What My Dissertation Research Taught Me about Social Distancing
As I toasted the new year this January, I also marked a more melancholy milestone: a full year since I’d flown cross-country to visit my family. While we’d been doing our best to keep up with messages, calls, and video chats, after a year apart it was clear these communication methods couldn’t quite compensate for our physical separation. At first glance, the scope of the pandemic and our retreat to a digital world can make this problem seem like a uniquely 21st-century phenomena. But living through 2020 while researching 19th-century migration, I can say that while technology has changed, the feelings associated with long-term separation are nothing new.
In the 19th century, a massive emigration movement put many British families in surprisingly similar situations. Between 1825 and 1930, about 11.5 million Britons left family and friends to move as far away as Australia, Argentina, and Hong Kong. My research focuses on a particular subset of these: middle-class men and women who left the UK in their teens and 20s to find a job, marry, or join a sibling or cousin abroad. Although they left voluntarily, with social and financial support, these migrants still worried about spending years apart from family and friends. Take Walter Heald, who left university for a job in Argentina in 1866. Watching the familiar coast of England disappear, he wrote in his shipboard diary: “On this day I left all who are dear to me, may I never again have to undergo the bitterness of such a parting for until it has been actually experienced no one can tell the pain both to those who stay and those who go.”
But these migrants also had the tools to maintain relationships: literacy, a global postal network, and increasingly fast steamships. My research is made possible by their commitment to staying in touch: the hundreds of letters they sent back to parents, siblings, and extended family. This past year, as I spent more and more time apart from my own family, I found myself impressed by the genuine intimacy these writers were able to maintain. At times, I found myself shocked to realize that some of my research subjects seemed to be doing better at maintaining relationships than I was—even without phone calls, video hangouts, and instant messaging. How did they do it?
While technology has changed, the feelings associated with long-term separation are nothing new.
First, I’ve noticed that the most appreciated letters arrived regularly and predictably. Many of these letters were unsurprisingly repetitive—but the information was often beside the point. The important part was feeling connected, or as Robina Addis put it to her brother in 1855, “When you write me, you should just think that we are walking . . . arm in arm, and that we are having a chat.” As a researcher, these letters often feel unhelpful. But after weekly calls with my own parents about what I’m doing (nothing), I’m more understanding of the appeal of these “chatty” letters.
Of course, not everyone is a reliable correspondent. Historic letter-writers recognized this, and often one member of a household—usually a woman—became the central figure in a web of communication. In 1858, William Dale ruefully acknowledged this in a letter to his daughter, writing that “indeed your Mama’s letters are mine also and a very nice, easy way too, of writing letters, which Husbands who have good Wives are very glad to avail themselves of if they are lazy.” This sometimes meant physically passing letters addressed to one person on to others to share news, which sounded practical enough, but was not always well received. Eleanor Addis certainly objected when she wrote indignantly to her brother-in-law: “If anyone to whom I wrote passed my letters on, I would make a solemn vow (and keep it too) never to write to them again.” For me, these moments reiterate both the value and the labor of regular communication and made me more forgiving of myself and others for falling out of touch.
The most appreciated letters arrived regularly and predictably.
Along with regular updates, letter-writers made special note of holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. “I send you my much loving Christmas wishes. How I wish I could give them in person! But that I know we all are well and we shall think of each other,” wrote Walter Heald’s sister in 1887. Writers often expressed sadness at being apart in the times and sought comfort in remembering past holidays or rereading old letters. In December 1882, David Angus wrote to his fiancée in Scotland about his Christmas plans in Brazil: “I’m going to do a big read of your letters tonight and tomorrow, and won’t I think about what you’re doing.” These practices prompted me to find comfort in looking at old photos, rereading old messages, and even sorting through old birthday cards. These historic letter collections, and my own small collection, have reminded me that communication, and relationships, are built over time, and that during periods of separation people can draw on a reserve of memory to keep them up.
These strategies were never perfect and not intended to be permanent. Letter-writers still sometimes felt too overwhelmed to write, got frustrated by long silences, and worried their messages had been misconstrued. They also expected to return to England to visit family every few years or even to move back permanently after making money abroad. As a researcher, I’m often frustrated by these periods of reunion because it means everyone stops writing. But as I’ve thought more about these letters not just as a source of information, but a tool for intimacy, I’ve come to appreciate how they were part of multi-faceted strategy for feeling close. And after a year apart from my own family, I’m happy they found their way back together.
Claire C. Arnold is a history PhD candidate at Northwestern University. She tweets @taketothecee.
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