Rob Boddice, A History of Feelings, Q&A

Dr Rob Boddice is a historian of science, medicine and the emotions, based at Freie Universitaet Berlin and McGill University, Montreal. His previous books include Pain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017) and The History of Emotions (Manchester University Press, 2018). His latest book is A History of Feelings (Reaktion, 2019), and he kindly agreed to discuss it in this special Q&A for The History of Emotions Blog. Asking the questions is the blog’s editor, Professor Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon: Thank-you so much for agreeing to this virtual chat! You have been a prolific and influential contributor to our field in recent years. Could I start by asking you – for the benefit of those who have not yet read them both – what is the difference between your two recent books – The History of Emotions and A History of Feelings?

Rob Boddice: The History of Emotions was commissioned to provide something that was missing at the time, namely a general introduction to the field, its principal works, theories and methods, while also looking at where we might go next. There were so many potential entry points, but no one-stop shop, as it were. Of course, in putting that together, and in taking the temperature of a field whose growth was pretty feverish, I realised that I had to do this in a critical manner. It is overtly not a neutral survey. I realised early on that I would have to walk the talk and show that one could do the history of emotions along the lines I was setting out. A History of Feelings, therefore, is an exemplification of the theories and methods set out in the first book. It’s an attempt to show that the critical methods are good for all periods and, indeed, to disrupt orthodoxies of periodization. Through a series of case studies or micro focuses, I offer one possibility for how a history of emotions – in a sort of epic mode – might look. It’s not the last word, by any means, and it has its limits, but it’s ambitious enough, wandering from ancient Greece down the present, and dealing along the way in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and, most tricky of all, English.

TD: If it’s possible in a couple of sentences can you summarise the take-home messages that you would hope other historians of emotions would get from reading A History of Feelings? Would it be a new method, a new narrative, or something else?

RB: Underlying this book as well as The History of Emotions is a deeply critical stance in opposition to a still powerful psychological orthodoxy that emotions in humans are universal, automatic, non-cognitive, natural, and so on. There are good reasons to think that the foundations of this orthodoxy have been thoroughly undermined, but it lingers nonetheless in the popular imagination, not least because it’s just so convenient. The premise that we understand something about human feeling in the past because, after all, we are human too, is almost overwhelming, but it’s fraught with problems. In A History of Feelings I reconstruct the felt past episodically in order to present past human experience as something unfamiliar or alien, understandable only through an appreciation of carefully reassembled context.

That word, ‘experience’, is also key. I’m trying to leave off the word ‘emotions’ – hence the title – to allow for the full play of situated experience, which does not necessarily fall into neat categories like ‘emotion’, ‘sense’ or ‘reason’. The book takes seriously the notion (borrowed from an increasingly culturally aware critical neuroscience) that the concepts available to a person are formative of experience, and that means treading carefully with contemporary conceptual categories. I want, above all, to avoid that easy projection of our own situated emotion knowledge onto past experience.

I suppose the last big message is connected to this. I am exhorting historians and general readers alike to become more critically reflexive about our own emotions: where do they come from? Who has a stake in shaping or directing them, and to what ends?

TD: You’re right that the universalist approach is still alive and well – as evidenced in this recent essay in Aeon magazine.  In terms of your own approach to the history of emotions in this book, would it be fair to say that it is first and foremost by way of Western intellectual history? 

RB: Partly, yes, but let me answer by way of another question that was put to me by Professor Brian Cowan when I launched the book in Montreal. He thought the book followed a sort of standard ‘western civ’ canon, not quite Plato to Nato, but near enough, and wondered why I’d structured the book in this way. My answer was to point out that I subvert the standard ‘western civ’ narrative at almost every turn. I employ a structure that follows the usual suspects – Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, von Bingen, Castiglione, Machiavelli, Descartes, Spinoza, Wollstonecraft, Smith, Paine, Darwin, etc – but I unpick the common understanding of ‘emotions’ in the works of these luminaries (understandings reached through modern translations that fall into the trap of thinking through a universal human nature) such that their affective content is almost unrecognisable. The narrative therefore implicitly undermines the logic of this ‘western civ’ structure and disrupts the standard periodization. I hoped to have written a sustained critique of ‘western civ’ by appropriating its outward form and messing royally with its content. There’s also a fair bit in here which goes beyond intellectual history to a history of affective practice, of sensing and emoting in discrete and contingent worlds. I try, throughout, not to lose sight of the doing of feelings. I do acknowledge, however, and I do so explicitly in the book, that the scope is geographically limited to the ‘west’, more or less. Given that so much of the emphasis here is in taking original languages seriously, that was a limit that I had to own. For now.

