Five Questions: Julia Banister on Masculinity, Militarism and Eighteenth-Century Culture

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Julia Banister is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Leeds Beckett University. She is an interdisciplinary literary scholar with particular interests in bringing literary texts together with other forms of writing and in exploring the relationship between texts and historical contexts. Her research specialisms include gender and the body; war and military service; disability studies; and travel writing. She has published on authors including William Falconer, Laurence Sterne and Jane Austen. Her monograph Masculinity, Militarism and Eighteenth-Century Culture, 1689–1815, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.

1) How did you first become interested in military masculinities?

My interest began with the study of masculinity, which I can trace to studying women’s writing when I was an undergraduate. When I started my doctoral research, I turned to the study of masculinity, which was then a comparatively new field. It might seem odd now, but early scholars of masculinity (many of whom were sociologists) worried about turning the critical spotlight to men, or rather, turning it back to men: what might that mean for gender studies more broadly? Would the new focus on men undermine efforts by feminist scholars to bring to light women’s gendered experiences? The study of masculinity has since shown that we can’t really get to grips with, for example, the social performance of gender or lived experience of gender inequality, without acknowledging that masculinity is as much a construct as femininity. In my study of ‘military’ masculinity, I examine a particular construction of masculinity that is hidden in plain sight.

2) Your book covers a period stretching from the Glorious Revolution to the Battle of Waterloo.  What do you consider to be the main changes in how military men were seen over the course of this span?

We all know the cliché that the Romantic period was a time of great change, but this well-worn idea is as useful a starting point for understanding military service in the eighteenth century as it is for understanding, say, the consumer or industrial revolutions. Military historians employ the term ‘military revolution’ to describe the process of change in the way wars were fought which occurred, roughly, between 1500 and 1800. By the early eighteenth century, it was apparent to many commentators that theirs was an age of ‘modern’ warfare; the vassals of the medieval world, like the heroes of the ancient world, could be said to have put down their weapons and picked up their ploughshares as circumstances demanded, but modern wars required modern military forces. In my book, I contrast the decline of ‘old’ notions of military service as the exercise of aggression and bravery, selflessness and patriotism, with the emergence of a ‘new’, professional military man, who calculates risk, acts in accordance with (externally imposed) codes of discipline, and hopes for financial reward. It is not the case that old ideals were simply replaced by new ones, however. After all, the tussle between old and new ideas of military service was also a tussle between old and new ideas about the (physical) matter and meaning of masculinity. In other words, the stakes for the debate were much higher than they might seem.

3) Your chapters move between considerations of major debates and trials and discussions of Augustan attitudes, the Gothic, the Culture of Sensibility and nascent Romanticism.  How did you come to choose these points of focus, and how important to your design was combining perspectives from different modes, genres and social forms?

My ‘home’ discipline is literary studies, so when I started working on military masculinity I thought a lot about methodological issues for gender history, such as how gender ideals relate to lived experience, which is hard for historians to access. By studying the records of five trials of naval officers accused of wrongdoing in active service, I hoped to hear from at least some individuals about their lives and experiences. That said, the questions posed by the naval courts—about what should be expected of a senior military man—were also questions that concerned society more broadly. In my chapters, I aim to show that the answers given to those questions in a wide range of printed texts are inflected by the values and commitments which characterise phases or periods, such as the culture of sensibility.

4) What do you think that a renewed attention to military contexts might help us see in Romantic-period literature?

The study of military matters has traditionally been the preserve of military historians, but in the last two decades literature scholars have really taken on war and militarism as subjects. Romanticists have been at the forefront of this, and so it is right to be asking ‘what next’. The close connection between the core decades of the Romantic period and two decades of conspicuous, wide-spread warfare means that scholars of Romantic-period literature are particularly well placed when it comes to uncovering new connections between war and culture. In addition, the complexity of the wars in this period means that we should keep looking at texts we know well. For example, in my book, I write about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Captain Wentworth is not just a generically ‘military’ character; as a sailor in the Napoleonic Wars, he has had particular military experiences, which reinforce his particular understanding of his military role, notably his interest in financial reward. Looked at in this way, Persuasion is not simply ‘about’ the military; rather, the novel intervenes in debates about the military that were current in the period.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m sticking with the military. My interests in masculinity, gender and the body remain important to me, but my current work is focused on the relationship between the military and one of the most characteristic, and controversial, literary genres of the eighteenth century and Romantic period: the gothic. Like my first book, my new project on military gothic covers the long eighteenth century, but the new project has a narrower, or rather deeper, focus on traditionally ‘literary’ texts. It may sound contradictory, but I think there’s a direct relationship between my enthusiasm for interdisciplinary study and my turn to literary genre. To think about this new project in terms of the broader context, it is hard for those of us working in universities in the UK not to be aware that the value of the humanities is, increasingly, a matter of politicised public debate, and so it also seems to me that this is a very good time to celebrate our discipline.