Everyday love and emotions in the twentieth century

Dr Claire Langhamer is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. Her research and publications focus on aspects of everyday life in the 20th century, and in particular on the history of love. Her most recent book is The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution (which has been reviewed in the Telegraph and the Guardian).

Here she asks whether the Mass-Observation Archive can help us to write the history of emotion ‘from below’. This post first appeared as the eighteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium. 

What I want to talk around in this post are the intersections between History from Below and the History of Emotion. What might a history of emotion ‘from below’ look like, how do we get at it and how might it re-frame our understanding of the period I am particularly interested in – the mid-twentieth century? I’m approaching the 1940s and 1950s as decades when the meaning and status of feeling seems to be particularly contested. Tensions between a need for self-discipline and desire for self-expression, anxieties about the impact of war and secularisation on moral standards, and concern about the future of the family, coalesced into a post-war discourse of emotional instability. Within this context the correct management of emotion was a political as well as a personal matter and became a marker of effective citizenship in a rapidly changing world. And yet, I want to argue, emotion itself could drive social and political change, acting as a vehicle for the operation of agency within everyday life. It was also increasingly seen as a legitimate basis upon which to assert knowledge claims about the world and carve out a place within civil society.The historical study of emotion is, of course, founded upon the assumption that feeling is framed by time and place.[1] ‘Emotions themselves are extremely plastic’ observes the medievalist Barbara Rosenwein, ‘it is very hard to maintain, except at an abstract level that emotions are everywhere the same.’[2] The so-called ‘emotional turn’ has generated diverse approaches rooted in the various schools of historical practice within which scholars operate. Some approach emotion itself as – to borrow from Joan W. Scott – a ‘useful category of historical analysis’.[3] Ute Frevert, for example, has recently published a highly suggestive history of the emotional economy of emotions; in 2012 a themed issue of Rethinking History edited by Benno Gammerl sought to expand the scope of historical approaches to emotion by introducing the concept of ‘emotional styles’.[4]Elsewhere Thomas Dixon has usefully charted the intellectual history of the keyword at the heart of the emotional turn.[5] Others continue to explore individual emotions such as love, anger, fear and anxiety across different time periods and locations.[6] Within the British context work by Stephen Brooke, Marcus Collins, Martin Francis, and Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher has illuminated the political, cultural, social and economic dimensions of love for example[7] whilst Luisa Passerini and Simon May have mapped its intellectual history.[8] Over the last few years I’ve also been working on a social history of twentieth century love.[9]

Nonetheless attention to emotional standards and codes still characterises the work of a significant body of emotion researchers – an approach for which the early work of Peter and Carol Stearns provided a point of departure.[10]  We undoubtedly know a great deal more about how ordinary people were instructed to behave in their emotional worlds than about the messiness of actual emotional practice.[11] The history of emotion has often looked more like history from above than from below, privileging cultural and intellectual history approaches and neglecting lived experience. More recently this tendency has been challenged by those keen to explore the everyday use of emotion within ordinary lives and who have drawn attention – as Mike Roper puts it – to ‘the significance of the material, of bodily experiences, and of the practices of daily life in which emotional relations are embedded.’[12] For historians such as these, the identification of sources that allow us to move beyond a top-down reading of emotionology is crucial. Sometimes this simply means reading prescriptive sources against the grain. So, for example, when utilising advice literature such as magazine problem pages, we might attend to the dynamic interplay between adviser and the advisee looking for points of contestation as well as acquiescence. In basic terms this is simply about acknowledging that people do surprising and subversive things with emotional codes and that the fuzzy space between prescription and practice is a dynamic one. Or we might look to particular bodies of material such as contemporaneously generated life history texts to explore the ways in which ordinary men and women constructed their emotional lives for different audiences. These sources can illuminate the complex and contradictory ways people employ particular emotions, actually interact with supposedly dominant emotional codes, and move between what Barbara Rosenwein has described as specific ‘emotional communities’, or what Benno Gammerl conceptualises as spatially defined ‘emotional styles’.[13]

