Oswald and I: Emotions, Ego and the Archive

April 2019

Principal Investigator Dr Michael Brown considers the emotional feelings generated by archival research.

In a recent article in the journal Rethinking History, Katie Barclay discusses the emotional complexities of our engagement with long-dead historical subjects and with the archival traces they leave behind. For Barclay this concerns the ‘highly unlikeable’ Scottish banker Gilbert Innes (1751-1832) and her attempts to reconcile the fact that, while she ‘strongly disliked him’ for his adulterous behaviour and emotional cruelty, many of his contemporaries, including his mistresses, did not. ‘What did it mean’, she asks, ‘to dislike someone long dead and of another age? And what was my ethical responsibility as a historian to that emotion?’[1]

Many of us who have worked with historical archives will recognise this sensation. I, for one, took against the Yorkshire apothecary Oswald Allen (1767-c.1848), whose unpublished autobiography formed part of my PhD research.  While Allen proved useful for my thesis (and later book), his overweening providentialism, incessant egotism and tiresome sanctimony grated on me to the extent that I would occasionally scrawl rude annotations in the margins of my handwritten notes (those were the days!). Perhaps it was Allen’s devout Sandemanian faith that made him seem so alien to my (lapsed Catholic) sensibilities.  Perhaps he was simply a dislikeable person. Or perhaps it was the nature of the source itself, an autobiography, ostensibly ‘of a private and confidential nature … [and] not intended for public view’, yet so self-justificatory and self-aggrandising that it seemed to belie such a claim.[2] However, what was most striking about Allen’s autobiography, at least in retrospect, was its lack of emotional expression. Allen was of the same generation as the Romantics and yet his writing was virtually devoid of feeling or introspection. Even his marriage to Frances Withers was couched in entirely functional terms, his wife presented merely as a ‘suitable helpmate’ and a refuge from the dangers of ‘illicit intercourse’ with only the slightest concession to her ‘affable and affectionate manners’.[3]

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a lack of emotion is not something I have faced in my archival research for this project. My experience resonates with the observation of Arlette Farge who talks of the ‘surplus of life that floods the archive’ and the ‘certain affective tremor’ produced by handling the traces of long-lost lives.[4] In some cases, these traces can be heart-warming. For example, the archivist at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, showed me a locket owned by Lady Marion Bell (1786?-1876), wife of the surgeon Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), containing strands of their intertwined hair. In the accompanying note, Marion gifts the locket to her ‘double nephew’ John David Bell with the observation that she owned ‘nothing more precious’ and that it was ‘not an ornament’ but ‘a memorial of your Uncle Charles and me’.  The affective appeal of this object is enhanced by the fact that Marion outlived her husband by 34 years, and yet, three years before her own death, her love for him appeared undimmed. It certainly appealed to my wife, who was there with me, not least because she is both a hopeless romantic and a historian of emotional objects.

Marion and Charles Bell’s locket. Courtesy of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Library and Archive.
Marion and Charles Bell’s locket. Courtesy of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Library and Archive.

In other cases, however, the emotions produced by the archive can be more painful. In my first blog for this project I wrote about the letters that Sir Astley Cooper (1768-1841) received from the women he was treating for breast cancer. Their mixture of hope and hopelessness, relief and fear, is powerfully affecting and often deeply distressing, no more so than in the case of Mrs Sheath of Wyberton in Lincolnshire, the development of whose cancer can be traced through a series of increasingly desperate letters written to Cooper by her, her husband and her surgeon. It is hard not to be moved by a personal tragedy like this, and it is one of the reasons why I am wary of popular historical representations of surgery that dwell on the macabre, or which try to extract humour (of all things) from surgery’s supposedly ‘dark’ past.

Of all the archival materials I have encountered, however, there is one that produced particularly complex feelings. This was the work of another Oswald, a Scottish surgeon by the name of Henry Robert Oswald (1790-1862). Unlike most of those I have studied for this project, Oswald was not a leading surgeon. He lived and died in relative obscurity, although his son, Henry Robert Oswald (1827-92), became Surgeon General of India, while his grandson, also confusingly called Henry Robert Oswald (1852-1940), became a leading coroner. He was born in Fife and educated in Edinburgh, where he was apprenticed to the surgeon George Bell (1777-1832). After his studies he joined the Inverness-Shire Militia but resigned his commission after less than a year, having ‘seen much of the envy and selfishness of the world’.  With the assistance of Bell and the Professor of the Practice of Physic at the University of Edinburgh, James Gregory (1753-1821), he subsequently secured a post as ‘Government Surgeon’ to John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl (1755-1830) and Governor General of the Isle of Man. Oswald moved to Douglas, where he remained for the rest of his life, despite being divested of his post on the Duke’s death in 1830.

