Feeling the strain

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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‘[… ] this timely text makes a valuable and enjoyable intervention into the literature on twentieth century Britain. Feeling the Strain will be a valuable resource for gender historians and historians interested in mental health. It marshals a range of revealing source material to inform our historical understanding of a problem that seems, at the present moment, to be ubiquitous and inexorable.’
Twentieth Century British History
August 2020

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