TD: Would you like to give an example of the way you try to subvert the standard periodisation?

RB: There are several devices. Following Barbara Rosenwein’s complaint about the artificial characterisation of a pre-modern age of uncontrolled emotion — a childlike state — in contrast to a modern age of restraint, I upturn standard period references like ‘the age of reason’ and ‘the age of sensibility’. Both labels suggest an emergence out of this immature phase into something more refined and more civilized, and ‘the age of reason’ pits rational thinking against irrational emotion. I find that both characterizations privilege a certain view at the expense of a more textured intellectual and affective history. Hence, in A History of Feelings, I re-entangle thinking with movement, reason with sense and passion, to better represent lines of continuity with the past, but also to show that a significant rhetorical break toward reason was still steeped in affective construction.

The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine – one of the texts which is remembered as emblematic of the rationalism of the 18th century

By re-styling ‘the age of reason’ as the age of unreason, I gesture at the tendentiousness of recent celebrations of enlightenment rationality and highlight what gets overlooked by so doing. Reason, in this view, is an affect, or a sense, constructed for the times. Similarly, the ‘age of sensibility’ tends to focus on certain elite modes of feeling, at the expense of a tide of callousness. I don’t know anyone else who has stitched together the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the age of ‘senselessness and insensibility’, but I think I make a good case for it. But aside from these kind of sweeping takes, I also focus tightly on the particulars of certain moments, showing that a forensic reconstruction of concepts and context can reveal acutely situated histories of feelings. They perhaps fit into a broader pattern, but they reward microhistorical attention.

TD: One of the points on which I completely agree with you is that historians of emotions needs to pay careful attention to the language used by those they study, and to try to avoid anachronism. Could you maybe pick out one example of this from A History of Feelings that you think makes the point particularly well?

RB: The book begins with Homer’s Iliad. I’d be prepared to bet that anyone who has heard of this epic can tell you that it is principally about the ‘rage’ or ‘wrath’ of Achilles. ‘Wrath’, therefore, is famously and literally the first word in the western canon. Except that it isn’t. The first word is menis, and its translation to ‘wrath’ does something to the story that, to me, makes no sense at all.

Achilles and Agamemnon in a 1st-century fresco at Pompeii

Achilles’ wrath is associated with all the murderous and merciless killing he carries out in the last books of Iliad, as well as his extended desecration of Hector’s body. But the section of Iliad in which Achilles is active in this way comes after he has explicitly relinquished his menis. He is practicing something like ‘grief’ in these chapters (but ‘grief’ also underplays what is going on). In his menis, which lasts for the better part of the work, he is passive and withdrawn, and it is this that Homer asks the muses to ‘praise’ (the second word of Iliad) as a virtue. Achilles literally does nothing at all in his menis, which is praised as godlike, and which receives the sanction of Zeus. Whatever we call menis in English (I plumped for the rather clunky ‘Godlike menace’), we cannot call it ‘rage’ or ‘wrath’. To see Iliad as a long story of extreme anger that culminates in violence and death is a mistake wrought from a long-standing problem of reception (especially in Christian contexts): how can murderous, merciless Achilles be the hero? The history of this mistake is, in itself, interesting to pursue. But to begin again with the premise that Achilles is indeed the praised hero of Iliad has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of Homer’s cultural and political influence, especially in classical Athens.

TD: I totally agree about needing to rethink Achilles and menis, and I wonder what you think about the conundrum that I’ve found myself puzzling over in relation to my own work on “anger” – namely that if I am saying that orgē, and ira, and colère, and so on are not the same thing as the modern anglophone emotion of “anger” – then I need to explain why those other terms would feature in a history of “anger”. Our present day categories still seem to be setting the agenda, don’t they? I also wondered about this when you discuss, for instance, Aristotelian eudaimonia, or the American Declaration of Independence, alongside modern notions of “happiness” and subjective wellbeing. Aren’t you in danger of anachronism too?

RB: The danger is ever-present, and there is no perfect solution. But we are in a process of undoing, of making unfamiliar that which has been assumed to be readily accessible. A colleague asked me something along the same lines, noting that I must have begun with the master English emotion categories in order to select the material I cover, and to some extent that is correct. The intent behind these selections, however, is to read the sources anew and, in some cases, to disrupt them beyond recognition. Most students never encounter sources in the original languages, and my intention has been to show exactly what gets sacrificed when we indulge the convenience of contemporary English translation — when we say Iliad is about ‘wrath’ or that Spinoza wrote an ethical treatise about ‘emotions’, for example. The effect, hopefully, is to de-essentialize the starting point — ‘anger’, in your example — and to make visible the assumptions that tend to be implicit in these master categories.

