Jane Eyre, the emotions of the child and photography

“Children can feel, but they cannot analyse their feeling; and if the analysis is partially effected in thought, they know not how to express the result of the process in words”

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, 1847.

Jane Eyre complaints, when she recollects her memories as a 10 years old orphan girl living miserable with her Aunt and cousins, that her heart was full of passions, but she was not entitled to communicate them. In her view, children don’t have the authority to express their feelings: they do not participate in the language of the adults, as if they had a language of their own.

This brief sentence manifests one of the main challenges in the history of emotions. My friend and colleague Leticia Fernández Fontecha drew my attention to it for the first time almost a year ago, when we started to prepare together a presentation. How can we get the emotions of the past when the language is absent – the subject doesn’t speak, or lacks the authority of speech? How can we know how Jane Eyre was feeling if even herself didn’t know it?

This is an extremely difficult question, both theoretically and methodologically that I don’t intend to resolve here. But I think that one of the ways to approach it is photography. When we deal with historical photographic sources, we don’t usually have a diary or letters or any personal textual information together with the collection of pictures explaining what the photographer and/or photographed people was feeling at that particular moment. We are lucky if we have a legend, or a title. Then, in the absence of textual information, we cannot rely on language as the primal means to understand the emotions of the past. We have to make a detour, go around and analyse other texts, objects and images that related to that particular (set of) photograph/s. That is, we have to turn to practices.

Maybe we will never be able to affirm without hesitation what the people of the past were feeling in a particular instant. But I do think that we can, at least, understand what feelings made sense on that situation, how anger or sympathy were experienced and understood, and the role that these emotions played in social live. And the analysis of photography as a social, cultural and political practice embedded into broader norms of socialising and communication and ruled by tacit codes can provide unexpected clues.


CFP: “Photographic Histories of Psychology”, 25th November, PHRC, de Montfort University, Leicester

Photographic Histories of Psychology seeks to explore how photography and psychology have influenced each other throughout their histories. Its aim is twofold: to uncover how psychological notions have informed photographic practices, and to bring into light the historical role that photography has played in the making of psychological knowledge and its public dissemination.

The emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline and the popularization of photography occurred in parallel in the last third of the nineteenth century. Since then, photographs have been used in psychological experiments, and psychological theories of perception have been applied to understand the reception of photography. Whereas much research has been done on these topics, only sparse scholarly literature has attended to other aspects such as the role that photographic images played in the configuration of psychological and psychiatric thinking in the nineteenth century, and the ways in which psychological findings have penetrated into popular culture by means of photography.

The symposium will contribute to this scholarship by reflecting on how photographic materials have circulated through scientific and non-scientific contexts. It proposes to analyse the ways in which professional and amateur photography have historically appropriated, negotiated, rejected and disseminated psychological ideas. Rather than focusing on the notion of photographic representation or its meaning, we invite contributors to examine how, for example, psychological definitions of memory have affected the notion of the archive and the family album; how psychological theories on emotions have incited different gestures and expressions in front of the camera; and what role the illustrated press has played in the dissemination or depathologization of psychological disorders. Conversely, the event also seeks to examine how practices such as photographing, collecting photographs, or posing for the camera have penetrated into psychological discourses. How, for instance, particular uses of photography have inspired psychological research into historically specific patterns of behaviour.

We welcome original studies that focus on any historical period, carried out within the arts and humanities or the social sciences. While the event is open to scholars at any career level, we particularly encourage applications from postgraduate students and early career researchers. An abstract of no more than 300 words for a 20 minutes presentation, along with the title, name and affiliation, should be sent to Dr. Beatriz Pichel: beatriz.pichel@dmu.ac.uk by the 15th of August. Accepted papers will be notified by the 1st of September.

More info here

Plenary lecture:
Photography and the Landscape of the Child in Twentieth Century Britain

Dr Mathew Thomson, Reader in History, the University of Warwick, UK

Abstract: In his paper on ‘Photography and the Landscape of the Child in Twentieth Century Britain’, Thomson will draw on this recent study to examine the influence on photography of the idea that the child saw the world in psychologically different way – that there was a ‘landscape of the child’. In particular, his paper will consider the way in which photography grappled with this challenge in its fascination with the figure of the street child, who would emerge as a central symbol in thinking about lost freedom in twentieth-century Britain.

Mathew Thomson is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Warwick and a member of Warwick’s Centre for the History of Medicine. He completed a PhD on the emergence of concern about the ‘feeble-minded’ in Britain, and this was later published as The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain, 1870-1959 (Oxford, 1998).His first academic appointment, supported by a Wellcome University Award was at the University of Sheffield from 1993-8. From there he moved to a post in modern British history at Warwick. Here he completed a study on the popularisation of psychological thought and practice in twentieth-century Britain, published as Psychological Subjects: Identity, Health and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2006). Since then, he has published on Britain’s first psychoanalyst David Eder, he has undertaken research on the history of student health, and he has been involved in a collaborative project that has begun to chart a history of recent mental health care policy. Recently, he published a new book on fears about child well-being in post-war Britain:Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement (Oxford, 2013).