Many Worlds of Eighteenth-Century Britain: Apurba Chatterjee reports from the #EMForum

On 12 May 2016, the Early Modern Discussion Group welcomed two Sheffield-based eighteenth-century researchers with a shared interest in masculinities, Kate Gibson and Lauren Nixon. Session Chair Apurba Chatterjee (a first-year PhD student in History) reports:

Kate Gibson, a second-year PhD student at the Department of History, studies the experience of being an illegitimate child in England during the ‘long eighteenth century’. In her research, Kate addresses the individual lives of illegitimate children through both conventional historical sources like parish records and non-conventional sources including private correspondence, diaries and ballads. In doing so, she situates her work at the crucial conjuncture of changing ideals of identity, emotion and gender in the eighteenth century. Kate’s paper at the Early Modern Forum dealt with the questions of unmarried paternity, masculinity and emotion as understood from the diary and correspondences of James Boswell.

In her paper, Kate charted the life of James Boswell, well-known as the biographer of his contemporary literary figure Samuel Johnson, through his experiences of fatherhood outside wedlock. Whilst there remained an ardent tendency to adhere to the existing standards of masculine virility, Kate identified a strong emotional pining on the part of Boswell for his illegitimate children whom he never personally met. Consequently, this enabled Kate to question the existing scholarship on the subject wherein fathers of illegitimate children have been presented as distant figures, largely reluctant to provide for the cause and well-being of the latter. Kate’s paper provided an important insight to the dichotomy between the public and the private that in turn, characterised the life and society of eighteenth-century Britain.

The second speaker of the day was Lauren Nixon, a part-time PhD candidate in the School of English, whose research focusses on masculinity and the figure of the soldier in eighteenth-century Gothic literature. In her forum paper titled, ‘Conflicting Masculinities: The military and manliness in mid to late eighteenth century Britain’, Lauren discussed how the British soldier in the eighteenth century was seen both as the representative and the defender of British national virtues and pride. Following historian Linda Colley, Lauren suggested that the chivalric values attributed to the soldiers during the said time period can be situated in the wider context of growing Anglo-French rivalry and the development of the idea of ‘Britishness’ as a result.

Whilst Kate’s analysis of James Boswell’s unmarried paternity provided a more personalised account of the individual’s social anxieties, Lauren, in her paper, addressed how the nation as a collective came to be shaped by the expectations pertaining to the individual. Through the subtlety of their analyses, however, both Kate and Lauren highlighted the importance of understanding the reciprocity of the individual and collective in defining identity in the eighteenth century.