The Declaration of Independence (1776) refers to the rights to ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’

What follows is that we become circumspect about English as well, and treat it as an historical artefact in itself. I’m clear on this with respect to eudaimonia/happiness. The translation of ‘eudaimonia’ into ‘happiness’ in modern renditions of Aristotle is a convenience that ought not be countenanced. I follow the happiness agenda of positive psychologists to show how it is built on bogus assumptions, to ask what’s left of that agenda when it has been properly interrogated. Similarly with ‘happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence and Wollstonecraft’s exhortation to her lost love, ‘be happy’, I go to some lengths to say that if we mistake this word for what tends to be understood by ‘happiness’ today, then we make a grave error of interpretation. Concepts are situated, and that behoves us to understand their situation.

TD: Similarly, you try – again, for reasons I totally support – to avoid using the potentially misleading and anachronistic category of “the emotions”. But are other phrases you use such as “affective experience” or “affective life” any better from that point of view?

RB: On the face of it, no, but in practice yes. There will always be a gap between the reconstructed experience of the historical actor in its own terms and the analytical language of the historian that is at a distance from it. The risk with ‘emotions’ is that the general reader assumes, a priori, to know what they are. Quite a few historians of emotion are guilty of this too. By using the adjectival form ‘affective’ in this way I’m consciously shaking up what most psychologists understand by the word ‘affect’ (valence, arousal, etc., something non-cognitive, automatic, natural), trying to employ it in such a way as to send the reader’s attention back to the historical situation at hand in order to define what I mean by ‘affective experience’. I realise, as I am working on a major theoretical shift to the history of experience, that ‘experience’ itself has its own tricky intellectual history, but compared with ‘emotions’ I prefer its breadth and flexibility, its capacity to include emotion, sense, reason, and practice, among other things. Further justification is forthcoming, in next year’s Emotion, Sense, Experience (Cambridge University Press), written with Mark M. Smith of sensory-history fame.

TD: This is really interesting and I am sure that others will want to follow-up on these ideas and respond to your work on this point. I look forward to seeing your CUP book with Mark M. Smith when it comes out. A History of Feelings is packed with thought-provoking re-readings of texts and images from the past and I thought I’d end by inviting you to say a few words about one that I found especially intriguing – a seventeenth-century French document called the ‘Map of Tender’. What is the significance of that example to you?

RB: I was put onto the Carte de Tendre by Professor Michele Cohen, whose kitchen-table conversation has often proved inspirational for me. I’m not sure I read it in the same way she did, but I was gripped by this document — actually a kind of board game for the Parisian salonières — which shows various routes to the land of Tendre, either through the social practices of service or of courtship, or else via the dangerous direct route of inclination.

The map is loosely structured on the anatomy of the uterus, and the route of tendre d’inclination — i.e. following one’s feelings — risks overshooting into the Dangerous Sea — a turmoil of hysteria. It’s fascinating for so many reasons, not the least of which has been the loose translation of tendre into ‘love’, which misses more than it reveals. I render it more straightforwardly as ‘tender(ness)’, but that entails a long explanation. The map not only showed how to cultivate this feeling (and its risks), but also showed how to do it, such that feeling and convention, affective relations and social practices, are absolutely entangled. I then employ the map for a discussion of the ‘tender emotion’ over time, which was for a long period a master category that included love, but much else besides, and which is now seemingly lost and alien to us. This is all the more surprising given its centrality to the work on emotions of such luminaries as Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin. It was a part of the fabric of elite social life, relationship building, and essential to the understanding of civilised society. Yet by the twentieth century it had virtually disappeared. I think it’s a great example of why work in this field is important.

TD: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts about your fascinating book!

Developing Emotions in the Classroom: Teacher Workshops

This summer the Living with Feeling project launched ‘Developing Emotions’, a new schools engagement programme. Over the next year and beyond, we’ll be working with primary and secondary school teachers to develop educational and pastoral resources about emotions, with the aim of improving children’s emotional literacy and wellbeing. To launch this programme, we held three workshops with teachers, to share our research and explore how we can support those working at the coalface. This blog posts summarises some of the main things we learned from the teachers, headteachers and other educators who attended.

