Claude Lantier’s Nervous Energy (or doing teaching-led research)

How do you envisage the relationship between teaching and research? It’s the kind of question you might expect to be asked in an academic job interview, but I’ve been musing on it of my own accord in recent weeks, struck by how teaching and research activity interact in unusual and unexpected ways. Zola’s 1886 novel L’Œuvre [The Masterpiece], for example, is a set text on a course I’m currently preparing on fictions of authorship in French culture: the character of the aspiring writer, Pierre Sandoz, can be seen to function for Zola as an ideal vision or ‘scenario’–to use José-Luis Diaz’s term–of authorship in miniature,[1] a mise-en-abyme of the literary process which reflects favourably on Zola’s own creative enterprise (particularly when contrasted with that of the visual artist). zola-1Yet while reading the novel in tandem with my research into the cultural history of shyness, I’ve also begun to notice the extent to which Claude Lantier, an aspiring artist, and the novel’s central protagonist, is characterised by his visceral shyness. Moreover, I’ve noticed the extent to which the text subtly develops theories of shyness, tracing the curious routes by which bashfulness can manifest as brutality, and fear and self-consciousness coexist with aesthetic audacity.

While working on L’Œuvre, I’ve also been grappling with La Rochefoucauld’s moral maxims. Written in the seventeenth century, these eloquent, but elliptical, observations draw our attention to the discontinuity between cause and effect in human behaviour. Propounding a systematic ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, La Rochefoucauld’s rather dispiriting theories tell us to assume the opposite: see selfishness where we think we see selflessness, meanness in generosity, and– as in maxim XI—timidity behind audacity: ‘Passions often engender those which seem contrary to them. Avarice can produce prodigality, and prodigality avarice. One is often firm through weakness, and audacious through timidity’ [my translation]. This genealogical play of opposites is affirmed by the narrative voice in L’Œuvre when, as Claude agrees to let the distraught Christine shelter in his studio, we read that ‘his own sympathy [towards her] angered him, he never normally invited women into his home, he ignored them, treating them all as he would boys, hiding his painful shyness under a boastful display of brutality’ [my translation].

The awareness that shyness can transmute into its opposite is the property not only of the narrator, but also those within the story world. In a passage which exemplifies the complex operations of free indirect discourse, Christine is shown to divine Claude’s psychology in a sudden flash of intuition, which the narrator in turn intuits, then explicates, for the reader. zola-2Watching Claude draw, Christine observes, sympathetically, that ‘there was a slight nervous trembling in him, a constant passion which seemed to bring the pencil to life at the tips of his thin fingers, and which touched her, for a reason she could not fathom. He surely wasn’t nasty, it must be his shyness which rendered him savage. She did not analyse this very exactly, but she sensed it, and she began to feel at ease, as if with a friend’ [my translation].

The unstable fluctuation between Claude’s strength and weakness, his nervous energy and his fits of apathy, form the fundamental drama of L’Œuvre; the tension between shyness and audacity is one manifestation of this. In many ways, the novel dramatises the plight of the creator forced to exist in two spheres, the aesthetic and the social, and the contradictions which arise from this. In the moment of artistic creation, Claude can be bold–and, in a highly symbolic passage in which she finally agrees to pose naked for Claude, so, too, can Christine (subject to a less pathologised, more normalised, ‘womanly’ sense of pudor). zola-3As Christine, muse-like, sits for Claude, the embarrassment which has accompanied their previous encounters, full of stutters and blushes, evaporates. The silence is no longer awkward, but imperative, holding them in a near-holy state of creation, preventing them from tumbling back down into the everyday world of messy social emotions, and sexual desire:

“Both felt that by uttering one single sentence they would be suddenly ashamed. But from time to time she [Christine] opened her clear eyes, fixed them on a vague point in space, and stayed like that for a moment, impenetrable, then closed them, falling back into the nothingness of beautiful marble, with the mysterious and frozen smile of the pose.

Claude, with a gesture, said he had finished; and, gauche again, he knocked over a chair as he quickly turned his back on Christine who, blushing, got up from the divan.” 

Zola 4.jpg

The sitting over, artist and muse, revert, once again, to bumbling human beings, conscious of having committed a faux-pas: the studio has become bedroom again, and Claude is all fingers and thumbs. More broadly, it is Claude’s difficulty with this inevitable, all-too-human, part of being an artist–that of existing in a social context– which is part of the tragedy of L’Œuvre. Claude’s hypersensitivity–of which his savage, wild shyness is one manifestation–may be what makes him a talented, revolutionary, artist, but it also prevents him from moving smoothly between unworldly and worldly domains, from forging a public reputation, from thriving on public critique (as Sandoz does).

