I ended the last post by suggesting that a key aim of Charles’ first letter to his son Arthur was to reconcile the latter’s calling as a soldier with his Christian vocation. It’s important to note that this theme reverberates through other letters in the sequence. For example, Charles’ letter of 24th January 1916 ends with this blessing:
God Bless you and make you a Good and Stedfast Soldier not only for King and Country but for Jesus Christ who Loves you so much.
And on 6th February he signs off with this:
Do your very best to make a True Soldier not only for your King and Country but try and enrich your Loyalty by Faithfulness and whole Heartedness in your Service to God and His Son Jesus Christ who Loves you.
This suggests that imposing a religious meaning on his son’s military service was an ongoing and unfinished process for Charles, one that required repeated discursive labour. In a later post, I want to examine moments in the letters where this work is less successful, and where tensions or ruptures between the military and the religious become apparent.
In this post, though, I’m going to consider some other tensions or dualities suggested by the language used in Charles’ letters. In the last post I noted that the tone of strenuous individual effort – of moral and spiritual struggle – that dominates the first letter, is modulated towards the end of the letter with references to divine and paternal love.
A similar alternation between tones recurs in later letters. Charles’ letter of 18th January echoes the first letter in its repeated calls earnest moral effort:
Try and do all and everything of your Best in all things and do not forget the best way to conquer difficulties that seem almost impossible and are likely to conquer you is to use your own energy. capability. goodwill and endeavour.
However, the letter ends ‘With Prayer from Your Loving Father Charles Edward’ and ‘Love and Kisses from all’. Other letters end in a similar fashion, with references both to the divine love of Jesus Christ ‘who loves you so much’ (24th January), ‘Jesus Christ who loves you’ (6th February), and to paternal love ‘With abundance of Love and kisses from your father’ (10th February), ‘With love and kisses from your loving Father’ (18th February), and so on.
How are we to read this constant movement between the ‘hardness’ of self-reliant moral struggle and the ‘softer’, even gushing tone of divine and paternal affection? I want to say a number of things here.
First, it’s difficult not to let what I know about my great grandfather’s religious affiliation, and my own personal knowledge of that milieu, colour my interpretation. A ‘close’ discursive analysis of these letters would probably limit itself to the evidence of the text, but that becomes difficult when the text has personal associations for the researcher. I know that both my great grandfather and my grandfather were devout Methodists, and I too grew up in a Methodist home. It is almost impossible for me to read these letters and not to hear the familiar themes – and language – of Methodist piety. To use Nigel Edley’s term, Methodism provides the ‘interpretive repertoire’ for much of Charles’ discourse.
Some of the phrases in this first letter (‘Be constant in prayer and watchful against Temptation’) might have been ‘lifted’ from Methodist hymns or choruses, or from favourite Bible passages, their random use of capital letters making them resemble the half-remembered quotations they probably are. Indeed, in later letters Charles explicitly mixes whole lines from hymns and from scripture with his own exhortations.
What’s more, the emphasis on the self-reliant, determined individual, struggling constantly against sin and temptation, is a familiar trope of Nonconformist spirituality. Its association with middle-class and respectable working-class self-improvement, and the ethic of entrepreneurial capitalism, has often been remarked upon. But Methodism combined this puritan moral earnestness with a powerful emphasis on the unconditional love of God and on a personal, emotional relationship with Christ, which finds expression in the gushing and often graphic lyrics of Charles Wesley’s hymns. I find both of these elements, and the tensions between them, pervading my great grandfather’s letters to his son.
At the same time, given that my primary interest is in how Charles ‘performs’ fatherhood in these letters, it is tempting to see this tension or modulation in gendered terms. To generalise crudely: if the tone of much Puritan and Nonconformist discourse is ‘masculine’ in character, emphasising work, effort and self-reliance, then Methodism counterposes a ‘feminine’ note which positions the individual as passive and receptive to the overflowing love of God in Christ.
In his discussion of ‘Methodist domesticity and middle-class masculinity in nineteenth-century England’, John Tosh challenges the received image of the stern evangelical patriarch and argues that Methodism permitted a certain kind of emotional expressivity for men, and particularly for fathers. Certainly from the evidence of my great grandfather’s letters, it’s possible to see how a sense of the ‘Fatherhood’ of God, that encompassed both firm moral demands and the unconditional love imaged in an almost feminised Jesus, provided a kind of model or simulacrum for this particular Methodist father.
To recast this in gendered terms, we might suggest that the Methodist image of the divine made possible a way of ‘doing’ fathering that included both conventionally ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements.
At the same time, we need to be aware that, as 21st century readers, we bring our own preconceptions about Victorian and Edwardian fathering to letters like these. Perhaps we are only surprised by Charles’ ‘love and kisses’ because we have an image of our grandfathers and great grandfathers as stern patriarchs unable or unwilling to express open affection for their children. But the work of Tosh and other historians of masculinity has begun to undermine this image, and to reveal examples of affectionate and expressive fatherhood in earlier generations.
In addition to my knowledge of his religious beliefs, there are other things that I know about my great grandfather’s life which I find it difficult to exclude from my analysis of his letters – and particularly from my interpretation of the way in which he ‘does’ fathering in them. I’ll say more in the next post.
Edley, N. (2001) Analysing masculinity: interpretive repertoires, ideological dilemmas and subject positions’, in Yates, S. Wetherell, M. and Tayor, S. Discourse as data: a guide for analysis, Sage/The Open University
Tosh, J. (2005) ‘Methodist domesticity and middle-class masculinity in nineteenth-century England’ in Manliness and masculinities in nineteenth-century Britain, Harlow, Pearson