These workshops were a timely intervention, tapping into an increased appetite for discussions about emotional health in UK schools. The Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 includes a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotional wellbeing remains a central topic in relationships and sex education and health education. New statutory guidance mandates teaching the links between physical and mental health; exploring what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional range; and developing children’s emotional literacy and vocabulary.

While recognising these important changes to the educational landscape, we’re also keenly aware of their possible limitations. Does a focus on building resilience ignore the systemic injustices children and their families might be facing? Do we risk introducing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template that pathologises certain behaviours or feelings – such as loneliness – as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘abnormal’? We want to reflect that pupil wellbeing and the emotional culture of schools are much more complex than new mandates might suggest. Further to this, we want to avoid being prescriptive about emotions, and champion a child-led approach, that prioritises students’ own experiences, ideas, and feelings. What is a “normal” and “healthy” emotional range for one child in one school will not necessarily feel healthy or normal for another child or in a different school.

In July and August 2019, our workshops – held at the QMUL campus  at Mile End – brought together 23 teachers from different schools, including primary and secondary, state and independent. The events attracted heads, teachers in subjects ranging from languages to art to geography, and many with a direct responsibility for pastoral care and wellbeing. We were also joined by a sexual health facilitator from a counselling centre for young people, and a teacher from Turkey who was staying in the UK.

The workshops were shaped by Thomas Dixon’s research into various aspects of the history of emotions and were facilitated by Jenny Pistella, a museum and heritage learning consultant currently completing a PhD at the Centre for the History of the Emotions. The workshops were also supported by Engagement and Impact Manager Alison Moulds, Project Manager Agnes Arnold-Forster, Research Fellow Emma Sutton, and PhD candidates Evelien Lemmens and Dave Saunders. Together, we sought to gauge appetite among the teachers, build partnerships, and measure the impact of these initial scoping events.

Each of the workshops ran along the same lines, and comprised research-led presentations, group activities and discussion. We began each day by asking attendees ‘what is emotional health?’. We discussed how it might encompass recognising and managing one’s own emotions and those of others, and how it might be a broader category than mental health (and thus a less scary and less medicalised way for children to talk about their feelings). Balance, self-awareness, and emotional literacy were recurring themes. We considered how emotions are a spectrum, and that one person’s version of emotional health might not be the same as another’s. We also asked attendees what they wanted to get out of the day – they were typically looking for new resources, strategies and approaches to teaching emotional wellbeing.

We asked our participants these key questions at the start of the day. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

We then invited attendees to participate in a ‘three corners’ debate. They were presented with provocative statements such as ‘crying in public is a bad thing’ or ‘people are less content or happy than they were in the past’. Attendees had to decide whether they agreed, disagreed or were unsure, and then defend their stance and attempt to persuade others of their perspective. The exercise stimulated debates about gender stereotypes, displaying emotions in public and private spaces, nostalgia, and nature vs nurture.

Thomas then gave a series of presentations derived from his research on anger, tears, and friendship – all themes which resonated with teachers’ experiences in the classroom. Thomas described the etymology of and history behind various terms for anger and anger-like emotions, showing how a richer vocabulary could reveal more nuanced or even different feelings. He also explored how the history of friendship – which was originally seen (in a European context) as the preserve of the male elite – might encourage children to re-evaluate their own preconceptions about making, maintaining, and expressing friendships. The purpose of the historical talks was to push beyond the idea of a universal set of basic human emotions and to present a historically and culturally informed view.

The presentations sparked some in-depth discussions about the challenges teachers faced and where they had opportunities to make a difference. They spoke about how they managed and displayed their own emotions in the classroom. Is it okay for teachers to cry in front of children? Can they model healthy emotional behaviours for their pupils? Participants explored the shifting landscape of childhood friendships, including how they are influenced by age and gender, and how they are enacted both in the classroom and in less supervised spaces like the playground. We also discussed the difficulties of problematizing basic emotions when children and teenagers might be struggling to identify their feelings or lack confidence expressing themselves. At the same time, identifying the complex interplay of emotions that might sit behind common behaviours like bullying, aggression, sadness or withdrawal was seen as a key priority.

In groups, teachers discussed how our key themes – anger, tears, and friendship – manifested among school pupils, and how they could be taught in the classroom, using some of the insights derived from Thomas’s presentations.