In Claude, Zola gestures to the emotional toll taken on the artist, and perhaps also author, in an age of heightened public exposure and bullish professional criticism. Claude’s decline is not related solely to his timidity, but shyness–and the gruff brutality and audacity it is shown, at times, to effect–are characteristics Zola chooses to highlight over and over again in his protagonist. The novel echoes patterns of cause and effect found in La Rochefoucauld’s earlier work, but interweaves them with modern theories of physiology, and a larger narrative about the plight of the individual within the increasingly commercial arts trade. And in doing so, it provides me with a new source to add to my expanding corpus of nineteenth-century ‘shy’ narratives, a new way to think about emotion and the arts, and a welcome bridge between my teaching and research this term.



[1] Cf. Diaz, José-Luis. L’écrivain imaginaire: scénographies auctoriales à l’époque romantique (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2007).



In the Archives…

My research took me to Paris earlier this year. You can read about my experiences working in the French national library in a post I’ve written for the French History Network blog.

The Mitterrand library © Alain Goustard / BnF

The Mitterand Library, Paris. Copyright Alain Goustard / BnF

How to Be Bold: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk (2016)

Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016, takes its protagonist, 25-year-old Sofia Papastergidias, through a summer of self-transformation on the sun-baked Almería coast in Spain. Appropriate August reading, I thought, and it was. But the novel also presented me with a richly refreshing take on what a shyness narrative can look like in the twenty-first century. So far, the nineteenth-century French texts coming to form my corpus have most to say about what it is for men to be shy. But Hot Milk, a novelistic rewriting of Hélène Cixous’s feminist call-to-arms ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975), and concerned, above all, with relationships between women (maternal, sisterly, friendly, sexual), takes Sofia’s timidity as its topic.

Shyness isn’t the only way to characterise Sofia, of course: her tangled discontent has just as much to do with her abandoned PhD in Anthropology, her unrewarding job in a London coffee shop, and her troubled relationship with her troubled mother, Rose. In Almería to see an orthopaedic consultant (who might or might not be a quack), mother and daughter are preoccupied with Rose’s inexplicable inability to walk. Yet Rose’s unidentifiable illness merges with Sofia’s murky malaise, as the doctor, Gόmez, notices: ‘If you don’t mind me saying, Sofia Irina, you are a little weak for a young healthy woman. Sometimes you limp, as if you have picked up on your mother’s emotional weather’ (p. 58). In perfect health and yet still not well, Sofia both needs a diagnosis from the doctor, and does not. Gόmez continues: ‘“I do not believe you need to do more exercise. It is a matter of having purpose, less apathy. Why not steal a fish from the market to make you bolder? It need not be the biggest fish, but it must not be the smallest either.” “Why do I need to be bolder?” “That is for you to answer.”’ (p. 58)

And answer Sofia tries. The opening pages of the novel see her hiding in her head and in her laptop, embarrassed and tongue-tied when faced with the poised person of Ingrid, a future lover: ‘I don’t know what to say, I’m blushing and I feel the same panic jitter in my chest’ (p. 34). Levy paints her gazing at produce in a fish market, where she goes to apply Gόmez’s unorthodox remedy, wondering if a slimy, shapeshifting octopus might take on her own form, if it ‘might even mimic the colour and texture of my human skin, which can also change colour, in excitement, in humiliation, or fear. Its skin could express mood, it could blush like I always blush when I am asked to spell my name’ (p. 78). But later chapters see Sofia undergo a radical transformation, unleashing her dormant sexuality as she embarks on relationships with women and men; driving through the Spanish mountains without a licence; freeing captive animals; and, finally, confronting her mother’s hold over her. Her body swells with this mythical metamorphosis: ‘The human body is getting bigger, my low-rise jeans are cutting into my hips which are round and brown and toned from a month of swimming every day but I am spilling over the waistband of these jeans not made for hips. I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup’ (p. 202).

