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From the vapours to sad face: a history of emotion

How are you feeling? Emojis offer a visual shorthand.
How are you feeling? Emojis offer a visual shorthand. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In November 1804, a 31-year-old woman called Anna Beddoes wrote to a close friend, the engineer Davies Giddy. Giddy was a student of Anna’s husband, the physician Thomas Beddoes; both Giddy and Anna maintained lengthy correspondences which are preserved in the Cornwall Record Office. The archives reveal two people caught up in a period of dramatic and profoundly unsettling political and cultural change. In 1804, Giddy was suffering, in his own words, from “mental or moral lethargy” and he had begun threatening to “rob” his friends and family of his “society … forever”. He was expressing a sincere desire for “euthanasia”, for some relief from his emotional distress. Anna was appalled. “Tell me,” she insisted, “how you could possibly wish to be without feeling!” Without feeling, he would no longer be “morally invulnerable”.

The conversation was between two people on either side of a cultural gulf. For Anna, still buoyed up by the optimism of the 18th century, the passions were guides that allowed individuals to behave in a moral and sociable way. But during the early 19th century, that hopeful belief and the entire vocabulary of “the passions” were being displaced by new ideas, and a new lexicon, about “emotion”. For Anna’s correspondent – gloomy, guilt-racked, suicidal – this chimed with his sense that his own profound sadness had no greater purpose. Giddy soon turned to pharmaceutical remedies in his quest for emotional oblivion.

As Beddoes and Giddy’s conversation reveals, every community, in every historical period or geographic region, has its own distinct ideas about emotion: what it is, how it operates in the mind and body, what it is for and how it is best managed. The ideas and beliefs that we entertain about our own emotions, and those of the people around us, are not innate. We don’t come into the world ready equipped with a dictionary of emotions, each label mapped on to a precise set of physiological symptoms and psychological changes. Many of us learn about our own emotional fluctuations – what to call them; how to deal with them – through the eyes of those around us.

Parents can buy “emotion cards” or dictionaries, which teach children how to identify, label and manage feelings. Novels, poetry or television programmes can help us to identify familiar, but hitherto nameless and ineffable emotions. Industries such as self-help, mindfulness, diet and yoga encourage us to see particular emotions as problems (stress, for example) and to find solutions (relaxation or detachment). Psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists formally categorise our emotions, and often link them to mental disorders, in texts such as the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Each and every culture possesses what the historian William Reddy calls its “emotional regime”: its matrix of emotions that are favoured or repressed, amplified or silenced, and its own set of attitudes about the degree of liberation or control that should be exerted over them. It is very hard to identify or feel an emotion for which we do not possess a word. And feelings that enjoy an especially rich vocabulary, such as embarrassment in English – and its near-synonyms mortification, humility, shame, discomfiture, self-consciousness – are recognised, analysed and obsessed over by English-speakers to a heightened degree.

Emotions are windows on to the priorities and preoccupations of other cultures. Sometimes they are so culturally specific that it is hard to translate them outside their home territory. The Gaelic word sgriob, for example, denotes an anticipatory “itchiness on the upper lip before taking a sip of whisky”. But who, among non-Gaelic speakers, has been alert to that upper-lip prickle as the dram hovers on the edge of the mouth, let alone is ready with a word for it?

As the conversation between Beddoes and Giddy showed, the same principle applies to the translation of emotions across time as well as space. Historical periods had very different attitudes towards the nature and purpose of emotion in general, and towards specific emotions. It might now seem intuitive that stress is thought to be a negative state and relaxation its solution. But in the late 18th century, there was a panic about the harms of relaxation. It was considered “a complaint very common at present”, linked to too much sleep, sex and tea. Today, when we’re anxious about stress we’re often fretting about the unhealthiness of the late capitalist workplace. Eighteenth-century worriers about relaxation were concerned about the impact of imported luxuries on the body, about the changing economy and about emerging social mores regarding marriage and sexuality.

There are plenty of other examples of how certain emotions might offer a window on to a past era’s priorities, and a vision of the alien subjectivity of its residents. Modern depression – with the word’s implications of deflation, emptiness, laxity – is a very different human condition from early modern melancholy and its associations with vapours and the spleen. Melancholic citizens of 16th-century Britain felt their sadness and grief in a different way to present-day depressives: they located it in different areas of the body and mind, attributed it to different causes and sought different cures. Today sentimentality is a mawkish, inauthentic form of feeling. But 300 years ago, sentimentality referred to grown-up emotions, tamed by reason; sentimentality was considered an essential characteristic for living as part of a sympathetic society.

Even the word “emotion” is laden with associations specific to its era. Early modern and Enlightenment passions were often thought to have religious or political purposes, while emotion in the early 19th century came to denote an apolitical, individualistic phenomenon that was often linked to psychiatric disorders. Beddoes and Giddy were communicating across exactly this gulf in beliefs.

But the difficulty of accurately translating emotions across time and space does not mean that the task is impossible, nor that we should abandon our attempts. It is by exploring the past’s emotions – or its passions, affections, sentiments or appetites – that we gain access to remote historical societies and are treated to a glimpse of what kind of human being was being nurtured and why. We cannot directly map our contemporary emotional experience on to the alien terrain of the past. But the job of a historian is to make the attempt: to reach over the gulf while recognising that the gulf does indeed exist. And this does not just apply to the historian. Seeking to understand the emotional regimes of other countries, communities and individuals can help us all to exert what 18th-century philosophers lauded as sympathy: the passion through which we rid ourselves of loneliness, and through which our individual disappointments, losses and griefs become merely stepping-stones on the way to what Adam Smith called the “sweetness” of mutual sympathy and sociability.

• Rachel Hewitt’s A Revolution of Feeling is published by Granta.

This article titled "From the vapours to sad face: a history of emotion" was written by Rachel Hewitt, for The Guardian on Friday 13 October 2017 10.00am

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