Edwin Henry Landseer, The Duke of Atholl and his gamekeeper, John Crerar, a study for Death of the Stag in Glen Tilt (1830). Wiki Commons.
Edwin Henry Landseer, The Duke of Atholl and his gamekeeper, John Crerar, a study for Death of the Stag in Glen Tilt (1830). Wiki Commons.

Between 1812 and 1813 Oswald kept a diary that has, by dint of familial inheritance no doubt, ended up in the National Library of Scotland.[5] Unlike Allen’s autobiography, this appears to have been intended purely for private use. As opposed to Allen’s biographic self-justification, Oswald’s diary was clearly written in the moment (though with the occasional retrospective insertion). Moreover, unlike Allen’s memoir, it is full of emotional introspection and self-reflection.

Oswald’s diary might be viewed in terms of what the German Romantics called Bildung, the cultivation and unification of the heart and mind in the formation of the self. He therefore gives voice to thoughts and feelings that he would never have expressed in public. Oswald appears to have been a deeply sensitive man, open to feeling and sentiment, yet tortured by anxieties concerning social relations and his own state of mind. Thus, one of the earliest entries reflects on his relationship with his former master, particularly the fact that, during his apprenticeship, he was required to sit at dinner in total silence, Bell being ‘affectedly distant in his manner’. Oswald worried that the ‘long habit of silence in that family at table has given a turn to my manners which may hurt me in future society’. At the same time, he maintained that he ‘was not an inattentive observer when in that situation and had many visionary conjectures about the nature of the human heart’. Though Oswald wrote that he could now only ‘wonder that I submitted to the senseless affected and cold freaks of that family’, an interleaved note, written at some later date, offered an apology for his earlier sentiments:

The page regarding my situation in Mr Bell’s family arose more from the Diseased state of my feelings than reality … it requires the intellect watching over the mind and the feelings to prevent their being led astray by the appearances that in fact have … nothing worthy of being considered real in them. Still that was the state of my feelings and therefore it ought to be recorded.[6]

Sadly, for Oswald, things were not to improve on Mann. The Duke’s standoffishness mirrored his experience with Bell and caused him great consternation. So too did his subordinate status and his relations with others on the island.  Indeed, at times, he worried that he was losing his mind. For example, in January 1813, after having been called upon to attend a ‘melancholic maniac’, he reflected on his own sanity:

Did not reason tell me that the many wild imaginations and ridiculous notions that daily pass through my mind, were foolish, and prevent me from noting them down here. I might justly consider myself a mad man; indeed at some futurity, if I live, when I look over this diary I believe I will consider myself a silly fellow.[7]

Oswald was consumed by the ‘strange notion’ that his actions were unwittingly the ‘cause of great inquietude [sic] and vexation to some unknown persons'. ‘Even I myself consider them foolish and indicate a derangement of the imagination’, he wrote: ‘would not others if I mentioned them do the same’. Somewhat later he also developed the notion that his stomach complaints were the result of being poisoned by unknown parties, who were adulterating his food. ‘Such wild ideas’, he confided to his diary; ‘They are those of a melancholic man. Away with them. Let me be content with things as they are and be thankful that they are not worse. I would blush if these thoughts were to come to the knowledge of any one, they would condemn me for a mad man’.[8]

It was on reading these particular lines that I experienced a deep sense of unease in my relation to this archive. What had initially felt like an engaging piece of source material for my research now felt like an intrusion. There I was, reading the private thoughts of a man struggling with his own mental health. What would Oswald have thought of me reading these words, I wondered.  What would he have thought of the fact that this document was now preserved in a major national archive for anyone to read? Of course it wasn’t just anyone reading it: it was me.  And it would be me writing about him in my book and, indeed, on this blog. There is very little information available on Oswald’s life and very little indication that many people have read this document before me, outside perhaps of his immediate descendants. And so it would be me bringing his inner turmoil into the light, two hundred years after it was committed to the page.

One response to these anxieties might be that Oswald wouldn’t care that I was reading and writing about his diary because he is long dead and doesn’t know; he lost control of his own thoughts a long time ago. Moreover, does anyone really write anything down and preserve it without acknowledging, if only dimly, that it might come under the eyes of another?  Indeed, do not people who write diaries secretly hope that their inner lives might transcend their own selves and enter into the consciousness of another? Is that not what the ego craves?

