In deze rubriek brengt Historica een onderzoeker voor het voetlicht die vanuit haar of zijn discipline reflecteert op de (mogelijke) meerwaarde om te werken vanuit een genderperspectief. Op die manier willen Historica en de VVG actief het wetenschappelijke én publieke debat rond genderonderzoek stimuleren.

In het oktobernummer van 2014 verscheen het interview dat Rose Spijkerman had met Michael Roper (University of Essex).

Michael Roper (°1959) is professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex. He was born in Australia and studied history at the University of Melbourne and Monash University before coming to Great Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship. His interest in the historical study of masculinity resulted in a PhD project studying masculinity and management culture in Britain after 1945, which was published as Masculinity and the British organization man since 1945 (1994). Together with John Tosh, he is co-editor of Manful assertions: masculinities in Britain since 1800 (1991). Although gender and specifically masculinity is still present in his research, his focus has moved towards war, psychoanalysis, emotion and the history of subjectivity.
The secret battle. Emotional survival in the Great War (2009) is a good example of these different interests, as it examines the role of the home, domesticity and mother-son relationships, as well as the emotional and psychological strains of the First World War in the life of British soldiers on the Western Front (1). War continues to play a role in his current research: ‘‘The generation between’: growing up in the aftermath of war, Britain 1918-1939’. This project investigates the various ways in which the First World War influenced the lives of children born in the 1920s.

Rose Spijkerman (2)

"Historians should see the two spheres of home and trench together"

In the preface of The secret battle you mention a direct connection with the First World War in your family, which has inspired you to investigate the emotional experience and impact of the war. Can you explain this personal attachment?

My grandfather was someone who had a prominent role in my childhood, and whom I have very positive memories of. During the war he served in Gallipoli and Palestine and he was someone who did talk about the war. From quite a young age he told me graphic stories about the First World War which were upsetting to a child and would not be seen as appropriate now for a boy who is seven or eight. When I was about ten I went with him to a reunion on ANZAC day (originally a national day of remembrance of the First World War to honour the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, held on the 25th of April). One of his mates asked if I was going to join the army and my grandfather responded: ‘The army? Ruddy Salvation Army more like.’ It felt like an insult, that I was not very hard in his view and could never be a soldier like him. That hurt of course, but his views and stories also turned me away from war. This is actually something in the book which is an example of the split legacy of my grandfather. In the 1980s I interviewed my grandfather and it is embarrassing, because he knew much about his experiences in the war, he did a lot of historical reading and I was so ignorant in the interview. I was quite anti-war and although interested in my position, he was more divided. These experiences with my grandfather were an important connection to my interest in the First World War.

Why did you at a certain point start investigating and writing about the war?

I have done quite a bit of thinking on this topic. Sometimes you come back to experiences later in life that were part of your earlier life, but you do not think of them historically at that time. In the background, there was my personal connection to the war, and intellectually I have moved around within the work I was doing on masculinity. I started to think more and more about our understandings of gender and what that meant to subjectivity. In the late 1990s my work started to move towards psychoanalysis, with regard to both the relations between psychoanalysis and history, embracing both the history of psychoanalysis in Britain, and the use of psychoanalytic concepts within historical and social research. I did a course on methodology and theory of psychoanalysis which encouraged me to think about how I could use those clinical techniques in historical research. Psychoanalysis, through its involvement with the unconscious effects of emotional experience has helped me for example with the methodological problem of how to discern states of mind from letters, diaries and memoires. Although still thinking about masculinity, gender has been turned further into the background and subjectivity and psychoanalysis has come to the fore.

My interest was also related to the discourse on trauma. Elaine Showalter has written a beautiful chapter in The female malady (1985) on shellshock. I read this and got really engaged, because it is about the idea that shellshock was emasculating, a form of masculine complaint against the war (3). The trauma discourse has become much more present in academic circles, and when you add that to my interest in psychoanalysis, you begin to see your own past in a different way. I began to think about my grandfather again. He was someone with a short temper, often cross about politics and other things. He had a volatile temper and could suddenly explode, which was perhaps a sign of post traumatic behaviour. As a grandson, rather close to my grandfather, it felt I could understand his situation. In middle age you start to look back, and I think that this study is also influenced by becoming a parent and my own experiences of family life. Hence, this was one of those moments where something which what was part of my formation as a person related to my research.

When you opted for a PhD, you never thought of doing research on the First World War?

No, my PhD was about masculinity and management, which was about my father’s generation, the culture I grew up with. I asked these men the same questions as you ask me now: how did you get into management, explain what happened to you, etc. Although there are differences, it is similar in the sense that the generation of my father formed the basis for my first book, and the generation of my grandfather the foundation for the book on the First World War.

The preface and epilogue of your book are quite personal, with stories about your grandparents, your children and yourself. Why did you want to incorporate your own life into the book?

