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Military Men of Feeling

New research is undermining popular myths about Victorian soldiers

Imagine a solider and what do you think of? A tough, battle-hungry man with a stiff upper lip is the stereotypical image in the popular imagination. But researcher Dr. Holly Furneaux wants us to know about a far subtler soldier, the military man of feeling.

Her work, based in the School of English at the University of Leicester, and funded by the AHRC, is deconstructing military history through the prisms of gender and emotion, revealing a softer idea of manliness. ‘I don’t want to say tenderness is the entire story - clearly there is a significant element of soldiers’ lives that is about violence - but it doesn’t represent the majority of their experience, even in wartime,’ she says. ‘It’s a much more mixed picture’.

Her archival research at the National Army Museum has uncovered soldiers’ handmade patchwork (‘the quality of their stitching improves as it goes along,’ says Dr. Furneaux) and letters home and accounts of war telling of family-style bonds - even informal adoptions of other soldiers - forged on the battlefield. Fighters wrote articulately about vulnerable emotions and military nursing was a male occupation (we often view Florence Nightingale as the ultimate Victorian nurse, but actually most of the nursing in the Crimean War was done by soldiers).

Dr. Furneaux, a specialist in Victorian literature, first noticed this unexpected, softer masculinity in the period when she was studying Charles Dickens. The gentle military man is a recurrent character in Dickens’ novels (take the retired trooper George in Bleak House, for example, who sets up a shooting gallery - rather than being a martial space, it becomes a hospital for all the down-and-outs of the novel). ‘That idea of the soldier nurse fascinated me,’ says Dr. Furneaux. ‘I started wondering whether all the gentle soldiers of Dickens’ fiction were unique to him or more characteristic of the period.’

Her hypothesis bore fruit as she discovered the military man of feeling was a key figure in Victorian culture. ‘The stereotype now,’ she says, ‘is that the military man is stoical and doesn’t speak about his feelings, but in the Victorian period that’s not how soldiers were represented. In Victorian culture, soldiers themselves didn’t seem to place any value in the emotionally repressed figure. Soldier accounts of war were very moving - they wrote to their families about loss, friendship, comradeship, grief and the physical effect it has on them. One wrote: “My eyes are burning hot, I think I could cry no more” over the death of a beloved friend.’

Further research uncovered the political motivations behind the construct of the Victorian gentle soldier. The Crimean War was a controversial conflict which, like modern wars, saw a battle for the public’s hearts and minds. ‘I became interested in and troubled by the cultural work of the military man of feeling,’ Dr. Furneaux explains. ‘While it seems that the figure of the gentle soldier would be less militaristic, in fact I think it is doing some work to reconcile a liberal society to its involvement in war.’

She adds that this public relations strategy making war acceptable to the general public is one we continue to see today. In modern times soldiers are rebranded as ‘peacekeepers’, ‘liberal warriors’ and ‘social workers’ – even, Dr. Furneaux stresses, when they are involved in belligerent activity.

Where did the idea of a tough soldier come from, then? The popular perception we have today of a Victorian soldier is in fact an anachronistic construct, Furneaux thinks. The stiff upper lipped, ‘taciturn, muscled soldier figure’, she says, is in fact ‘the legacy of the later 19th century, of Baden-Powell, Rider Haggard, Kitchener or Boys’ Own adventure stories; a late imperial view. That imperial perception has been mapped backwards right through the 19th century.’ (She adds that even that late 19th century military man may have had a tender side:  ‘Maybe in the future there’s another story to be told about the much more mixed masculinity of those figures as well.’)

The machine-like, brute-like image of a soldier also came, Dr. Furneaux says, from the modernists, who were uncomfortable with what they saw as the Victorian glorification of war in the aftermath of World War I. ‘Virginia Woolf looked back on the Victorians’ apparent comfort with war, and I think the Victorians got written up as more adjusted to their participation in war than they really were.’

AHRC funding has allowed Dr. Furneaux to do archival work, and to take her findings to a wider audience. Recently, in conjunction with the National Army Museum, Hampshire Music Service and Hampshire Record Office, she led a workshop for Hampshire primary school children in which they learned about Audley Lempriere, a Victorian ‘boy captain’ who grew up in their area and was loved as his regiment’s own child. The children worked directly with Lempriere’s emotional surviving letters at the local record office before writing and performing a ballad telling the story of the hero’s life and death in the Crimea.

‘I wanted to introduce them to a new way of doing military history,’ says Dr. Furneaux – ‘to see how they responded to the emotional content, and to introduce them to archives that are on their doorstep. Their response was incredible - my favourite part of the project was to see how excited they were in working with the original documents.’

Dr. Alastair Massie, Head of Academic Access at the National Army Museum, hopes the museum will integrate the idea of the tender military man into its exhibitions and education: ‘To have a historian engaging with the new discipline of the tender male is very refreshing and made me think anew about what our collection could yield,’ he says. ‘The approach Holly is using is also one we are moving towards - we are no longer telling the story of battles - we are trying to tell the story of soldiers’ lives to the public.’

Dr. Furneaux plans to continue her research in the field of soldier art. Her research will be published by Oxford University Press, in Military Men of Feeling, a book due out in March 2016 (Oxford University Press). She says: ‘I hope my work addresses not only the specifics of the Crimea but also gets us to think more critically about how we engage with war altogether - the limitations to military history as an account of generals, weaponry, campaigns and statistics, versus a cultural and emotional history.’


Article by Olivia Gordon.

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