Alison chats to teachers about how different emotions are displayed in the classroom. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

After lunch, we came back together to explore the difficulty of defining emotions, through a series of activities. We used Tiffany Watt Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions, inviting attendees to guess what less familiar emotions words might mean. Teachers felt such word games would translate well to the classroom, with children able to enhance their vocabularies and learn synonyms, etymologies, and root words. Participants were then asked to pick from Jenny’s wonderfully rich collection of artistic postcards to find an image that reflected how they were feeling. In pairs, we then decoded our partner’s mood, based on the image they were displaying.

Two teachers try to decode how the other is feeling by interpreting their choice of postcard. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

After this, we road-tested our new ‘What Are They Feeling?’ game with the workshop participants. Available through our public-facing website, The Emotions Lab, this game asks players to look at historical images of emotional expressions and designate what they think the subject might be feeling. There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers – although we reveal the original historical designations, the purpose is to show how difficult it can be to ‘read’ emotions, particularly outside of any context. The game also reveals how other players have interpreted the emotions, to convey how varied such responses might be. If you haven’t played already, you can have a go here.

We closed the workshops by discussing ‘next steps’, asking participants to draw up a wishlist of what resources, materials, and support they would like from the Living with Feeling team. There was a huge appetite for further involvement, from us producing tailored lessons plans to delivering whole school assemblies, and even the idea of us running an ‘emotionally healthy school’ accreditation scheme, to recognise best practice. Some teachers reflected on the challenges of ensuring buy-in and engagement across the school, particularly in the face of other pressures such as exams and Ofsted. Some schools offered to test-run or trial our resources, gauging their suitability for use in the classroom setting and with different age groups. We also explored how we might evaluate the success of the Developing Emotions programme, whether that be through measuring children’s emotional intelligence or tracking their behaviour and attendance over the course of their involvement.

Thomas joins a group of teachers discussing next steps. Photo: Jenny Pistella.

At the end of the day, we asked all participants for their feedback on the workshops. We received an overwhelmingly positive response. Many teachers indicated that they felt a historical approach to the subject was particularly powerful because it presented a ‘safe’ and ‘non-threatening’ way for pupils to discuss emotions at one remove from their own feelings. Another teacher added that history ‘helps pupils to identify that they are not alone’. Asked what they would take away, one headteacher remarked, ‘I now feel that with the correct staff training it can be taught successfully throughout the school. It will make a HUGE difference to the children’. A secondary school teacher said the workshop had ‘motivated and inspired’ her, while an assistant head suggested it had provided ‘creative and practical ideas’ for teaching, as well as ‘more confidence in delivering sessions’ that will gain staff ‘buy-in’.

This is just the beginning. We’re now setting up a network of interested teachers (and related professionals), who would like to work with us to take forward the ‘Developing Emotions’ programme. If you’d be interested in finding out more, please get in touch with us Thomas Dixon at: or follow us on Twitter @DevelopingEmo.

Affective Accretion: Reconciling the Material and the Emotional in Studies of the Victorian Era

Rosalind White is an AHRC funded PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is an intimate exploration of natural history that examines the lives of its practitioners beyond the impact of conventional watersheds, and you can follow Rosalind on Twitter @rosalindmwhite

Rosalind’s article ‘”What of her glass without her?” Prismatic Desire and Auto-Erotic Anxiety in the Art & Poetry of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’ has recently been published in the Journal of Pre-Raphelite Studies Vol. 28 (Spring, 2019) She also has a forthcoming chapter, ‘Crawling at your feet, you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly’: Insects in Literature and Language’ in A Cultural History of Insects in the Age of Industry 1820-1920(Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

In this post for the History of Emotions Blog, Rosalind ponders how the histories of emotions and of material culture can come together, especially for scholars of Victorian culture.

How do we approach an age that, increasingly, feels unanchored from our emotional present? Why do the outsized passions and curious habits of the past, often evade faithful restoration? As we take what has been termed a ‘material turn’[1] in Victorian studies, appraising an object’s function has become secondary to uncovering an object’s emotional afterlife. We are still interested, for example, in a fossil’s paleontological value, but are perhaps more eager to learn that they were routinely licked by enthusiastic geologists tongue-testing for mineralisation. Our concern with the affective capacity of an object has led to an intersection between the study of materiality and the burgeoning field known as the ‘history of emotions.’

Thomas Dixon stresses that by ‘anatomising the feelings of the past – pulling apart the beliefs, physical places and material cultures of which they were composed’ we can use ‘history imaginatively to inhabit the worldviews and mental pictures’ of the people we study.[2]  A marked area of common ground is the desire to intimately enquire into that which lies on the periphery of grand narratives. But what does it mean to reconcile the material with the emotional, and why does this augmented approach, in particular, resonate with studies of the Victorian era?

