffice. In 1842, Margaret Doolen took Sarah Williamson to the doctor after Sarah’s husband, Robert, hit her with a poker. On Sarah’s departure, neighbours ‘overheard a noise like the breaking of crockery’ from the Williamsons’ room along with Robert declaring: “I will let them see who is master in this house”. Robert used domestic objects to commit his violence, but they were not simply an extension of Sarah’s body, or a substitute upon which Robert took out his anger; they were also the target of his violence and way he asserted his dominance. Like the spaces of the home, objects marked out individuals, relationships, and emotions and thus provoked actions as well as thoughts. As symbols they also helped construct discourses about class, violence, and gender. As things they catalysed violent men’s emotions and acts.

As we realised during Covid lockdowns, homes are profoundly defined by emotions, as well as through our willing, or enforced, presence in, or absence and distance from them. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes were also conceived of and experienced through emotions and spaces. Just as now, unfortunately, this was structurally unequal, determined by wealth, social class, gender, and ethnicity. History and recent experience converge, it seems to me, to show that the home is the most significant physical and conceptual phenomenon shaping human behaviour.

References

Begiato (Bailey), Joanne. 2006. “’I dye [sic] by Inches’: locating wife beating in the concept of a privatization of marriage and violence in eighteenth-century England.” Social History 31 (3): 273-294. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03071020600763615?queryID=%24%7BresultBean.queryID%7D

Begiato, Joanne. 2015. “Tears and the Manly Sailor in England c. 1760-1860.” Journal for Maritime Research 17 (2): 117-133. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21533369.2015.1094981

Begiato, Joanne. 2018a. “Afterword. Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel.” In Feeling Things, edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, Sally Randles, 229-242. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://academic.oup.com/book/6801/chapter-abstract/150957684?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Begiato, Joanne. 2018b. “Beyond the rule of thumb: the materiality of marital violence in England, c.1700-1857.” Cultural and Social History 15 (1): 39-59. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14780038.2018.1427353

Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 42 (2): 229-246. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1754-0208.12617

Begiato, Joanne. 2020. Manliness in Britain 1760-1900: Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526128577/

Begiato, Joanne. 2023. “’Small uneasinesses & petty fears’: Life-cycle, Masculinity and Loneliness.” In The Routledge History of Loneliness, edited by Katie Barclay, Elaine Chalus, and Deborah Simonton, 359-373. London: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780429331848-28/small-uneasinesses-petty-fears-joanne-begiato

Brown, Michael and Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Visualising the aged veteran in nineteenth-century Britain: Memory, masculinity and nation.” In Martial Masculinities: Experiencing and Imagining the Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael Brown, Anna-Maria Barry, and Joanne Begiato, 102-138. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://www.manchesterhive.com/view/9781526135636/9781526135636.00012.xml



Cite this blog post
Joanne Begiato (2023, March 1). Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. STAY HOME Research Blog. Retrieved June 24, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ukex

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