The preface and epilogue are personal, but the main part of the book has no references to my own life. I wanted the reader to have a frame from which to view my research, but I did not want that frame to dictate the terms of the book. I wanted people to draw their own judgements about the connection between what I tell them about the war in my family, and what they deduce about the war in my book. Another point is that the book is about children, about very young adults. So with regard to my own position, both now and in the past, my personal experiences as a young boy and adolescent are on the edges of the book. Besides, I do not think it is always satisfactory when historians write introductions where they only draw intellectual connections. I did want people to form an opinion as to where I came from, I did not want to hide myself. But at the same time I did not want to write myself into the main narrative.

In what way did this personal aspect influence your research on the First World War, especially because there are so many emotions involved?

I suppose I would think about a personal attachment as a starting point, rather than a finishing point. These connections are important for any historian to investigate in themselves. Actually for the historian of emotion, it is quite important that you think about what your attachment is to your project. I will say something that I expect many of your readers will not fully agree with, but I will say it anyway: I think that sometimes history of emotion can be too scrupulous, especially about neutrality with regard to the sources. Perhaps because of the difficulty that there might be a potential connection between the historian’s emotion, and the emotions that are the subject of historical research. And what do we do? We try to neutralize it by saying: ‘We cannot really know too much about what people felt in the past. We can really only know what they said they felt, or we can track the history of social codes about how people should feel. But we cannot possibly say anything about emotional experiences, that is too hard.’ The work on the history of emotion often just portrays what people said they felt and what they were supposed to feel, but unfortunately does not want to make a judgement any further than that.

But don’t you have to detach yourself at some point? Particularly because of the dreadful stories that are part of this research. How does that determine your approach?

I agree, that is true. But I would hope that detaching oneself is a process that comes from reflection, rather than chopping off all emotion. Whereas my sense is, that some historians just do not want to approach their own feelings, because then it becomes too easy to dismiss the history of emotion as nothing more than subjective. Within the history of emotions, the scrupulousness about the historian’s emotions seems to be particularly marked. But you are right, you do at some point have to detach, and paradoxically, in my view, one does that by thinking about the nature of one’s attachment to the topic and material. By examining: what emotions are you tapped into, which ones you can manage and why these particular emotions interest you. Asking yourself questions about what you are looking for, what you are sensitized to, with whom you identify and what kind of empathy you feel. We need a methodology for how we think about a personal attachment rather than just putting away such attachment into a box and professing a supposedly neutral stance.

The emotional effects of the war on soldiers are very present in The secret battle. Does this relate to your own attachment and the questions you asked yourself?

The subject of the First World War can be difficult with unhappy endings, letters that suddenly stop because men died or when the correspondence is about somebody’s death. What does that do to you? Maybe it is slightly odd that I should find this rather unhappy correspondence interesting. I did feel quite upset sometimes, but that was not a problem. I have never read documents that were so vivid and so moving. There is directness in many of the letters that historians working with less extreme events and circumstances perhaps do not encounter.

Furthermore, you focus mainly on the relationships between the soldiers and their families. Where does your interest in this particular theme come from?

I did a Master in Gender History in Essex in the mid-eighties with Leonore Davidoff (4) and her view was: if you think about gender in ‘a relational way’, you have to think about both men and women. When I started working on the First World War in the early 2000s, I noticed that historians in this field did not do that. There are many studies about the women’s movement and patriotism during the war, but there is not a relational approach with a focus on the interaction between men and women in families. I found this very fascinating. If you read letters and try to think about relationships between families, the dialogue between mothers and their sons, that is what a Gender History approach encourages you to do.

Was the relation between soldiers and their mothers something you noticed in the sources?

Yes, the sources very clearly displayed a strong connection between soldiers and their mothers. I had been working on a particular management thinker who kept the most wonderful collection of materials of the self: diaries he wrote, journals of journeys he made and so forth. He was a First World War veteran and he left a collection of personal accounts about the war, starting in the war itself and including a succession of memoirs written from the 1950s almost until his death in the 1980s. Part of the collection is his letters to his family. There were many more letters to his mother than to his father. I found this contrast rather puzzling! My first reason to go to the Imperial War Museum in London was to have a look at the collection and see if this pattern was common. The correspondence between soldiers and their mothers did indeed expose their strong relationship.

What do you think is the value of a familial perspective on the experiences of World War I soldiers?

In the British context there are not many studies with this perspective. The relational approach to gender allowed me to look at military history in a different way. Although a huge amount of work has been done on the First World War in Britain, much of it is still not adopting a relational perspective. It is often a more traditional women’s history approach, adopting the idea that gender boundaries could be changed by the war and that roles are not set. Historians often think only of women’s contribution in public roles during the war, as nurses or munitions workers for example. In my opinion, this is actually a thirty year old historiography. There is not so much written about women in a domestic context, and the links of those domestic contexts to the warfront. A relational approach on gender can bring new perspectives to the men on the battlefield. Historians should see the two spheres of home and trench together.

