I’ve started to read Michael Roper’s The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, on the recommendation of some colleagues from the Family Studies group in the OU Social Sciences Faculty. Roper’s book is about the ways in which British soldiers coped with the psychological strains of the trenches, and particularly the part played by their families in that emotional struggle. The main data source for the study is letters sent to and from home during the war. 

Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, Roper is particular interested in what these letters can tell us about relationships between family members – particularly mothers, fathers and sons – and how these were impacted by psychological trauma.

My own interest in the book was sparked by some work I’ve started to do on my own relatives’ experience of the First World War. In exploring my family history, I came across a cache of letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather, when the latter was a new recruit to the army in 1916 and 1917. The letters are shot through with my great grandfather’s strong Methodist faith, as well as deep paternal emotion, and I’ve become interested in the ways in which his feelings as a father and his Christian beliefs are intertwined in what he writes – how he simultaneously ‘performs’ fatherhood and faith in the letters.

I started out using a discourse analytic approach, but I’ve begun to think that psychoanalytic ideas might help in understanding the emotional undercurrents in my great grandfather’s letters – hence my interest in Roper’s work. My great grandfather was unusual in being an Edwardian single father (he was widowed when his children were quite young, so in a way he had to be both father and mother to them) and I would suspect that his relationships with his offspring might also have been shaped by his own experience of early loss (his mother died giving birth to him).

I’ll have more to say when I’ve progressed further with my analysis. In the meantime, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has done similar work – using their own family letters /records as data, exploring communications between fathers and son, or using discourse analysis / psychoanalytic frameworks to analyse texts of this kind.

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