In my own work I’ve found the material held in the Mass-Observation Archive particularly helpful. Mass Observation emerged out of the broader documentary impulse of the 1930s and took it in new directions.[14]  Employing a mixture of research forms including diary and questionnaire writing, essay competitions, social survey and ethnography it provides routes into people’s affective worlds, operating as an archive of feeling.  The navigation of emotion was, and remains, central to the self-fashioning of its volunteer writers for example, and Mass-Observation frequently asked them to record their feelings as well as their attitudes. When thinking about my paper for the ‘history from below’ workshop at Cambridge I looked back over the ‘directive’ texts the organisation sent to its mid-century panel noting the extent to which feeling (sometimes underlined for emphasis and distinguished from ‘views’ or attitudes) was a category of enquiry. ‘How do you feel about negroes?’ (June 1939), ‘What are your own personal feelings about death and dying?’ (March 1942) ‘What do you feel about the recent bombing of Germany? (Dec 1943), ‘How do you feel now that the war is over in Europe, and how does this compare with how you expected to feel?’ (June 1945) ‘How do you feel about blindness and blind people?’ (May 1947) ‘How do you feel about Attlee, Churchill, Bevin, Cripps and Bevan?’  (July 1950). In August 1950 virtually the entire directive was a solicitation of feeling: question one asked for ‘present feelings’ about a range of national groups from the Japanese to the Americans; the next question asked ‘What particular bits of music, if any, give rise to strong emotions in you? Describe your feelings when you hear the music in question.’ A third block of questions in the same directive focused on diet but even here it was felt necessary to solicit feelings about using margarine instead of butter. The final question asked ‘Do you ever cry in the pictures….how far, if at all, do you feel ashamed on such occasions?’

But does such material facilitate history from below? It rather depends on who counts as ‘below’; as ‘a relatively humble historical actor’. Describing mid-century Mass-Observers as ‘ordinary’ is certainly not unproblematic. Those who volunteered to write in diary or directive form were, and remain, a distinctive group of people, not least because they believed their own thoughts to be worth recording. Other motivations for participation over the years have included a sense of citizenship, a commitment to self-improvement and the wish to be creative. Emotional disturbance could also drive participation. ‘I frequently write to release pent-up emotion of a turbulent sort’, confessed a Cricklewood housewife in 1937.

‘Happiness I can express through normal channels – the children can cook sweets in the kitchen, I can buy 1lb of fresh herrings for supper etc. – but depression and disappointment make me mute with misery. Instead of giving the children a good whack when they annoy me, I repress my anger and remonstrate with them, afterwards perhaps pouring out my passions on paper.’[15]

Those who wrote undoubtedly self-censored and self-fashioned. They composed and re-composed their lives and viewpoints allowing access to forms of everyday philosophy forged in the midst of massive social and economic change. They were explicitly encouraged to navigate the boundaries of public and private, feeling and argument in their writing. With a predominance of lower middle-class and upper working-class participants, Mass-Observation’s panel was not representative in the way we understand the term today, but Mass-Observation understood its volunteers to be ‘ordinary, hardworking folk’, who were ‘intelligent and interesting enough to want to help us.’[16] Their writings do not provide access to a ‘typical’ experience – if such a thing exists – nor are their accounts unmediated. Rather, they offer what Dorothy Sheridan has described as ‘collective documentary.’[17] ‘The observers are cameras with which we are trying to photograph contemporary life’, the organisation explained, ‘…subjective cameras, each with his or her own individual distortion. They tell us not what society is like, but what it looks like to them.’[18]

