Ed Brooker began his PhD on the Living with Feeling project in October 2017. He completed his BA in History at the University of Cambridge, and holds master’s degrees from both Durham University and Birkbeck, University of London. His work examines the relationship between conceptions of happiness, emotional well-being, and the urban ideal in the context of late Victorian London.
As any rush hour commuter knows, metropolitan life is seldom without its stresses and strains. For most of us, withstanding these pressures involves the ability to cling to a fundamental belief that, for all that the city might at times infuriate, impoverish, exhaust or threaten us, it offers us none-the-less the prospect of happiness. Yet a clear definition of how that happiness should be attained –and indeed the very possibility of its attainment– is an ever-elusive thing.
Should that self-same commuter glance down at the evening press, they will undoubtedly find themselves assailed by jeremiads lamenting the pressures and anxieties of city living. Yet the turn of the page will bring them face to face with those visions of the good life through which we might seek emotional release and contentment. Hedonistic pleasure, consumption, the pursuit of meaning and virtue, or escape to the comforts of hearth and home – all are proffered in some form as possible solutions to our dilemmas. And all of this at a time when government pledges to promote not only our material prosperity, but also our broader quality of life; when London’s boroughs are frequently ranked according to the latest well-being index; and when the shelves of our local bookshop groan with tomes on mindfulness, healthy eating, or the latest Scandinavian or Japanese models of contentment.
Happiness is surely one of the obsessions of our age – never more so than when it seems furthest from realisation. Yet, as I discovered in my previous master’s work examining the diaries and journals of ordinary nineteenth-century Londoner’s, these paradoxes and preoccupations are far from new. The idea of the city both as a machine for the production of happiness and, simultaneously, as a blight upon every human joy, are deeply rooted in nineteenth century debates regarding the urban ideal.
On the one hand, my work seeks to trace the development of these debates by placing them within the context of late Victorian and Edwardian London. The decades between 1870 and 1914 were a crucial turning point in this regard, marked as they were by a sense of cultural, social and political upheaval which served to undermine an earlier, more naive faith in urban civilisation as a mechanism for perpetual progress. From this crisis emerged new visions of the nature of the subjective well-being of individual Londoners, and of the metropole itself. Yet the exact relationship between these conceptions both of happiness, and of the ideal city to which they attached, remains poorly understood. What meanings then were given to happiness in this period? What consequences did this have for the shape of the city and, more broadly, urban modernity itself? And, ultimately perhaps, what legacy have these debates bequeathed to the London of the twenty-first century?
At the same time, I also hope to understand how these debates manifested themselves within everyday life. How did individual Londoner’s seek happiness for themselves? Did they conform to mainstream narratives, or did this search differ across individuals and communities? In what ways were conceptions of happiness contested and given differing form? And what lessons might the struggles of our Victorian and Edwardian forebears teach us in regard to our own search for contentment?