Marcus Stone, ‘Mr Venus Surrounded by the Trophies of His Art’, in Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (London: Peterson, 1865), p. 112.

The Victorian novel, bursting at the spine with newfangled utensils, cursed heirlooms, unsavoury curiosities, and priceless knick-knacks, is infamously crammed with detailed particulars. Infamously dubbed a ‘baggy monster’,[3] the genre showcases how materially-minded Victorians lived by a process of affective accretion: whereby an object might amass an array of attachments in its ‘lifetime’. The emotional infrastructure of the novel, comprised of stray limbs, stuffed canaries, and dust mounds[4] in buoyant circulation, is mirrored in numerous nineteenth-century ventures. The library, for example, thrived on the principal that ‘books, like coins, are only performing their right function when they are in circulation’.[5] Equally, pursuits such as natural history prospered under an attitude that encouraged the passing on of infinitesimal observations. An eye for fossils, today an expert affair, was in the nineteenth century mastered with mimetic fervour. The printing press provides us with perhaps the most obvious example of affective accretion. Advances such as steam-powered printing machines, cheap woodcuts, the penny post and the railway brought about a staggered revolution, whereby an increased consciousness of simultaneity pulsated across the populace. Writing by steam in the nineteenth century, like the digital revolution of today, foreshortened physical borders, allowing concepts, emotions, and products to inexplicably ‘go viral’.

Today, in an effort to manifest the material world, scholars have, somewhat ironically, turned to the technical wizardry of various digital sources. Digital facsimile software available at many libraries[6] and on sites like Google Books or provide readers with the chance to flick through rare first editions, or even sepia-stained original manuscripts. This has also allowed scholars to dredge up all manner of hidden curiosities that recur in a text, whether through a simple search, or through more specialised concordance-based digital humanities projects, such as the CLiC Dickens project.[7] Victorianists, like the Victorians themselves, seem determined to make sure that the ephemeral endures.

Recent advances in digital humanities have coincided with an increased interest in retaining a sense of past readership. Academics and librarians who in the past may have removed a dried fern creeping up a margin would today always keep some record of the specimen for posterity (whether through a photo or the inclusion of a protective barrier.)[8] More attention is now afforded to extra-textual information than ever before. University courses or book clubs now frequently choose to read a Victorian novel in serialised format, in an attempt to reconstruct the psychology of a work’s original audience. Special attention is paid to the visual vernacular of the common people, and how it may have shifted: for example, as chromolithography took off, the book became an aesthetic object. Likewise, marginalia provides us with, perhaps, the most obvious extra-textual additions.

Paintings by Elizabeth Hood in the margins of the un-illustrated edition of Bentham’s Handbook of the British Flora, (1858)

Anonymous paintings in Edward Sydenham’s The New Botanic Garden (1812).

The practice of leaving ample space for a reader’s additions is part of a long held convention in my own field of natural history. Naturalists, when greeted with an uninspired wall of text, frequently lavished their books with hand painted illustrations. I have come across a number of triumphant annotations alongside a rare specimen; ‘(!!!)’ for example, follows the label ‘Bryum roseum in fruit’ in William Henry Fox Talbot’s botanical specimen album.[9] Similarly, comments such as ‘partout’ (everywhere) or ‘where is it not’ pepper the journal of the young naturalist Emily Shore: indicating, perhaps, her frustration that her illness prevented her from collecting more exciting specimens that lay further afield.[10].

The methods, sub-fields, and software that reconcile studies of materiality with research into the history of emotions, increasingly, allows us to access the unguarded minds of the people whose lives and ideas we study. This short post is written in the hope of prompting further scholarship that will question the rubric of this, emerging, inter-disciplinary field.

[1] Pykett, Lyn, ‘The Material Turn in Victorian Studies’, Literature Compass, 1.1 (2004), <>

[2] Dixon, Thomas quoted in ‘The Emotional Turn in the History of Medicine and the View from Queen Mary University of London’ by Colin Jones, Social History of Medicine, Virtual Issue Emotions, Health, and Well-being, (2012), p. 1.

[3] Coined by Henry James in the preface to the New York edition of The Tragic Muse (1908) (1:x).

[4] See Silas Wegg and his marauding leg, Mr Venus’ den of taxidermy, and the Harmon dust mounds in Charles Dicken’s Our Mutual Friend (1865).

[5] Thomas Greenwood, Public Libraries: A History of the Movement and a Manual for the Organization
and Management of Rate-Supported Libraries (London: Simpkin Marshall, 1890), p. 5.

