Conference Report: Military Masculinities in the Long Nineteenth Century

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BARS recently provided support for the Military Masculinities in the Long Nineteenth Century conference at the University of Hull, organised by Anna Barry and Emma Butcher.  We’re very grateful to Elly McCausland and Tai-Chun Ho (who were awarded conference bursaries) for the following reports on what sounds to have been a really fascinating and useful event.

Military Masculinities in the Long Nineteenth Century, University of Hull
20 – 21st May 2015

Day One – Report by Elly McCausland

Held to commemorate the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, the Military Masculinities conference at the University of Hull offered a fascinating range of papers on subjects ranging from children’s literature and war trauma to heroism and Napoleonic song, exploring the multiple manifestations of the military man in the long nineteenth century and the ways in which he was appropriated, questioned and critiqued by diverse forms of literary, material, visual and musical culture.

The opening panel, ‘Heroes and Hero-Worship’, explored changing definitions of heroism in the literature of the nineteenth century and the role of choice and agency in heroic activity.  Helen Goodman from Royal Holloway began by examining the ways in which the novels of Rider Haggard promote inter-generational masculinities centred around imperial violence, suggesting that the Crimean war shaped an idiom for boyhood imagination and literary style focused on the adventures of daring heroes and the violent pursuit of animals and native peoples.  My own paper examined the presentation of adventure in Arthurian novels for boys in the early 1900s, concluding that such texts render chivalric military masculinities accessible to their young readers through the promotion of considered risk-taking, reinventing idealized masculinity as the ability to deal with adverse circumstance and the unknown.  Michael Gratzke, from the University of Hull, concluded the panel by exploring the concept of renunciation in Theodor Fontane’s Der Stechlin, suggesting that Fontane promotes heroism as the conscious choice not to act in certain circumstances.

In the second session, ‘War Trauma’, Emma Butcher from the University of Hull examined the juvenilia of Charlotte and Branwell Bronte and their surprisingly astute recognition of the psychological and domestic effects of war trauma upon masculine identity, including the role of alcoholism as a method of escaping from mental horrors.  She suggested that military masculinity presented both a coping mechanism and a liability for the men of the nineteenth century, opening up the potential for damaging physical and psychological strain.  Janine Hatter, also from the University of Hull, concluded the panel by exploring the ways in which Victorian sensation fiction, specifically the work of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, destabilizes masculine as well as feminine identity through its presentation of the military man, suggesting that domestic dangers can be as potent as those on the battlefield.

Following lunch, panel three brought to life its topic of ‘Napoleonic Song’ through recorded and live renditions of popular music from the period.  Oskar Cox Jenson from King’s College London explored the use of Napoleonic song to critique the departure of the military man from his perceived role in the home, expertly performing some examples of song to unanimous applause.  Anna Maria Barry, from Oxford Brookes University, examined how the ‘unmanly’ and ‘foreign’ enterprise of opera was redeemed by British singers in the nineteenth century through its association with the Navy and patriotic military pride.  Finally, Isaac Land, from Indiana State University, offered a fascinating discussion of the ‘afterlives’ of the works of Charles Dibdin, and how they came to be associated in the later nineteenth century with a glorified age of British military excellence.  He displayed some fascinating examples of the material migration of Dibdin’s songs in the later nineteenth century, appearing on domestic objects, in Jane Austen’s songbook, and even featuring in the circus.

In the panel ‘Masculine Identity and the Home’, Tai-Chun Ho from the University of York demonstrated how Victorian writers such as Tennyson refashioned their role as war poets in the mid-nineteenth century following the Crimean War.  Responding to criticism of their ‘sitting at home at ease’ while soldiers suffered, poets begun to emphasise not their engagement with combat, but their civilian distance.  Ho offered the example of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ being sent to the real-life soldiers of the conflict as enabling the poet to assert the legitimacy of a civilian voice.  Peter Newland from Leeds Trinity University then examined the ‘flight from domesticity’ by the Victorian bachelor, a figure who became the representative hero in Victorian adventure fiction, suggesting that factors such as the rise of the new woman (perceived as evidence of the failure of masculine authority) and a desire to escape the domestic and mundane prompted men to seek solace in the homosocial military environment of empire.

The keynote address, ‘Reparative Militarism? The Victorian Military Man of Feeling’, was provided by Holly Furneaux from the University of Leicester.  Furneaux explored the legacy of the eighteenth-century ‘man of feeling’, suggesting that these ideals were frequently developed by Victorian writers to explore the sympathetic side of the soldier, offering him as a morally reforming figure, an adoptive father and a homemaker.  She examined Victorian narratives that focused not on the physical horrors of war but re-routed awareness of wounding and suffering into narratives of preserving, nurturing and caring for the fragmented body.  The military man of feeling, she concluded, performed contradictory cultural work, endorsing healing and recuperation but also legitimizing the wars that created the need for it.  Her discussion was accompanied by several beautiful illustrations of the Victorian military man of feeling, poignantly juxtaposed with strikingly similar images from our modern military culture.