We might also question the motives behind my emotional response to this material.  Were my feelings of guilt genuinely a concern for a long-dead stranger, or were they simply a product of my own sensibility?  In a recent chapter on emotion and voices in the archive, Carolyn Steadman claims that, when we imagine ourselves to be somehow touching the past in the written words of our historical subjects, we are, in fact, touching the void.  When we transcribe them, their words become our words, to do with what we will.  And when we feel for them, or indeed cry for them, we are only really crying for ourselves, finding ourselves finer for our ‘ability to apprehend the pain of others’.[9]

Most importantly, as historians we must historicise the emotions that are expressed in the archive in order to apprehend their meaning. While it may be true that Oswald intended his thoughts to be private, it is clear that understandings of privacy have changed significantly over the years. After all, though we might assume that letters written in this period were intended only for the recipient, there is ample evidence that such letters were often quite widely shared. Moreover, even if Oswald genuinely never intended anyone else to read his diary, this does not mean that his emotional articulations are any less performative, or at least any less considered. 

Throughout his diary, Oswald repeatedly plays upon the distinction between feelings that are inwardly felt and those that are outwardly expressed.  This brings to mind William Reddy’s concept of emotional ‘navigation’, the attempt to reconcile felt sensations with the cultural conventions of emotional expression.[10]  For Reddy, this can often lead to emotional ‘suffering’, as there is often a disjuncture between what is felt and what can be expressed. This is certainly the case for Oswald, whose emotional agony centres around his inability to express fully his anxieties and (possibly) delusions, even in such an ostensibly private arena. But as well as causing him suffering, such emotional introspection was also central to his sense of self, and to his identity as an authentic man of feeling. As he writes, ‘A man can only be truly polite who had acute feelings and a cultivated understanding. With these he will never go far wrong, nor do an uncivil action’. Furthermore, such emotional acuity gave him an imagined advantage in his social interactions, allowing him to read others more effectively than they might read him. ‘When I suppose myself to have penetrated secret[s] of the heart[s] of men I must smile’, he writes: ‘this is Pride, yet it is gratifying to detect it by ones own penetration’.[11]

Ultimately, this sense of what should be expressed compared to what is felt, was also central to Oswald’s identity as a surgeon, and it provides perhaps the most striking passage in his diary, at least for me as a historian of surgery and emotion. In March 1813 he was called upon to attend a young girl from Castletown who was ‘very ill’ and ‘very extraordinarily impressed with the Idea that she is to die’. He spent that night in her home, observing

To see a father very highly affected with the prospect of losing a daughter … is no easy task. He groaned in Spirit and writhed with anguish. These are the scenes which medical men are obliged to behold in apparent coolness whatever may be their inward pain. Perhaps by seeing them so frequently they make less impression on them than others but people are not aware of the anxiety we suffer when a patient is suffering severely and approaching to death, and when every effort of art is in vain. Then we must suppress all feeling appear composed and endeavour to comfort if we do not wish to produce mischief by adding to the alarm which others experience. Though I am sensible of this yet from the distressing nature of these scenes and from the embarrassing uncertainty of the medical art I have often wished that some other profession had fallen to my lot: I have myself to blame: it was my own wish.[12]

Although troubled, Oswald nonetheless appears from such comments to have been a compassionate, kind, and sensitive man. And, I console myself, when bringing him to public attention,  that this is how he would have wanted us to think of him.

[1] Katie Barclay, ‘Falling in Love with the Dead’, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice 22:4 (2018), 459-73 (p. 468).

[2] Explore York Archives (EYA), GB 192 OSW, Oswald Allen, ‘Autobiography and Memoirs’, f. 1. For more on Allen, see Michael Brown, Performing Medicine: Medical Culture and Identity in Provincial England, c.1760-1850 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011), pp. 32-9.

[3] EYA, GB 192 OSW, f. 84.

[4] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 31. Quoted in Barclay, ‘Falling in Love’, p. 459.

[5] National Library of Scotland (NLS), MS 9003, Diary of HR Oswald Snr, describing his first six months as surgeon to the 4th Duke of Atholl, Governor General of the Isle of Man (1812-13).

[6] NLS, MS 9003, ff. 4v-6r.

[7] NLS, MS 9003, ff. 33r, 36v.

[8] NLS, MS 9003, unnumbered ff. between ff. 53 and 54.

[9] Carolyn Steadman, ‘Lord Mansfield’s Voices: In the Archive, Hearing Things’, in Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway and Sarah Randles (eds), Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions through History (Oxford: Oxford Univerity Press, 2018), 209-25.

[10] William M. Reddy, The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

[11] NLS, MS 9003, ff. 9r, 47r.

[12] NLS, MS 9003, ff.71r-v.