[6] The British Library’s ‘Turning the Pages’, for instance, offers readers the ability to leaf through and magnify various pages of rare items (like Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript of ‘Alice’s Adventures Underground’.)

[7] The CLiC Dickens project demonstrates how computer-assisted methods can be used to study nineteenth-century texts. The project started at the University of Nottingham in 2013, it is now a collaborative project with the University of Birmingham.

[8] See, for example, Geoffrey Belknap’s ‘A Thing of Beauty’ for the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ blog <>

[9] See the botanical specimen album of William Henry Fox Talbot at The British Library MS 88942.

[10] The Journal of Emily Shore, [1831-1839] ed. by Barbara Gates, (University Press Of Virginia, 1991).

Review: The Heartland, by Nathan Filer

When we were 16, one of my best friends had a psychotic episode. He was sectioned, and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He’s never had a job, has been in and out of psychiatric facilities, and I think I’m the only friend who has kept in touch with him.

When I go to see him, he’s not always very well. In the last few years, he often repeats the same handful of sentences over and over, how the NHS is a criminal enterprise, how pseudo-psychiatrists are feeding him bad drugs, how he’s actually a spiritual healer.

Sometimes the drugs, or his experiences, are just too strong for him, and he stares silently into space.

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Sagacity: The Periodic Table of Emotions

The Living with Feeling team met artist Aidan Moesby at the BBC Free Thinking Festival. In this guest blog he reflects on the place of emotions in his work. 

‘Sagacity: The Periodic Table of Emotions’ was initiated as an arts programme exploring methods of non-medical intervention for those at risk of using the health services due to mental health issues. The project, based in Dundee, tasked itself with researching and developing methods through which mood assessment processes could be used to define and influence the mood of an entire city.

There are many software tools available that aim to support individuals to measure and define their mood and to represent this in ways that might symbolically or graphically allow better self-awareness and insight – strangely none seem to use emotions as the basis of this. Sagacity does. Indeed, emotions are at the heart of Sagacity.

Image Credit: Sagacity Print – Aidan Moesby

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Emotions and Work CFP

Friday 1st November 2019

London, UK

The term ‘emotional labour’ was first coined by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. Emotional labour, as she conceived it, referred to the work of managing one’s own emotions required by certain occupations. Recently, the term’s popularity has grown. Google searches have increased, and the concept has gained currency (perhaps ubiquity) in academic and public discourse. In a 2017 article for Harper’s Bazaar,  journalist Gemma Hartley used the term to describe the household management and life admin undertaken largely by women, which she argued reflected and perpetuated gender inequalities.

In an interview published in The Atlantic in 2018, Hochschild lamented the ‘concept creep’ of emotional labour. The journalist Julie Beck summarised the concern that, ‘The umbrella of emotional labour has grown so large that it’s starting to cover things that make no sense at all, such as regular household chores which are not emotional so much as they are labour, full stop’.

This one-day interdisciplinary conference seeks to explore the troubled relationship between emotions and labour. The principal research interest of the organisers concerns the modern history and literary representation of emotions and work, but we are also keen to hear from those working on other historical periods or in other fields of study or practice.

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Rory Stewart on the cult of the hero (and how he got over it)

The only candidate for the Tory leadership that I can stand the sight of is Rory Stewart.  He reminds me of something the documentary maker (and historian of the emotions) Adam Curtis said, that a new politics could emerge which uses words like love, and which sees politics as a noble vocation.

There are similarities between Stewart and front-runner Boris Johnson – both are classically-educated Old Etonians, shaped by the public school cult of heroes and hero-worship. But the difference is Rory Stewart is much more aware of that, and has grown out of it. Boris never has.

This is an interview I did with Stewart back in 2011, as part of my research into the classical idea of hero-emulation as a method for character-formation.

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Emotions in the classroom: An invitation to teachers

The Living With Feeling project at QMUL is seeking partner schools and teachers to work with, to promote the emotional health of primary and secondary schoolchildren.


Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop


The emotional health of pupils is an increasingly important concern for both primary and secondary schools in the UK, and the ‘Living With Feeling’ project is offering a free workshop and free educational resources to support teachers delivering lessons in this area. This is a call for interested teachers to get in touch with us.

We are a Wellcome Trust funded humanities research project at Queen Mary University of London, led by Professor Thomas Dixon at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, exploring emotional health in history, philosophy and experience.

The new Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019 will include a new judgement category of ‘personal development’, which refers to the importance of character and resilience, while emotions and emotional well-being remain central topics in relationships and sex education and health education.