Following the keynote address, a wine reception took place in the University Art Gallery, during which we had the opportunity to examine some fascinating objects presented by Kate Compton, Activities Officer at York Army Museum, including several scrapbooks of photographs and watercolours created by British soldiers, offering a tangible insight into the interrelation of the military and the domestic in the period.

James Davey, Curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, delivered an insightful and engaging final talk, ‘Crossing the Line: Academia and Public Display at the National Maritime Museum’.  He emphasised the role of the museum at the intersection of academia and public history, highlighting how the recent exhibition ‘Nelson, Navy and Nation’ aims to communicate the latest in academic thinking, reflecting a recent explosion in scholarly interest in the Navy in the past twenty years.  ‘The history of the Navy cannot be confined to events at sea,’ Davey emphasized, and several of the exhibition’s key gallery stories aim to highlight lesser-known aspects of naval history, such as the diverse backgrounds of sailors, the relatively good quality of the food and drink, the relationship between the Navy, trade and the British economy, and the role of dockyards as industrial concerns and employers.  He concluded by presenting some images of British sailors from Naval memorabilia, exploring the contradictory cultural representations of sailors as womanisers and family men, patriots and mutineers, straight-talking pragmatists and easily-duped simpletons.  This assertion of the complexity and diversity of military masculinities in the long nineteenth century aptly concluded a fascinating day, during which these identities were subjected to scrutiny and discussion from a wide variety of disciplines drawing on an exciting range of cultural artifacts.

Many thanks to BARS, whose funding enabled me to attend the conference and to spend two days in Hull, exploring its military and maritime history.


Day Two – Report by Tai-Chun Ho

The second day of the conference was a resounding success and provided an example of the exciting work emerging from researchers of military masculinities across disciplines.  Notable themes running through the conference panels I attended included: civilian perceptions of the soldier, war widows, and civilian depictions of the military.

The day began with the ‘The Man Behind the Uniform’ panel, which considered the complex relation between civilians, soldiery and the nation.  Edward Gosling from University of Plymouth explored the extent to which the War Office reform from 1868 to the late 1880s helped transform public perception of the ordinary soldier.  The stereotypical figure of Tommy Atkins, he argued, was a product of a social and cultural rehabilitation.  Focusing on memoirs of the Napoleonic Wars by militia privates, Matthew McCormack from University of Northampton asked the question of whether these militiamen perceived their service as an act of citizenship.  Whilst noting that their use of generic narrative, such as spiritual autobiography, renders it difficult to assess their experience, Matthew concluded that based on their identification with a diverse yet united community, their service could still be seen as a form of citizenship.

In her fascinating keynote address, entitled ‘Village Heroes and Hearts of Oak: the cultural power of the military in constructing English masculine identity 1790-1850’, Joanne Bailey from Oxford Brookes University challenged us to think of military masculinities beyond status and power.  She did so by posing three questions: 1) What did men find appealing in representations of the military men? 2) Why did some particular strands of military masculinities so powerful? 3) How did men appropriate values of military men to construct their identities?  She argued for the interplay between emotion and material culture in constructing military masculinities in the wider society and in individuals.  In doing so, she showcased a wide variety of objects and locations, including jugs, tapestries, and cemeteries, suggesting new methodologies for approaching the subject of military masculinities.

Following the keynote speech, the ‘death and widowhood’ panel dealt with the absence of the soldier, drawing attention to the role and welfare of war widows.  Ashley Bowen-Murphy from Brown University took Virgina Bedor, who looked after her invalid husband returning from the American Civil War and managed a farm simultaneously, as a case study to demonstrate how “caring for civil war veterans challenged assumptions about dependency and masculinity in the late nineteenth-century United States.’  In a similar vein yet in a different context, Simon McNeill-Ritchie, from Cambridge University, discussed the dilemma of the Crimean War widows, entitled to the Patriotic Fund, a royal charity fund established exclusively for the families of those who lost their husbands in wartime.  His account of women’s struggle revealed the gender inequalities at the time and the slow progress of women’s rights even until the end of the Boer War.  Ruth Heholt from Falmouth University examined the ghost body of the soldier in the works of Catherine Crowe (1790-1872).  Whereas the Victorian woman is often depicted as a ghostlike, marginalized figure in literature, Heholt argued that the phantom soldier’s desire to be seen and witnessed in Crowe’s works destabilizes the male, making their bodies subject to scrutiny.

In the ‘Military Domesticity and Families’ panel, Susan Walton from University of Hull traced Charlotte Young’s knowledge of war as a daughter of the military family.  Citing Yuval Noah Harari’s theory of the sublime and ‘flesh-witnessing’, she questioned the assumption that only military men possessing combat experience lay claim to narratives of war.  Emphasizing the military traditions of the Young family both during the battle of the Waterloo and the Crimean War, she suggested that the female novelist had internalized their knowledge of war in her bestsellers.

The conference ended with a roundtable discussion, chaired by Isaac Land. Along with Matthew McCormack, Helen Goodman and Ruth Heholt, Land reflected upon the debates, recurrent themes and key questions of the two-day conference.  I would like to thank BARS for giving me the bursary to attend such an engaging, well-organised conference in Hull.