Self-control and the manly body 1760-1860

In 1851 Middlesex County Insane Asylum (known as Colney Hatch) opened its doors to patients and one of its early admissions was Lewis Aaron. Here are his admission notes:

Admitted August 22nd 1851. Aged 35, married and a Clothes Salesman. A Jew with very marked features of that persuasion. He has been married about two years previous to which time he had a very Debauched life which evidently has caused the maniacal attack that he at present labours under. He has had two or three Epileptic Fits. His health is good and he affirms there only to have been fits of passion over which he had no control. His wife says that his passion and tempers are so ungovernable that it is impossible to live with him. His conversation is rational, though excessive and he complains bitterly of the confinement. (1851 December 5 – discharged not improved.)

L0007413 The bottle, by George CruikshankAs a historian of masculinity I find this definition of Lewis’s mental state as the lack of control of his passion and temper very interesting (and of course the case has much to say about for historians of ethnicity and insanity). I’m currently working on a project exploring the idea of being manly in England between 1760 and 1860. Manly was an adjective that conveyed several values to society including virtue, piety, courage, endurance, honesty and directness; all qualities that necessitated self-control. In short, to conform to manly standards men were required to control bodily appetites and emotions; not to do so rendered them unmanly. I’m increasingly interested in thinking about how this was reinforced: was being manly rewarded and being unmanly penalised? Thus, this kind of diagnosis of men as having ungovernable passions catches my attention.

It seems to me that part of the assessment of Lewis Aaron as insane was based on his marked inability to control his emotions – or to use the contemporary term – his passions. He lacked the will to overcome them. Did the fact that Lewis was Jewish had any impact on the assessment of his mental status? After all, it was seen as integral to his identity: 35, clothes salesman, Jew, mad. Were his unrestrained passions seen as part of his Jewishness or shaped by anti-Semitic racial stereotypes? Perhaps; though I need to do more research to understand the relationship. What I do know at the moment is that the description of his lack of self-control was fairly typical of the other non-Jewish male patients. Hence why I think such cases have much to say about masculinity.

The passions were dangerous, an affliction of the body which ‘represented a loss of control, a surrender of the self to anarchic forces (Kevin Sharpe)’ often identified as unregulated emotions and bodily actions. Will was an inner strength of mind that men were to use to overcome and combat passion. Since antiquity, the capacity to use strength of will separated men from boys and from women. If men did not conquer their passions, and succumbed to temptation, they therefore risked being considered unmanly.

It is hardly surprising that most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century advice for male youths centred on training them to deal with bodily and sensual desires such as masturbation, alcohol, smoking (in the nineteenth century), and to resist temptation. Adult men were regularly reminded of the requirements for self-restraint. Thomas Penrose preached a sermon, published in 1759, which linked this with being manly. He pleaded:

‘Let me beseech you then, in the Spirit of Love, to acquire and exemplify a manly Sobriety, Chastity; and Temperance. Carry with you a constant regard for Virtue; a constant Love and Affection for good Morality and Christian Piety’ (The practice of religion and virtue recommended; especially in times of danger. A sermon preached in the parish-church of Newbury, on Sunday, … London, 1759).

Vice in adult men encompassed a range of behaviours from lack of self-restraint to sin: from displaying too much feeling in certain situations (dictated by contemporary context), to failing to curb appetite for food, sex, and alcohol, to actions deemed unnatural such as sodomy. Lewis Aaron had failed in this regard – he’d led a debauched life, presumably sexual incontinence, and was unable to curb his anger and violence.

Advocating self-control to be manly was not as simple as it might seem, however, for a major tension in constructing and maintaining masculine identity lies in its inherent ambivalence. For example, some of the attributes of being unmanly which lie in excess: drinking, smoking, eating, womanising were also less respectable means by which masculinity was constructed and sustained among peers; all activities rooted in conviviality and virility. It is perhaps relevant that Lewis’s debauchery had occurred before his marriage, part of a single-man’s lifestyle in which excess was more acceptable. To some extent, these behaviours were tolerated in youths – as a passing phase before maturity. It was not acceptable, however, to continue this after marriage. Alex Shepard shows, however, that from the seventeenth century these behaviours were increasingly adopted as part of an anti-patriarchal masculine sub-culture by those who could not attain the normative version. Given that these forms of unrestrained behaviour had disorderly repercussions – like deviant behaviour, inter-personal violence, and damage to property, by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was considerable emphasis upon their management.