Mass-Observation’s interest in what it identified as ‘ordinary’ British people led it to supplement self-observation with social observation. Running alongside the diary and directive output of its volunteer panel was research activity which spanned all areas of mid-century life; from the public house to people’s homes, from capital punishment to dogs in war. Love and commitment attracted their sustained attention. When a team of investigators set up camp in Bolton, Lancashire – or ‘Worktown’ as they named it – courtship was an area marked out for participant observation. When they investigated the public house, sexual banter was included amongst the recorded conversation. When they followed Bolton holiday-makers to Blackpool they, perhaps voyeuristically, ‘combed the sands at all hours, crawled around under the piers and hulkings, pretended to be drunk and fell in heaps on couples to feel what they were doing exactly, while others hung over the sea-wall and railings watching couples in hollowed-out sandpits below.’[19] A pencil drawing of a couple’s embrace illustrated a report on a pre-war dance where ‘the people danced very close: with the bent arm – which meant that the hands were near the heads of couples…And because there was not much room it meant a good deal of shuffling.’[20]But there is more to Mass Observation’s interest in ordinary people’s emotional lives than a voyeuristic observation of the sexual lives of the masses. Competitions provided one way of generating self-observation and reflection by working-class people across the duration of the Worktown project. The material generated by the 1938 ‘what is happiness?’ competition, for example, offers ways into the narration of working-class selfhood.[21]  After the war two major surveys of attitudes towards capital punishment that Mass Observation conducted on behalf of The Daily Telegraph asked ‘How do you feel about capital punishment?’  Mass Observation’s determination to understand the complexity of opinion formation on capital punishment distinguished it from other post-war pollsters who were satisfied with a yes/no response to the question. In its 1949 survey The Press and its Readers,  Mass Observation defended its use of statistics as a “means rather than an end,” declaring an interest in  “the live dynamic whole of feeling and behavior”[22] Feelings were, then, crucial: a 1948 internal report asserted that “the ‘how do you feel about…’ question, by avoiding the issue of ‘why do you think this or that’ provokes the less-conscious, more purely self-expressionist reply.”[23]

But what might this material actually tell us about mid-century Britain? And how does it contribute to a history from below – whatever we take that formulation to mean?  I think at a fundamental level it tells us that feelings were seen to matter in this period, and because of that the feelings of ordinary people on a whole range of issues are accessible to us: this material helps us to get at people’s sense of themselves in the world. It also suggests that the history of emotion might provide a useful lens through which to view the critical concept at the heart of any history from below: agency.

Finally, then, I want to say something about agency and emotion: what does emotion mean and what is it held to do in the mid-century? Here I want to think across two areas: love and death – or more precisely the status of emotion within debates about capital punishment and the status and meanings of romantic love. I choose these two purely because I’ve been working on them and am trying to draw out the links between them.

First, then, the place of emotion within the postwar capital punishment debate. Why does this matter? Here I’m interested in emotion as a category of analysis. The status of emotion within post-war liberal democracy was contested even as the feelings of ordinary men and women were increasingly made public. The hanging debate provides a case study in how emotion and its implied opposite reason were conceptualized, and deployed, within the expanded postwar public sphere by a range of actors. For many politicians, proper decision-making was held to necessitate the suppression of feeling and the exercise of logic. There was a gendered element here; a distinctly masculinist discourse of emotional restraint within the male dominated houses of Parliament, was set against the uncontrolled emotion of the implicitly feminized world beyond. Classed conceptions of national character were also significant. Emotional control had long been seen as a marker of social status, as Martin Francis suggests, “the notion that self-restraint was a key component of national identity was a staple of impressionistic (and usually self-congratulatory) writings on the ‘English character’ that flourished in this period.”[24]  The debate about capital punishment was therefore a debate about the proper place of emotion within public life and the appropriate participation of those deemed to be particularly prone to sentimentality. Whose voices should be heard and on what grounds might they intervene?

Second, to love: here I’m interested in the ways in which the claim to emotional authenticity could be used as a tool for subversion, resistance and personal transformation, particularly when feelings, experience and cultural expectations were out of step with each other. This relates to my wider interest in the ways experience operated as a source of knowledge across the mid-twentieth century, and in the degree of trust ordinary people put in feeling as a basis for action and understanding. In effect then, I’ve been looking at the power of the claim to be really in love. Romantic love facilitated claims to autonomy on the basis of feeling. Expertise was embodied: it rested within the lover because the veracity of emotion was difficult to dispute. Claims to authentic love could pitch children against their parents, spouses against each other and citizens against the state.  The destabilising power of love rested, at least in part, in its resistance to expert intervention even as it became an ever more ubiquitous aspect of popular culture and commerce. Romantic feeling therefore constituted a site upon which claims to agency could be asserted.


