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A cultural history of stress in twentieth-century Britain
Author: Jill Kirby

Drawing on a wealth of sources including self-help books, Mass Observation diaries and directives, oral history interviews, social science research and popular culture, Feeling the strain examines why stress became the ubiquitous explanation for a range of everyday ills by the end of the twentieth century in Britain. It explores the popular, vernacular discourse of nerves and stress to uncover how ordinary people understood, explained and coped with the pressures and strains of daily life and illuminates not only how stress was known, but the ways in which that knowledge was produced.

By focusing on contemporary popular understandings, it reveals continuity of ideas about work, mental health, status, gender and individual weakness, as well as the socio-economic contexts that enabled stress to become the accepted explanation for a wide range of daily experiences. It foregrounds continuities in managing stress and changes in ideas about causation, revealing a vocabulary of ‘nerves’ and ‘nervous disorders’ as precursors to stress but also illustrating the mutability of the stress concept and how its very imprecision gave it utility.

Feeling the strain provides first-hand accounts from sufferers, families and colleagues and offers insight into self-help literature, the meanings of work and changing dynamics of domestic life over the century, delivering a complementary perspective to medical histories of stress and making a significant contribution to histories of everyday life and emotion in Britain during the twentieth century.

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Domestic troubles in post-war Britain
Jill Kirby

This chapter charts how social changes in housing and gender roles made domestic stress more popularly visible. Initially focused on the wartime case study of Mrs C’s troubled marriage, it examines interpersonal relationships and domestic contestation of time and resources. It argues that growing expectations of privacy and material comfort in the post-war period led to increasing mental distress, particularly when material circumstances did not live up to those expectations. It also contends that the complexities and contradictions of women’s work within the home gave it more prominence as a potential location and cause of stress, particularly within the context of the breakdown of tightly knit, stable communities in the second half of the century. The chapter argues that an increase in the popular perception of stress can be seen in the portrayals of domestic life in popular culture, particularly the New Wave ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

in Feeling the strain
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Jill Kirby

The book endeavours to answer the question of why stress became ubiquitous in Britain by the end of the twentieth century, and this section introduces and establishes the concept of stress. It examines the existing historiography and context, situating stress within debates about medicalisation, psychologisation and professionalisation as well as the rise of consumer culture and individualism. It introduces the ways in which gender and class governed understanding and explores the acknowledged fluidity and flexibility of the concept and its usefulness to various interests at different times. Explanation of the methodological approach taken and discussion of sources such as Mass Observation and the British Library Sound Archive’s oral history collections are also provided and use of terminology clarified. A brief outline of each of the chapters is given, mapping the chronological structure of the book.

in Feeling the strain
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Civilian nerves in the Second World War
Jill Kirby

Focusing on Home Front experiences in the Second World War, this chapter contrasts early unsubstantiated government concerns about the psychiatric impact of bombing on the population with the experience of civilian stress that arose largely from the daily strain of wartime living and the specific demands made of workers in a wartime economy. It argues that the high levels of absenteeism that so concerned employers and government, constituted one of the few ways that conscripted women workers had for achieving agency in their disrupted and challenging Home Front domestic lives. Discussion of attempts to mitigate wartime strain, through the development of institutions such as Roffey Park Rehabilitation Centre or the work of organisational Welfare Officers, reveals recognition of employee suffering, but also the very contingent nature of these efforts. Against a backdrop of expected collective wartime stoicism, both reveal assumptions about individual, inherent weakness as the cause of stress.

in Feeling the strain
Self-help books in the early decades of the twentieth century
Jill Kirby

This chapter lays the groundwork for succeeding chapters in establishing popular understandings of causation and treatment and revealing the considerable flexibility inherent within the overall concept of ‘nerves’. It does this by examining self-help literature from the 1900s to mid-1930s, uncovering contemporary understanding of issues affecting mental well-being, and examining proposed causes, symptoms and remedies. These reveal key themes underpinning popular conceptualisations of stress during the subsequent century. The chapter argues that self-help books represented the opening up of a discourse about the inner self and the sensitive area of mental health and illustrates the increasing reflexivity required to explain everyday life in the twentieth century. Also proposed is the way that such literature both reflected and responded to contemporary social problems, illuminating popular notions of health and well-being, stoicism and personal responsibility.

in Feeling the strain
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Workplace and suburban neurosis in the interwar period
Jill Kirby

This chapter examines how experiences of stress became the subject of specific research interest in the very different contexts of work and home during the interwar period. It explores how workers’ nervous conditions were understood, by both employer and employee, and argues that the importance of work in the construction of personal identity and social and economic life contributed to the difficulty of admitting to stress and fostered a stoicism that meant people simply endured whatever mental suffering arose. Personal accounts illustrate contemporary attitudes towards work, duty and responsibility, while early Medical Research Council research reveals employer attitudes focused on productivity and identification of suboptimal workers. It is argued that concerns about domestic neuroticism, seen in Taylor’s suburban neurosis diagnosis and the work of the Pioneer Health Centre, brought to light not only specifically gendered explanations of stress, but also changing conceptions of the home that contributed towards domestic strain.

in Feeling the strain
Burn-out and the paradigm of stress
Jill Kirby

This chapter argues that the way that employers responded to the growing problem of stress revealed continuity in terms of the contingent approach to, and explanation of, employee stress as a problem of the individual, rather than an environmental or organisational one. Popular representations of the stressed and the development of ideas about ‘burn-out’ also highlighted continuities with previous attempts to identify and categorise those most susceptible to stress. It argues that the institutionalisation of stress within work and domestic life contributed to a growing conceptualisation of the individual as victim. While this liberated the sufferer from being the cause of their own suffering, it also reduced their agency and still implied a degree of inherent personal weakness, consistent with the conceptualisation of stress throughout the century.

in Feeling the strain
Jane Brooks

The creation of spaces conducive to healing is a critical aspect of the provision of good nursing care. The nursing sisters of the British Army, having trained in the British hospital system would have been well versed in the need to create and maintain and environment in which healing could take place. The zones into which they were posted during the Second World War and the spaces they were given in which to care for their patients, were however, rarely either favourable to health or to the ‘serenity and security’ needed for recovery. Extreme weather conditions, limited water supplies, equipment and electricity combined to hinder all aspects of patient care. The often hostile places in which nurses worked demanded that they develop clinical skills and the ability to improvise and innovate in order create healing spaces for their soldier-patients. However, as the chapter argues it was the highly feminised home-maker work that created these spaces, which the nurses themselves credited to be an essential aspect to the healing process in which they were the critical performers.

in Negotiating nursing
Open Access (free)
Jane Brooks
in Negotiating nursing
Open Access (free)
Nursing work and nurses’ space in the Second World War: a gendered construction
Jane Brooks

The introduction contextualises the Second World War and the position of nurses within it. It argues that the developments in weapons’ manufacture and transport technologies created a war in which mass killing and maiming could be achieved across the globe. The injuries and diseases caused by the mobility of troops and modern weaponry demanded a highly responsive medical service close to the action. This introductory chapter therefore provides a frame for the book within the historiography of wartime medical services, women’s participation in war and that of nurses more specifically. Negotiating Nursing uses written and oral testimony to explore the work and experiences of nurses on active service overseas. The introduction examines the nature of the sources and the value of personal testimony to the history of Second World War military nursing.

in Negotiating nursing