At the same time in Military History, there is a whole masculine subtext about war being a men’s history, which means there is resistance to thinking about women. I tried to stir up things in Military History: ‘Look at all those women, supporting the war effort and the British army, and playing a major role in emotional survival.’ It was not just morale, it was food as well. Much of the immense scale of parcels that were sent to the warfront were organized by women.

And there is of course domesticity at the front and domesticity between the men there. Life on the front was full of deprivation: you had to survive. You had to contend with dirt and mud, try and keep yourself clean, shave, sew your clothes and manage all sorts of domestic things that this generation had not had to think about much before the war. Military historians do not acknowledge the domestic aspects of life in trenches. Because of this different view, I think my book has made no impact on military history so far. I find that interesting, I think it exemplifies the persistent gender codes within Military History.

Do you think the war irreversibly changed the way men behaved in the domestic sphere or was there a certain pre-war domestic ideal that gradually developed from the 19th century onwards, like historian John Tosh shows in A man’s place?(5)

That is really tricky, I think we still await a good history of male domesticity post John Tosh. In his book, John sketches different types of fathers. The domesticated father who was investing in the home was one type of men, but there were other types too. There was the man who had a separate spheres type of life, mostly investing in his club, for example. I am in the middle of a project which is exactly about this subject, so I would not like to say quite what I think as it is too early. I am fascinated by this problem of male domesticity, by whether the war had a real impact on this sphere. In addition, what did the war contain for both men and women? How does the revival of domesticity in the 1920s relate to the fact that women and men of the ‘war generation’ became parents after having been through the emotional turmoil of the war, and what does that mean for the kind of homes they established? Across all of Europe, they are the mothers and fathers of serviceman of the Second World War. That is really interesting too.

In your research on the First World War you make use of ideas from psychoanalysis. What possibilities does psychoanalysis have for historical research?

When writing The secret battle, it was very difficult to think about the influence of psychoanalysis. I did not want people to be turned off. There is a fifty year history of scepticism towards psychohistory. So I tried to hide my psychoanalysis as much as possible: it is not on top, but underneath. I think looking back now, I would have liked it to be more central.

Historians work on emotions, but for psychoanalysts emotions are evanescent, a surface phenomenon. What is more important is what emotions tell you about the person’s state of mind. Freud talks about slips of the pen and slips of the tongue, for example. In their letters, soldiers are often circling around painful memories, but they drop clues about their feelings in errors and slips of the pencil. I was quite interested in thinking about these slips as clues of unconscious states of mind. This is where the distinction between psychoanalysis and the history of emotions might be quite strong. If you look at letters, they are full of ‘Mama, I am getting on fine.’ There was even a postcard which allowed the man to tick a box saying ‘I am getting on well.’ That’s the so-called stiff upper lip, the restriction in the expression of emotion. Historians of emotions just notice that stiff upper lip, but a psychoanalytic methodology allows you to understand what is going on in the very statement of ‘being fine’, when it is repeated again and again. What is underneath this statement, what are the underlying states of mind and what is the writer trying to keep in? Psychoanalysis is good for thinking about contradictions, the tension between the codes about how you should feel, and how you actually feel.

As you said, psychoanalysis has received much criticism. What do you think of this critique, also in relation to historical research?

Without psychoanalysis, ‘common sense’ psychology will often sneak in. I would rather have theory than no theory and I actually get fed up with the criticism. Why is it that psychoanalysis is always singled out and always treated as different from other theories. There is an unthought-prejudice: psychoanalysis is seen as a bourgeois, nineteenth century invention, but that does not mean it cannot tell you something about human beings from other times and ages. Of course there are many problems, I do not think the relationship between history and psychoanalysis is easy, but to me, it gives me all sorts of insights.

You were one of the first men to participate in Leonore Davidoff’s Master in Gender History. How did you become interested in gender and specifically masculinity?

Well, I have got an older sister who’s very into Gender History, she was always preaching gender (laughs). During my PhD, I started to work on the feminization of clerical work. But because of Davidoff’s course and her interest in the history of masculinity, I began to think about masculinity. Then the project changed from a focus on women and clerical work to thinking about male cultures in management. Because of Davidoff’s influence, but also being the only man in a group of fifteen very strident feminists who asked me why I wanted to do something on women and I did not have an answer to that question. I started to think about what subject I could do which focused on Gender History, but which would actually be closer to home.

Although the study of masculinity is not the main subject in your current research, it is still an important element in your research on soldiers and their families. Is masculinity something you always consider in your research?