Body and mind are intimately bound up in the novel, then – and in Rose’s own psychosomatic disease – but Sofia’s timidity is no biological matter. In a surprising piece of anti-pharmaceutical rhetoric, Gόmez expands: ‘“Imagine that you, Sofia Irina, are a little introverted. Let us say that you are shy and need to be bolder and to learn how to protect yourself in the everyday of your life. He [Señor James, the representative of an American pharmaceutical company] would like me to call this a social-anxiety disorder. In this way, I can sell you his medication for the disorder he has invented”’ (p. 179). But, as we have seen, Gόmez (part-consultant, part-psychotherapist, part witch-doctor) does not play ball. Rather than give Sofia one diagnosis (social anxiety), he gives her three (introverted, shy, non-bold). Rather than prescribe medicine, Gόmez prescribes stealing.

Gómez is not the only authority in Hot Milk, however, nor the only one to write a prescription. The novel opens with an epigraph taken from Cixous: ‘It’s up to you to break the old circuits’. It is up to Sofia to break the old circuits of self-defeat, ‘unpicking, unravelling, and starting all over again’ (p. 41), and this also means she is responsible for starting again in the right way. But what the right way is isn’t immediately obvious. Despite largely echoing Cixous’s call for women to be unafraid, to be heard, to write, the novel also alludes to the pitfalls associated with ‘monstrous’ extremes of female boldness, by way of Ingrid, whose strength is violent and destructive, or a Swedish restaurant-owner whose behaviour Sofia finds herself condemning in the fish market: ‘She commanded the cashier to scoop up the three lobsters and the monkfish and heave the tuna up on to the scales. Her voice was too loud. Perhaps she couldn’t hear herself, but we could hear her. The bells on her shoes jangled every time she changed the position of her feet. [….] Obviously, raising the voice compels attention and incites fear, but was she bold? Did I want to be bold like her? What shade of bold was I after?’ (p. 77).

Some forty years after Cixous’s visionary essay, Hot Milk reveals the difficulty we can still have in answering Sofia’s questions on our own terms, for ourselves. In the chapter entitled ‘Vanquishing Sofia’, Sofia tells us that ‘By the time I had finally climbed down the mountain path that led to the beach, I had journeyed as far from myself as I have ever been, far, far away from any landmarks I recognized’ (p. 202). But Sofia’s world remains one where her behaviour is constantly measured and judged against standards which keep moving, where behaviour is still prescribed, one way or another. While he may dismiss what he sees as psychiatric jargon, it is nonetheless Gόmez, an authoritarian patriarch, who tells Sofia that she has a problem (she’s not bold enough), and what she ought to do about it (be bolder). Sofia’s mother agrees she should finish her PhD, but still, she adds: ‘I can’t imagine you as a driver’ (p. 217). Sofia herself is a harsh critic of a woman whose confidence she interprets as brash and abrasive, as monstrous.

The final page of the novel leaves us with an image of jellyfish, Levy’s equivalent of Cixous’s Medusa: ‘The tide was coming in with all the medusas floating in its turbulence. The tendrils of the jellyfish in limbo, like something cut loose, a placenta, a parachute, a refugee severed from its place of origin’ (p. 218). Like the jellyfish, Sofia is protean, ready to take shape, but in a world of contradictory behavioural cues, which shape, which circuit, to choose? Hot Milk suggests that it takes a long time to break the old circuits, particularly those we carry in our heads, and that even new ones might, in the end, be chains.




Jacques Brel’s ‘Les Timides’: A Tentative Translation

In my last post I talked about musical evocations of shyness. As a follow-on, this month’s post takes the form of my English translation of the Belgian chansonnier Jacques Brel’s 1964 song ‘Les Timides’: a playful but poignant homage to life’s ‘shoe-gazers’ – or ‘suitcase-carriers’, to adopt Brel’s imagery. The lyrics are challenging to translate from the off. Despite the American psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s attempt to inaugurate the plural noun ‘shys’ in The Shy Child (‘shys think… shys feel…’), it sounds unnatural in English: I’ve generally opted for ‘shy’ used as an adjective in my translation, but ‘shyness’ for the title. Question marks also arise over the shift from ‘they’ to ‘one’ in the third verse: is the singer beginning to identify with shy individuals, rather than objectify them, and how can we render this possibility in English? What about the riffs on French idioms (du bout des fesses instead of du bout des lèvres, for example), or the curious reference to the rabbit (lapin) in the first verse? Are we meant to read this as an allusion to the reproductive energy of rabbits (in French, être un chaud lapin, or, in a similar vein, to be at it like rabbits in English)? In an article in the journal Vacarme, the philosopher Mathieu Potte-Bonneville thinks not, and suggests it evokes the shy individual’s refusal to ‘jouer l’homme’ (play the hu/man).

