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Emerging perspectives: place, space and the emotions

May 7, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London – by Colin Jones

In 1894 the Newcastle Weekly Courant published a story entitled ‘The Young Murderer’. It depicted the odyssey of a boy who, having killed his brother in a fit of rage, was sent to prison and there, the anonymous author contended, was turned insane once he realised his guilt. An audience that believed in the pristine innocence of childhood and the controlled expression of emotion was thus invited to contemplate the spectacle of the violently passionate child. The article’s author employed ideas of lunacy and mental disease to explain how children could commit murder, and suggested that criminal institutions offered a means of controlling unacceptable emotions.

This particular case is drawn from the research of Eleanor Betts, a member of the strong postgraduate community at QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions. A good deal of their emergent research explores issues of space that relate to the emotions – in particular, but not exclusively, the embeddedness of emotion within that characteristic Victorian institutional space, the asylum.

Betts’s work, focused on children who kill, explores how Victorian society sought to comprehend and make sense of the very possibility of the infant murderer, and also to develop secure spaces that protected it from such figures. Jennifer Wallis’s research, in contrast, takes as its focus the adult male asylum patient rather than the child. She looks particularly at how late 19th-century alienism explored the ways in which certain mental illnesses came to be conceived of as entities capable of leaving a literal mark on the patient. To take one example, general paralysis (neurosyphilis) was often first evident in the characteristic grandiose delusions and emotional excitement of the patient. Yet the disease was also believed to betray its presence in the bodily fabric (skin lesions, wasted muscles, unusually fragile bones, etc.). Wallis draws on the records of the West Riding Asylum to explore how the body of the syphilitic male patient came to be viewed as ‘speaking’ not only of its disease but also of its morality and adherence to cultural and emotional norms.

Inmates of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield, Yorkshire, c.1869. Wellcome Library

Inmates of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield, Yorkshire, c.1869. Wellcome Library

Åsa Jansson’s research on melancholia in Victorian medical psychology locates the emotions as a key focus of medical literature on mental disease. Through the appropriation of physiological concepts, asylum physicians spoke about the emotions as reflexive and automated physiological processes that could become disordered when the brain was subjected to repeated irritation. Yet when it came to diagnosing patients, biological models were largely useless. Within the asylum, melancholia was identified and diagnosed according to observable emotional symptoms such as despondency, depression and suicidal propensities. Jansson considers the relationship between asylum records and published material, tracing how melancholia was conceptualised, transformed and reified on its journeys back and forth between casebook and textbook.

The use of expressed emotion as a diagnostic tool is a prominent feature of William Lauder Lindsay’s book Mind in the Lower Animals in Health and Disease (1879). A naturalist-physician and alienist, Lindsay developed the study of comparative psychology, incorporating Darwinian theory alongside mental health and disease. Animals became subjective models for human mental disease, and humans models for animals. Elizabeth Gray’s research studies the cultural and scientific influences on Lindsay’s work, tying together 19th-century theories of the moral treatment of both humans and animals, and assessing the place of emotions within comparative and evolutionary psychological and psychiatric disciplines.

The research projects of Chris Millard, Jane Mackelworth and Elsa Richardson take us well outside the confines of the Victorian asylum. Yet their work explores relations between emotions and spaces: spaces domestic, pathological and exotic. Millard examines ways in which British psychiatrists in the 1950s and 1960s refashioned ideas of suicide attempts as cries for help, and the pathologised domestic environment that supposedly precipitated these attempts. The research reveals how psychiatric interventions constructed a pathologised domesticity: husbands with ‘morbid jealousy’ drove their wives to express their distress through an overdose; ‘jilted girls’ sent similar pathological messages to their boyfriends as ‘emotional blackmail’. These emotional investments interacted with established psychiatric concerns over ‘assortative mating’. The flourishing child guidance movement buttressed ideas of domestic psychopathology, with concern over ‘maternal deprivation’ and ‘broken homes’ reaching ubiquity in psychological circles.

Mackelworth explores the meaning of home both as a material dwelling and as a spatial imaginary, with reference to how women in romantic partnerships between 1900 and 1960 ‘set up home’ together and other ways in which they created communities and spaces where they felt at home. The research is grounded not in psychiatric literature but rather the private letters, diaries and photographs of Vera ‘Jack’ Holme and her friends. Interestingly, the home emerges as a cultural space framed by discourses reliant on heteronormativity. Female romantic couplings and polyamorous relationships reveal ways in which women negotiated, resisted and challenged but also drew upon wider gendered and sexualised discourses concerning the role of woman as loving wife and mother in the home.

Richardson’s research is on Scottish second sight, the ability to perceive events and people at a geographical or temporal remove. Based on a variety of sources ranging from travel journals and literary fictions to medical treatises and religious tracts, her work is also concerned with the production of emotional spaces, for second sight was originally tied to the culture of the north of Scotland. Richardson seeks to show how the discourse surrounding second sight was formed by English interjections into, and interpretations of, Highland culture. Interestingly, it was held that once physically removed from Scotland, the seer ceased to experience extrasensory vision, so that it was topography itself that influenced the production of such visions. Yet second sight could also, conversely, be interpreted as a remarkably placeless, portable and endlessly transformable psychic capability.

In their very different ways, these studies by early-career researchers strongly suggest that the history of the emotions is already taking a ‘spatial turn’ that will influence the field significantly in the years to come.

Colin Jones is Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of the steering group of the Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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