I’ve decided to bring to a close this series of posts, exploring fathering and faith in my great grandfather’s letters to his son during the First World War. Looking back over the series, I can see that one of the limitations of using a blog for this kind of exploratory textual analysis is lack of space. Blog posts are brief by nature, so there’s a limit to the amount of original text, and analytical writing, that you can reasonably include. Having looked fairly closely at two of the letters in the sequence, and reflected on some broader issues arising from them, I’ve probably taken this format as far as it can go – for now.
On the other hand, using this medium has had definite benefits. At the most basic level, it’s motivated me to produce something reasonably coherent and readable at an early stage, and to progress more quickly than I would normally do beyond the scrappy notes that I tend to accumulate in my research. Posting my thoughts online has also helped me to clarify those thoughts and to begin to see some significant themes and issues emerging.
So, as I end this experiment in data analysis, what do I conclude about fathering and faith from the letters I have examined? Firstly, this exercise has reinforced my conviction that both fatherhood and faith are aspects of identity that are performed or produced through action, and particularly through language – in this case writing. Both my great grandfather’s sense of himself as a father, and his Methodist Christian faith, certainly draw on pre-existing discourses and repertoires, but they are also partly achieved through the activity of communicating with his son. These letters show Charles Robb ‘working’ to (re)produce his identity as a father and as a Christian, and crucially, to reconcile these two for his son’s and his own benefit: work that becomes increasingly difficult as tensions open up between Arthur’s military life and his religious calling.
Close analysis of these letters has demonstrated the ways in which the language and imagery of fatherhood, and of faith, play off each other in complex ways. Charles’ brand of Nonconformist Christianity provides him with a certain model of fatherhood, one that is able to include both traditionally masculine/paternal and feminine/maternal elements. At the same time, Charles deploys the words of scripture and hymns as a way of ‘re-presenting’ the familiar world of home and faith to his distant son, and thus attempting to redeem and undermine the threat posed by the seemingly hostile world of the army.
However, I’ve also questioned the adequacy of a purely discursive and constructionist approach to understanding what is going on in these letters. Using the extrinsic knowledge gained from my research into my family’s history, I’ve tentatively explored the possible biographical underpinnings to the emotional dynamics of these letters. Specifically, I have reflected on the likely influence of early experiences of loss, and of becoming a single parent (i.e. both ‘father’ and ‘mother’ to Arthur) on Charles’ fathering, and thus on his feelings about his youngest son’s separation from him in wartime.
These are all issues that I plan to explore further, my aim being to write up an analysis of the whole sequence of eight letters, in the form of a conference paper or journal article. As always, feedback on and discussion of anything in these posts would be very welcome.