This blog accompanies Henry French and Mark Rothery’s open access Historical Journal article Male anxiety among younger sons of the English Landed Gentry, 1700–1900.

We live in anxious times, an ‘Age of Anxiety’ perhaps akin to those of W. H. Auden. The statistics on anxiety in our society are alarming. Globally the World Health Organisation records a 50% rise in depression and anxiety between 1900 and 2013. In September 2018 17.8% of the UK population reported depression or anxiety. According to Anxiety UK one in six of us will report an anxiety problem in each previous week. Anxiety even pervades our dreams, according to a recent Guardian article. There seems to be something hostile to our mental health in contemporary society.

Given that ‘general’ or ‘normal’ anxiety is a very normal part of the human condition, a vital element in our ‘fight or flight’ instincts that have helped us survive as a species, these figures are alarming but perhaps not surprising. Whilst anxiety has been ever-present, however, historians are finding that the causes of anxiety and, perhaps, the experience of emotions such as anxiety can shift across history according to wider values, preoccupations, goals and beliefs. It can also be gendered.

Our article explores anxiety as a gendered emotion in a specific part of a social group across a long period of time: the anxieties of younger sons of the English landed gentry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Drawing on recent theories and empirical studies in the history of emotions, we analyse anxiety through the correspondence of 11 gentry families.

Younger sons occupied a precarious and unstable position in society. They were born into wealthy and privileged families yet, within the system of primogeniture (under which the eldest son inherited the landed estates and the majority of family wealth), were required to make their own way in the world. As elite men their status rested on independence and patriarchal authority, attaining anything less could be deemed a failure.

Our article explores the way that these pressures on younger sons emerged, at a crucial point in the process of early adulthood, as anxiety on their part and on the part of their families. The letters reveal ‘anxious masculinities.’ Primogeniture acted as an emotional regime, determining the emotions of gentry families around the issue of inheritance. Anxiety was traded within an emotional economy; it did important ‘work’ and was a formative emotion within the gentry community. Anxieties focused on inheritance and life chances persisted among younger sons and their guardians across our period. It was not until the late nineteenth century and the decline of the estates system that the position of younger sons began to be coveted by their eldest brothers.

We therefore find continuities in the anxieties of the gentry. Emotions can and often do change in nature across history, we do not question this. But some things persist. So long as the status of the gentry and primogeniture remained, younger sons were a nexus of anxieties, a pocket of continuity in emotions across the centuries. Their story in some ways reflects wider anxieties suffered by young men around the issue of masculinity, which are all too evident in the contemporary world.

Read the full open access article Male anxiety among younger sons of the English Landed Gentry, 1700–1900


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