Statutory guidance mandates teaching the links between physical and mental health; exploring what constitutes a ‘normal’ emotional range; and developing children’s emotional literacy and emotional vocabulary. There is particular attention to the effects of loneliness and isolation.

The project will be working with primary and secondary schools, supporting teachers in the design and delivery of learning materials and activities relating to emotions, emotional literacy, and emotional health.

We are offering free full-day workshops for teachers during July and August 2019, with a view to developing a series of resources, tailored to specific schools and age ranges, to be used to deliver lessons on emotions and emotional health between September 2019 and June 2020, in the first instance, and with plans to extend the project in future years and at other schools.

Our activities will draw on the project’s historical research into areas including:

  • Anger and how to talk about it
  • Friendship and love
  • Tears, crying, pain and sadness
  • Gender stereotypes and emotions
  • Emotions in animals and humans (including the evolution of emotional expressions and the work of Charles Darwin)
  • Philosophies of emotion, including ideas about Stoicism
  • Compassion, sympathy, and altruism


  • To enrich children’s emotional vocabulary and to support them in learning to talk about their feelings, with a view to improving their emotional health and well-being.
  • To open up historically and culturally informed views of emotion rather than putting forward a narrow, restrictive vision of a few emotional states as ‘universal’.
  • To avoid being prescriptive about what emotions are normal and to respond to and be guided by children’s own experiences and ideas.
  • To support children in extending their emotional vocabularies and learning different philosophies of emotion and emotional health.

Target audience: Teachers with responsibility for PSHE and related provision in primary and secondary schools in the UK; teachers with interest in delivering lessons about emotions in other parts of the curriculum.

Previous work with schools:

  • The project’s Principal Investigator, Thomas Dixon, previously delivered a series of educational activities at Osmani Primary School, Tower Hamlets.
  • In an exercise called ‘What Are They Feeling?’, historical images were used to promote discussion about feelings, emotion, and expression, across cultures and over time.
  • The activity was conducted in the classroom in small groups and 1:1 situations, and was repeated by the students themselves, in the playground and with their parents.
  • This was not a quiz with ‘right’ answers, where children tried to guess the original historical feeling terms. Instead, they were encouraged to respond imaginatively to the images in their own words.
  • The activity was led by the children’s own experiences and vocabularies.
  • It demonstrated the children’s rich emotional repertoire. They generated over 150 different ‘feeling’ terms, from bodily sensations to moral characteristics.
  • The activity showed how we read emotional expressions not in isolation, but in specific contexts. Some of the children constructed narratives around the images.
  • Discussion ranged from whether animals had the same sorts of feelings as humans, to what situations made the children cry. The children reflected on national and gender stereotypes.

Our offer to schools in 2019-20:

To support the design, planning and delivery of PSHE (and other) lessons on emotions and emotional health, drawing on historical research and ideas.  This may include:

  • a talk from an historian on the project;
  • activity worksheets using historical images;
  • explanations of the science of emotions, especially Charles Darwin’s work and his book on the expression of emotions;
  • an online game using historical images;
  • the use of our specially produced radio dramas with lesson plans;
  • art and/or stop-motion animation class to depict emotional expressions;
  • facilitated discussions about how emotions differ across cultures and over time.

For a taster of what we do:


Monday 22nd July 2019 Workshop, OR

Tuesday 13th August 2019 Workshop

Should universities teach well-being? (audio of panel event)

This is a recording of a May 2019 panel discussion at Queen Mary, University of London, on the question ‘should universities teach well-being?’

There is, apparently, a mental health crisis in higher education. Student referrals for counselling are soaring, and according to one study, 40% of PhDs are depressed or anxious. Students in Bristol took to the streets to demand better mental health services, while the universities minister declared the purpose of universities should no longer just be knowledge, but also well-being. What are universities’ responsibilities in this area? What should students expect and demand? Can universities teach wellbeing, and what is the role of the arts and humanities in this endeavour? You can also download this from the Centre’s podcast on iTunes, here.

Dr Tiffany Watt Smith, QMUL Drama (Chair)
Shamima Akter, QMSU Vice President Welfare
Prof Kam Bhui, QMUL Head of Centre for Psychiatry and Deputy Director of the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Barts and The London
Jules Evans, QMUL Centre for the History of Emotions
Kevin Halon, QMUL Counselling Manager
Niall Morrissey, QMUL Mental Health Co-ordinator
Dr Ruth Fletcher, QMUL senior lecturer in medical law