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Longing for Home : Robert Hamilton, nostalgia, and the emotional life of the eighteenth-century soldier

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journal contribution
posted on 2014-10-08, 14:26 authored by Philip John Shaw
First published in London in 1787, Robert Hamilton’s The Duties of a Regimental Soldier announces in its opening pages a novel ambition to promote the welfare of a class of men ‘whose situation, at best, is uncomfortable, and yet to whom the community are under obligations – I mean the Soldiery’.1 Hamilton’s declaration of support for the ‘cause of the poor soldier’ (Duties, I.2) dovetails neatly with a no less pressing concern ‘that the office of a regimental surgeon [should] gain more respectability’ (I.13). By showing how performances of compassion correlate with professions of respectability Hamilton underlines the material foundations of the discourse of sensibility: shows of feeling, that is, operate as a form of cultural capital, raising the status of the performer in the eyes of the world. My concern in this article, however, is not so much with the exposure of the material currents underpinning declarations of sensibility as with the effect such declarations have on notions of communal obligation and, more specifically, on the extent to which explorations of mental well-being might lead to the querying of dominant attitudes to the emotional lives of common or ordinary soldiers. Thus, while debates about the social standing of military surgeons do have a part to play in this account, not least due to their questionable status within army ranks, my principal interest is in how trends in mid-eighteenth-century medical education helped modify attitudes towards a group of men whose inner lives were deemed beyond the pale of rational enquiry; put simply, by showing ordinary soldiers exhibiting refined and ‘delicate’ feelings such as melancholy and grief, feelings hitherto regarded as the privilege of the officer classes, Hamilton’s study marks a modest yet significant development in the history of sensibility and, more broadly, in the history of the emotions.



Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies (2014)

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/Organisation/COLLEGE OF ARTS, HUMANITIES AND LAW/School of English


  • AM (Accepted Manuscript)

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Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies (2014)


Wiley for British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies





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Grenby, M. O.