‘Emotion Knowledge’ and Life Writing in English Military Memoirs, 1820s to 1840s

“It would be difficult,” the former officer George Gleig wrote in 1825, “to convey to the mind of an ordinary reader anything like a correct notion of the state of feeling which takes possession of a man waiting for the commencement of a battle.” Nonetheless, he tried to do just that. Time, Gleig asserted, “appears to move upon leaden wings”; one experienced a “strange commingling of levity and seriousness within him—a levity which prompts him to laugh, he scarce knows why . . .”1 Departing for service was both “striking” and “harrowing”; peace was “dull” and resulted in “jealousy”; a siege was “galling” and “disagreeable,” producing “absolute hatred” between the besieging and the besieged.2

Gleig’s memoir, The Subaltern, which had initially been serialized, described his experience as a young lieutenant in Wellington’s army in the years 1813 and 1814. Notably, he detailed his feelings at the time —despite the passing of more than ten years. Like many a military memoir author, Gleig took great pains to make the narrator relatable. At the same time, he underscored the uniqueness of experience, the difficulty of imparting to the reader what a soldier felt moments before facing the prospect of death. It was “a situation of higher excitement, and darker and deeper agitation, than any other in human life.”3

The military memoir was a thriving genre in the Romantic era, say, from the 1780s to the 1840s.4 Whereas previous life writing had been mostly by commanders, now even the rank-and-file soldier, aided by education and influenced by literature of the period, took up the pen. And these authors put feelings center-stage. As the sailor-turned-soldier Joseph Donaldson wrote, he aimed “more at giving a delineation of the feelings, manners and customs of those around me, than a description of the positions of the army.” The latter he “could only learn through the medium of others.” Feelings, in contrast, his own and those of others around him, were immediately apparent.5

Only they weren’t. Donaldson, like other authors, was not only frank about the various emotions he experienced in uniform but also about the difficulty he had in making sense of them. “It is in vain for me to attempt to convey any adequate description of that dreadful night in words,” he wrote of a storm at sea. “No one can form any idea of its awfulness, unless he had seen it.”6 It was, it seemed, not as easy to put oneself in the shoes of every other person by means of sympathy as eighteenth-century moral philosophy had promised. And it was questionable whether readers actually wanted to, given what they had come to learn about the horrid reality of the battlefield in particular. But how could one “know” feelings, both one’s own and those of others? How could one interpret bodily movements and verbal utterances that seemed to signify “emotion”?

“Emotion knowledge,” or Gefühlswissen in German, is a broad, but useful term that refers to the general knowledge about emotions in circulation at a given time and place, for instance, in lexicons, encyclopedias, medical treatises, moral philosophy, newspapers, novels, images, or conduct books. Sometimes called “emotional knowledge,” it includes what individual historical actors knew about their own emotions and those of others, expressed in personal narratives such as letters or diaries.7 Emotion knowledge is not only discursive but also critical for understanding and interpreting sensations, sensory experience, and the body.

At different points in their respective lifetimes, Donaldson and Gleig sought to make sense of their feelings by writing within the prevailing regimes of emotion knowledge. Whereas Gleig formulated his thoughts ten years after the fact, Donaldson was still embedded in the world he described, the emotions he scrutinized still bound up with his daily social interactions.

When historians chart such interactions, they often rely heavily on egodocuments, mindful of the time lapsed between the experience and the writing, not to mention narrative conventions. Biographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters are particularly insightful as they allow glimpses into the individual navigation of norms for expressing feelings, the “emotionology,” as some call it.8 These norms inform observations about the reactions of others to emotions and to the interpretation of experiences and the self.

Descriptions of emotions may not entirely capture an event, but they are still indexical. They mark an experience even as they become a part of it through the author’s retrospective sense-making. To do justice to the experiences and world-making strategies of historical actors without adopting their language uncritically, scholars have followed many nuanced approaches. Although suggestions on the best ways to pursue emotions have varied (emotions as narratives,9 emotions as practice,10 and “emotional translations,”11 for example), most researchers agree that language is not only a remnant of emotions but also an active participant in them. Not only does language describe or express feelings but, as William Reddy has argued, it produces or alters them. In this context, Reddy uses the term “emotives” to denote “first-person emotion claims,” such as “I love you,” that amount to acts of self-exploration, potentially self-persuasion, certainly not just forms of outward communication.12

By the nineteenth century, biography and autobiography were long established as both the preeminent genre of nonfiction writing and a model for fiction in British literature. The fact that the second half of the eighteenth century is known in British literature as the Age of Sensibility or the Age of Johnson (paying homage to the biographer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson) indicates the close link between this kind of writing and the Enlightenment’s interest in feelings as a means to gain knowledge. Although biographical writing was nominally about the so-called great (politicians, commanders, monarchs, aristocrats, members of the clergy, and so on), that is, a tool to foster emulation, by the mid-nineteenth century, almost any type of person could be the subject and even author of life-writing, including the formerly enslaved, threshers, washerwomen, prostitutes, orphans, criminals, and crossdressers.

If one goes by the book market (with all due caution as to the difficulty of reconstructing sales figures) and takes the cumulative appearance of particular genres of life-writing as an indicator of who readers could sympathize with, then the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars seem to have spurred widespread interest in knowing what the subaltern and the rank-and-file felt.