Jacques Brel at work, 1963

Brel’s song – and Potte-Bonneville’s essay, too – perpetuates what I currently see as three key themes in the moral, medical, and artistic discourse surrounding shyness. First, it is the shy male who incites the most attention: historically, shyness was – and still is, to an extent – considered most inappropriate, most problematic for men. In cultures in which ideals of masculinity foreground courage and confidence, the shy male is the subject of conflict and consternation (and comedy). Second, there is an animality or non-humanity associated with shyness: to be shy is to be insufficiently socialised, to be wild. Third, discussions of shyness often talk about the propensity of the shy individual for sudden outbursts of pent-up energy which can manifest as flashes of courage, but, alternatively, as frustration and anger. This is suggestive of both the dramatic potential of shyness (it’s a condition of extremes, underneath its mild surface), and the reason psychologists may have worried about it in the past. Brel’s song also illustrates the way shy individuals are frequently treated comically in art (although the lyrics have a decidedly melancholic air as well, given their narrative of inevitable decline).

But, enough discussion. Here’s a recording of Brel singing ‘Les Timides’. French lyrics are available here, and my English translation is below. The translation is literary rather than literal: I’ve tried to recreate the effect of the French source text through rhyme, sound patterning, idiom, and word play. Comments welcome!


Shy people
They twist
They twirl
They skip
They swirl
They spin out of control
They curl up in a ball
They’re rabbits
In their dreams.
Doesn’t matter
Where they’re from
But dead leaves
When the wind blows them
Onto our doorsteps
It seems that they’re carrying
A suitcase in each hand.

Shy people
Stick to the shade
The sombre shade
Of their shadow
Only the half-light
Knows the whole
Of their Levantine modesty.
They fold themselves up
They go white
They go yellow
They go pink
Like a prawn
They go red
Like a lobster
A suitcase in each hand.

But shy people
One brave evening
In front of their mirror
Dreaming of space
Put on their armour
Put it in place, and
Let’s go, Paris look out
Vive La Gare
But getting lost
And frightened
And confused
Let’s be off again
A suitcase in each hand.

Shy people
When they fall
For an Elvire
Heave sighs
Have desires
They desire to speak
But they don’t dare
And their mistresses,
More priestesses
Of drunkenness
Than tenderness,
Leave them one evening
A suitcase in each hand.

So shy people
End their days
Fade away
And when they slip
Into the abyss
I mean, when they die
They daren’t say anything
Daren’t curse anything
Daren’t shiver
Daren’t smile
Just a sigh
And they die
A suitcase on the heart.


Radio Silence: Sounding Out Social Anxiety

What does shyness sound like? What would an aural history of shyness sound like? I started musing about this after listening to a programme on social anxiety on Radio 4:

The 30-minute programme, ‘Hell is Other People: A Self-Help Guide to Social Anxiety’, part of the Seriously… series, follows the writer and performer Byron Vincent as he tackles what he calls his ‘paralysing’ fear of social situations (a fear he has despite being able to perform to large audiences in a professional context). Psychologists arguing for clearly demarcated differences between shyness, social anxiety, social phobia, and introversion might be irritated by the programme’s frequent conflation of these terms. But, that aside, the programme is an engaging, imaginative, and (darkly) comic evocation of what it feels like to be one of life’s ‘shoegazers’, as Byron puts it. It is also – as this is radio, after all – an intriguing exploration of the sounds of shyness.


Performer Byron Vincent, photo by Charles Emerson <>

To start with, there are the voices. In particular, the voices of the many experts summoned to advise Byron on how best to beat his social fears. We hear the smooth, soothing tones of a self-help guru; the measured cadence of a psychology lecturer; a cheerful Californian therapist who merrily compares the mind to a Lamborghini sports car. Their authoritative advice, calmly delivered, contrasts nicely with the panicky, stuttering staccato of Byron’s inner voice, complete with frantic percussion accompaniment, as it torments him with fear and self-doubt (will that work? what should I say now? what do they think of me?). Of course, this internal voice has to be externalised for the benefit of the listeners, a device which simultaneously points to one of shyness’s most marked manifestations: muteness. Byron admits that shyness often prevents him from initiating conversation, or in fact from saying anything at all, but too much silence tends to make bad radio: the inner monologue nicely points up and plays with this contradiction. Lack of speech can signify shyness, but this lack is only experienced as such by ‘objective’ onlookers: the mind of the shy, silent sufferer is filled, paradoxically, with almost overwhelming noise.