It is therefore interesting to ask what social, economic and cultural penalties were associated with such male behaviour. Early modernists have explored how these kinds of activities undermined middling-sort men’s reputations in communities linked through credit, and work on the sexual double-standard in the long eighteenth century indicates that for married men sexual promiscuity led to loss of public honour. Work on the role that gender played in constructing class identity reveals that in the first half of the nineteenth century respectable, self-controlled, masculine behaviour was integral to middle-class identity. It was also part of working-class men’s attempt to attain political and civic voices and social mobility by demonstrating the capacity to manage their bodies and feelings. The lack of such manly characteristics therefore risked downward social mobility for both classes.

What also strikes me is how the most extreme forms of failure of self-control of bodily appetites and emotions were defined as insanity. Lewis’s lack of self-discipline and self-restraint are central to his diagnosis as mad – having caused his mania. Even though his epilepsy was of course significant the case notes do infer that the fits were seen as products of his mania not their cause. The connections between the lack of self-control and madness were fairly common. The image above is from George Cruikshank’s series The Bottle (1847) which showed a man’s descent from decency to madness through giving in to alcohol’s temptation. This amazing series has much to say about being unmanly, as the man’s behaviour leads to the loss of his job, the death of his infant, his murder of his wife, the criminality of his son and prostitution of his daughter, and in the final picture here his state as hopeless maniac.

Explanations for insanity vary over time: in the reformation it was possession by the Devil, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the result of bodily disease. From the 1790s to 1850s it was understood that madness lay in disordered nerves and minds, caused by factors like poverty, stress, emotional problems – and even more crucially in the case of Lewis – intemperance. This meant that the passions were central. Rather than trying to treat insanity through physical treatments, ‘moral therapy’ was introduced which viewed the restoration of self-control as enabling recovery from insanity. Now I realise that the same diagnostic criteria were applied to both sexes and not just men, but the gender connotations are critical since their diagnosis and treatment were influenced by what society considered suitable behaviour for the sexes. I hope to read more research on this, like Jennifer Wallis’s work on the late nineteenth-century aslyum.

For now, though, what is clear is that to be manly was more than acquiring through education and training the noble attributes that we still associate with the concept. Much was invested in male self-control and the regulation of bodily appetites and passions. To be unmanly was a very risky business that undermined one’s place in society, community, and family. It not only incurred loss of public reputation; in being unmanly, as definitions of insanity surely reminded them, men also lost bodily, emotional and mental integrity. One hopes that societal and cultural strictures about manly self-control meant that Lewis’s wife was able to seek some support to avoid his violence at home.

This blog post is based on a paper I’m giving at ‘Bodies in Question: Theorising the Body from an Interdisciplinary Perspective’ at Oxford Brookes University, Friday 23 May 2014.

For further relevant reading and the secondary sources which inform this post see:

Charland, Louis C., ‘Benevolent theory: moral treatment at the York Retreat’, History of Psychiatry March 2007 vol. 18 no. 1 61-80

Clark, Anna, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (1993)

Davidoff, Leonore , Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1780-1850 (1987)

Dixon, Thomas, “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis, Emotion Review (2012)

Dixon, Thomas, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category (2006)

Porter, Roy, Flesh in the Age of Reason: The Modern Foundations of Body and Soul (2003)

Sharpe, Kevin, ‘Virtues, passions and politics in early modern England’, History of Political Thought 32 (5):773-798 (2011)

Shepard, Alex, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (2003)

Shepherd, Anne, Institutionalizing the Insane in Nineteenth-Century England (2014)

Image:  Credit: Wellcome Library, London
George Cruikshank, The bottle, by George Cruikshank; ‘The bottle has done its work’  1847 From: The bottle

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