It has receded in importance, but it is still there. The secret battle is a funny book in a way, because most readers probably would agree that the sons are more adequately portrayed than the mothers. If someone else had written this book, he or she might have put the mothers first. So I think that masculinity is still very much there in that way. I am more sensitized to the subjectivities of the men, than to the mothers. But this is also due to the fact that the material from the mothers is much more sparse, they collected and kept their sons letters, but sons often did not keep their mother’s letters. It is very subjective, but I think because the sons carry their mothers very deeply inside them, the letter is a trigger point for that, but it doesn’t need the letter as evidence of the relationship.

You and John Tosh wrote in Manful assertions (1991) that the concept of masculinity is a complex one because it was ‘the product both of lived experienced and fantasy’ and that further studies were needed to ‘explore how cultural representations become part of subjective identity’. In your article ‘Slipping out of view: subjectivity and emotion in gender history’ (2005) you write that this problem is not solved yet. How do you consider this problem in 2014?

I think that the issues concerning this problem have freed up. There is more research done now that is much closer to what I think of as history of subjectivity and that is good. There was a phase called the ‘theoretical moment’ in the mid-nineties, when the cultural turn was really having a devastating impact on social historians.6 It seemed it took everything away that these historians had ever believed in, for example talking about experience in history. That moment has passed, so I do not perceive that this problem is such a concern anymore. Ironically, the issues remain more pressing within the history of emotions than within cultural and social history more generally, where, it seems to me, there is more diversity and tolerance of being open to what emotions might be and how the historian senses these. I see there is a lot of development in different fields, so I do not feel quite as grim as I did.

Your current research, ‘‘The generation between’: growing up in the aftermath of war, Britain 1918-1939’ investigates the impact of the First World War on children born in Britain in the 1920s. Can you tell a bit more about this project?

It is a project which has many parts to it, but the basic theme concerns the legacies of the war among children that were born between the two wars. Where was the First World War in the child’s world afterwards? These are not children who had any personal experiences with the war, but children that grew up afterwards. The project focuses on three aspects of the war’s legacy on children. It is actually ridiculously ambitious. Firstly, I am investigating interwar children’s culture through toys. Were children still playing with the kinds of war toys, the model soldiers, that were popular in Edwardian Britain? I am also interested in the relation between play therapy with traumatized children and children’s toys, how is war incorporated in that? A second aspect studies the development of child psychoanalysis and the effect of the war on children. How is the First World War related to the growth of child expertise? The third area is oral history interviews with the children of veterans. I was surprised by the reactions of those I am interviewing, now in their nineties. Many of the children of the ‘generation between’ still feel themselves to be very much affected by the war and they are concerned that knowledge of the aftermath does not die with them. They want someone else to hear their story, as it was not always possible to talk about their experiences earlier in life. But now in very old age, and in an emotional climate where you are encouraged to talk, they recognise that they are the last living link to the First World War.

Is there a difference between the impact of the war on boys and girls?

Although my research is still in an early stage, what I am finding is that the situation with daughters is very different from the sons, especially with children whose fathers were physically disabled or had a mental breakdown. Almost all the men in these families were able to go on and have careers unconstrained by the father’s disability. In other words, although some of the sons had to leave school early because of financial problems, it is the daughters that are asked to help, and the daughters did not only carry the burden for the father, but for the mother as well. And the pressure is on them to help the mother out. They often led very localized sorts of lives, close to their mother. But you also find other family situations, for example fathers, coming back from the war, who were very keen on both daughters and sons getting an education, so the story about the daughters having to defer or give up their education is not all encompassing.

For your research, you often undertake oral history interviews. What attracts you to this method?

I love interviewing! There are moments when you think: this is what I am on the planet for, the reason why I am here. This is what I really like to do and it is always during an interview I feel like that. Because I feel like I am finding something new and at times it feels as if the war is almost there. I find that fascinating. A hundred years down the line the war is still almost there.


(1) Michael Roper, The secret battle. Emotional survival in the Great War (Manchester 2009).
(2) I would very much like to thank Marjolein Van Bavel for her contribution to this interview.
(3) Elaine Showalter, The female malady. Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (New York 1985).
(4)  Leonore Davidoff is Emeritus Professor in the Sociology Department and Director of the Center for Cultural and Social History at the University of Essex. She was the founding editor of Gender and History: Retrospect and Prospect (Oxford 2000) and author with Catherine Hall of Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class (Chicago 1987).
(5) John Tosh, A man’s place: masculinity and the middle-class home in Victorian England (New Haven 1999). John Tosh is Professor of History at Roehampton University (London). Besides A man’s place, Tosh has written extensively about the history of masculinity.
6    The cultural turn changed the practice of history from the 1970s onwards as it placed the concept of culture, and the related notions of meaning, cognition, affect, and symbols at the centre of methodological and theoretical focus.