Gleig was not necessarily typical of such men. As the son of a bishop who had left Oxford for Wellington’s army at the age of seventeen, and who would later enter the Church himself, he was quite privileged. He became a prolific author of biographies, colonial and military histories, and theological works. Despite these advantages, his descriptions of the emotional experience of soldiers as difficult to grasp, even for themselves, were reflected in many contemporaneous memoirs: “It would not be easy to describe our feelings as we moved sadly and silently along,” one soldier noted.13 “I could scarcely define my feelings during the action,” wrote Donaldson, a particularly active soul searcher, “but … I felt a sensation something resembling delight.”14

Even wounds to the body were not immediately felt by the person: “I was shot through the thigh close to the wall, which caused me to fall with great force,” wrote the rifleman George Simmons in his posthumously published diary about an 1810 battle. But no pain, only observation: “For a few moments I could not collect my ideas, and was feeling about my arms and body for a wound, until my eye caught the stream of blood rushing through the hole in my trousers, and my leg and thigh appeared so heavy that I could not move it.”15

This different experience of time in battle was likewise not unique. In his recollections from the Peninsular War, the onetime soldier and prolific author Moyle Sherer wrote,

in the very exposure of the person to the peril of sudden and violent death, cureless wounds, and ghastly laceration, excitement, strong, high, and pleasurable, fills and animates the bosom: hope, pride, patriotism, and awe, make up this mighty feeling, and lift a man, for such moments, almost above the dignity of his nature. Such moments are more than equal to years of common life.16

Authors of military memoirs often used such language to describe the unintelligibility, the fleetingness and inconstancy of feelings, even during scenes of profound stress, fundamental upheaval, or constant danger. Even they, who lived through it, were often unsure of how to know what they felt, let alone what their comrades experienced. True, bodies could be read and interpreted, leaving Gleig to notice “the sort of shudder” that several soldiers exhibited during the execution of some deserters. “The same feeling evidently pervaded the minds of the officers,” Gleig recounted. But was he right? In his account of the same episode, Gleig suggested that we can never really know what others feel. Looking at one of the condemned who was unable to move, Gleig simply stated, “What the feelings of his companions in crime must have been at this moment I know not.”17

In sum, military memoirs from this period can be read for their emotional repertoires, for the rules, conventions, and expressions they evince. Unlike letters and journals, which likewise contain scenes of emotion interpretation, the memoirs tended to interpret feelings for a larger audience. They addressed more than a very limited range of people, or even just the author, so they had to successfully tap into prevailing reader expectations of how to feel and express emotions. They made the making sense of experience a narrative strategy, thereby problematizing that a soldier navigating feelings in public prose was more or less unprecedented. Although authors took their cues from sentimental novels of the time, memoirs of great men, and stage plays, they nevertheless implied that there was no general emotion knowledge that could be applied to every group and strata in society. A soldier’s experience, they asserted, was so unique that it was not only difficult to describe but remained opaque to the historical actors themselves.

Kerstin Maria Pahl is a historian of British literature and visual culture at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development’s Center for the History of Emotions. She is working on a history of insensibility and other manifestations of a “want of feeling” (Adam Smith) between 1750 and 1840. She is also a co-editor of the blog Feeling News.

  1. George Robert Gleig, The Subaltern, or Sketches of the Peninsular War During the Campaigns of 1813–14 (London, 1825), 40. ↩︎
  2. Gleig, Subaltern, 9, 16, and 33. ↩︎
  3. Gleig, Subaltern, 41. ↩︎
  4. Neil Ramsay, The Military Memoir and Romantic Literary Culture, 1780 to 1835 (London: Routledge, 2011). See also Yuval Noah Harari, “Military Memoirs: A Historical Overview of the Genre from the Middle Ages to the Late Modern Era,” War in History 14, no. 3 (2007): 289–309. ↩︎
  5. Joseph Donaldson, Recollections of an Eventful Life, Chiefly Passed in the Army (Glasgow: W. R. McPhun, 1824), vi. ↩︎
  6. Donaldson, Recollections, 54. ↩︎
  7. Ute Frevert et al., Gefühlswissen: Eine lexikalische Spurensuche in der Moderne (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus, 2011). See also Carroll E. Izard et al., “Emotion Knowledge, Emotion Utilization, and Emotion Regulation,” Emotion Review 3, no. 1 (2011), 44–52. ↩︎
  8. Peter N. and Carol Z. Stearns, “Emotionology: Clarifying the History of Emotions and Emotional Standards,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 4 (1985): 813–36. ↩︎
  9. Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). ↩︎
  10. Monique Scheer, “Are Emotions a Kind of Practice (And Is That What Makes Them Have a History)? A Bourdieuian Approach to Understanding Emotion,” History and Theory 51 (May 2012): 193–222. ↩︎
  11. Margrit Pernau and Imke Rajamani, “Emotional Translations. Conceptual History Beyond Language,” History and Theory 44 (2016): 46–65. ↩︎
  12. William Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), esp. 99–100 for the “emotive.” ↩︎
  13. William Surtees, Twenty-Five Years in the Rifle Brigade (Edinburgh and London, 1833), 29. ↩︎
  14. Donaldson, Recollections, 149. ↩︎
  15. George Simmons, A British Rifle Man (London, 1899), 78. ↩︎
  16. Moyle Sherer, Recollections of the Peninsula (London, 1824), 40. ↩︎
  17. Gleig, Subaltern, 86–87. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Kerstin Maria Pahl, “‘Emotion Knowledge’ and Life Writing in English Military Memoirs, 1820s to 1840s,” History of Knowledge, September 17, 2021, https://historyofknowledge.net/2021/09/17/emotion-knowledge-and-life-writing/.