Byron may be on a mission to ‘kill’ his anxiety, and to quieten this internal racket, but the other sounds we hear during the programme suggest that shyness can be a source of inspiration for some. By playing tracks like The Smiths’ ‘Ask’ (‘Shyness is nice…’) and Jeffrey Lewis’s more recent ‘Anxiety Attack’ (see videos below), the programme provides a soundscape of some of the musical creations connected to shyness.

These (modern) musical representations of anxiety make me think. The nineteenth-century studies of shyness I’m currently looking at for my research draw heavily on literary representations of shyness (by Rousseau, Stendhal, George Eliot, and many more). But they only make references to sound or music when discussing how shyness or stage-fright might affect the voice of a singer or the fingers of a violinist. Otherwise, they are themselves silent on the subject. Does that mean that nineteenth-century musical evocations of shyness or timidity didn’t exist? No – a quick search of some library catalogues reveals that a cluster of dances, songs, and scores have, since at least the eighteenth century, been composed on the subject, placing the experience of shyness in a more positive and facilitating, rather than necessarily inhibiting, light. In France, for example, we see the 1744 ‘La Timidité, cantatille avec simphonie’ [Timidity, cantatille with symphony] by Claude Cordelet, and then a number of scores in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, situating the tracks used in ‘Hell is Other People’ within a somewhat surprising continuum.

La Timidité, cantatille avec simphonie.... Gravée par Labassée  Timidité chanson-diction. Poésie et musique. Chant et piano  Ma timidité. Paroles de E. Bousquat et E. Buscarlet. Chant et piano

The interplay between sound and silence is a significant element of shyness as a physiological, psychological, and indeed cultural-historical experience. Different art forms will enact this relationship differently, but music can convey it with a particular immediacy and intensity. I’m not a musicologist, but it is clear that a cultural history of shyness – like the one I’m attempting to write at the moment – will need to take musical evocations and performances of this social emotion into account.

S is for Shy: The Semantics of Shyness


This week, as part of my exploration of cultural attitudes towards shyness, I’ve been delving into the world of psychology and psychiatry to get a sense of how mental health specialists today talk about this particular form of social difficulty. Although I’m only just beginning the work, it’s clear that language lies at the heart of several of the differences of opinion emerging from the literature. First, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we have the thorny question of what is actually meant by ‘shyness’. Beyond some consensus amongst psychologists of it being a ‘complex pattern of reactions to social situations’ which involves cognition, behaviour, and physiology (W. Ray Crozier, ‘Individual Differences in Childhood Shyness’, 1999, p. 15), definitions vary depending on the theoretical standpoint and agenda of the researcher. For the American developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, for example, ultimately more interested in childhood inhibition, shyness can be seen as a ‘reaction to unfamiliar [people] encompassing initial avoidance, subdued affect, and distress’ (‘The Concept of Behavioral Inhibition’, 1999, p. 4). For Philip Zimbardo – most famous for his Stanford prison experiment in 1971, but a major researcher into shyness too – shyness is a ‘mental attitude that predisposes people to be extremely concerned about the social evaluation of them by others’ (The Shy Child, 1999, p. 9). The Dutch psychologist, Henk T. Van der Molen, promoting a model of cognitive social learning, proposes that ‘we say that someone suffers from shyness when it is frequently the case that he or she does not know how to cope with social situations’ (‘A Definition of Shyness and its Implications for Clinical Practice’, 1990, p.  255). We already see that shyness can be aligned with fear of unfamiliarity, heightened self-consciousness, or lack of knowledge, amongst many other possible positions (in the late nineteenth century, for example, it was common to talk about shyness or timidity as a disorder of the will).

Shy or socially anxious?

But language also becomes an issue when considering the diagnostic value of the term shyness, and how it relates to what Christopher Lane has called the ‘overwrought’ labels which doctors have begun using in recent years to define their patients: ‘avoidant personality disorder’, ‘social phobia’, and – coming to dominate discussions – ‘social anxiety disorder’ (Shyness. How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, 2006, p. 1). Are these psychiatric conditions simply more severe and debilitating forms of what we understand by the lay term shyness? Or are they entirely different ‘disorders’, with different causes, symptoms, and treatments? [1] Should mental health professionals be using an ordinary language term like shyness in their work, or not?