Mass Observation operated across the categories of ordinariness, experience and feeling to generate material that consistently illuminated individual agency in the midst of extraordinary change. Its founders argued for ‘anthropology of ourselves’ – not history from below as such, but a curiosity driven exposition of everyday life pursued through myriad research forms. At the heart of the Mass Observation Project lay the subjective realm of feeling, or rather, ‘the live dynamic whole of feeling and behaviour’. A history of emotion which – like Mass Observation – takes the everyday seriously can open up a range of new questions about old topics. A history of feeling ‘from below’ offers a distinctive lens through which the dynamics between and within social groups, as well between individuals, might be better understood.

[1] For a recent survey of the field see Susan J. Matt, ‘Current Emotion Research in history: Or doing history from the inside out’, Emotion Review 3:1, 2011, 117-124.

[2] Barbara H. Rosenwein, ‘Writing Without Fear about Early Medieval Emotions’, Early Medieval Europe, 10: 2 (2001), 229-34, 231.

[3] Joan W. Scott, ‘Gender: a Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91:5, December 1986, 1053-1075.

[4] Ute Frevert, Emotions in History – Lost and Found (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2011); Benno Gammerl (ed.), ‘Emotional styles – concepts and challenges’, special issue of Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 16:2, 2012, 161-317.

[5] Thomas Dixon, ‘“Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis’, Emotion Review, 4:4, October 2012, 338-344.

[6] See for example Rosenwein Anger’s Past; Joanna Bourke Fear: a Cultural History(London: Virago, 2006).

[7] Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics. Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left, from the 1880s to the Present Day (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Marcus Collins,Modern Love. An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth-century Britain,(London: Atlantic, 2003); Martin Francis, The Flyer. British Culture and the Royal Air Force 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution. Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[8] Luisa Passerini, Europe in Love. Love in Europe. Imagination and Politics in Britain between the Wars (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999); Simon May, Love. A History (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2011).

[9] Claire Langhamer, The English in Love. The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[10] Peter N. Stearns and Carol Z. Stearns, ‘Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards’, The American Historical Review, 90:4, 1985, 813-836.

[11] For a comparative account of Western emotionology see Cas Wouters, Sex and Manners. Female Emancipation in the West, 1890-2000 (London: Sage, 2004).

[12] Roper, ‘Slipping out of view’, 69.

[13] Rosenwein, Emotional Communities; Gammerl, ‘Emotional Styles’, 164.

[14] On the intellectual climate within which Mass-Observation emerged see Hubble,Mass-Observation and Everyday Life.

[15] MOA, Day Survey 81, ‘Why I write for Mass Observation’, October 1937.

[16] MOA, File Report A26, ‘They speak for themselves. A radio enquiry into Mass Observation with Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge’, 1 June 1939, 2.

[17] Dorothy Sheridan, ‘Anticipating history: historical consciousness and the ‘documentary impulse’’, paper presented at The Second World War: Popular Culture and Cultural Memory Conference, July 2011.

[18] Mass-Observation, First Year’s Work, 1937-38 (London: Lindsay Drummond, 1938), 66.

[19] MOA, Worktown Collection, (hereafter WC), box 60, Book drafts on Blackpool, 60-F, sex, 27. On the class and gender assumptions that informed some of Mass-Observation’s work in Bolton see Peter Gurney, ‘“Intersex” and “Dirty Girls”: Mass-Observation and Working-class Sexuality in England in the 1930s’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 8:2 (1997),  256–90

[20] MOA, WC, box 48, Leisure activities, fairs and dance halls, 48-C, dance halls and dances, ‘St Peters and St Paul’s dance’, 3.

[21] Gazeley and Langhamer, ‘Happiness in Mass Observation’s Bolton’, History Workshop Journal, 75, 2013.

[22] Mass Observation, The Press and its Readers. A Mass-Observation Survey(London, 1949), 8.

[23] MOA, File Report (hereafter FR) 3028, ‘The Qualitative Approach to Market Research,’ August 1948, 6a.

[24] Martin Francis, “Tears, Tantrums, and Bared Teeth: the Emotional Economy of Three Conservative Prime Ministers, 1951-1963,” Journal of British Studies, 41, no. 3 (July 2002): 354-87, at 362.

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