Some psychologists appear happy to preserve natural language categories (Zimbardo and W. Ray Crozier, for example), but psychiatrists across the globe are turning to the diagnostic categories legitimised by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders: that is, social anxiety disorder, or social phobia (the fact that the fifth edition of the DSM includes ‘social phobia’ in brackets after referring to ‘social anxiety disorder’ betrays the confused relationship of possible, but not certain, synonymy surrounding these conditions). This tendency suggests that, in the realm of psychiatry, there is a desire to streamline and standardise the vocabulary of mental health, perhaps in an effort to achieve consensus and objectivity (if possible) over the way people feel, why this might be, and, crucially, how to make them feel differently.

Unreliable guides

Now, from the point of view of the medical health professions, this may well make sense. But as a literary scholar and a linguist, the way these disciplines deal with language strikes me as curious. Very few of the studies I have looked at make any reference to dictionary definitions of shyness, and there is no mention of the etymology or the history of the words being routinely used. In fact, many psychiatrists and psychologists seem decidedly ambivalent about language in general – their work conveys a sense of words as rather frustrating tools which need to be employed to understand the experience of patients, but are not of any intrinsic value or interest in themselves (the frequent drive to re-name conditions in psychiatry does suggest an awareness of language’s power to change public perceptions, however). This is presumably because what psychologists and psychiatrists really want to get at is what is ‘behind’ language: the patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour, perhaps the affect or brain state, associated with a given experience. In The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (1988), for example, the psychologists Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins make a clear distinction between ‘emotion words’ and the emotions themselves. Claiming that emotional vocabulary is an unreliable guide to the real structure of emotions, they claim they are not investigating emotion words (like shyness), but rather the mental processes that we have conventionally come to associate with these terms – and which, in reality, may not correspond with our lay person’s understanding of them at all.

What emotion words can tell us

Language can be unreliable, of course, but when talking about the history of emotions (which psychologists rarely do), it is one of the main things we have to go on, for lack of living, breathing bodies. But also – and more positively – vocabulary is an invaluable guide to the ways in which different linguistic communities have made, and still make, sense of emotions.[2] The ‘emotion words’ people use are not random: rather, they reflect the way a given culture has conceptualised particular kinds of physiological and psychological experience over time, and indicate which experiences have been thought necessary to define, distinguish, and debate. By tracing the etymology of emotion words we see how they have come to us and changed, and what this tells us about engrained cultural attitudes towards particular feelings and behaviours. The frequency with which certain emotion words are used reflects the varying preoccupations of, and pressures on, cultures themselves.

Image result for dictionaries








Words don’t just reflect, however: they also shape the way we understand and so experience emotions themselves. Emotions are charged experiences, but words further charge them, nuancing how we respond to and evaluate them. The historian of emotions Jan Plamper argues that ‘conceptions of emotion have an impact upon the way an emotion is experienced in the self-perception of the feeling subject’ (History and Emotions, 2015, p. 32). For example, the feelings triggered by the terms ‘shyness’ (‘I am shy’) and ‘social phobia’ (‘I am a social phobic’, or ‘I have social phobia’) in a subject are likely to be very different, the latter casting an emotional state in modern medical terms which might be reassuring for some, but stigmatising for others. Such connotations and concomitant feelings are heavily dependent on national, historical, and cultural contexts.[3]

Animal emotions

While psychiatrists might need to put a cap on ‘emotion words’, literary and cultural historians need to deepen their knowledge of the emotional vocabulary of the time and place with which they are concerned. In contemporary English, for example, we have numerous words to talk about social difficulties. ‘Shyness’ and ‘timidity’ are two of the most frequently used lay terms at present, according to the OED. While both words derive from the concept of fear, ‘shy’ comes from the Old English scéoh, corresponding to the Middle High German schiech, while ‘timid’ comes from the Latin timidus and French timide. ‘Shy’, interestingly, was frequently used to talk about the behaviour and character of animals in the medieval period (‘easily frightened or startled’), and was only gradually applied to humans. Nowadays, timidity is a fairly broad term (somebody can be timid in a range of contexts) while shyness refers more specifically, but not exclusively, to social situations. English also has words like ‘timorousness’, ‘diffidence’, or ‘bashfulness’ – less frequently used, admittedly. ‘Bashfulness’ comes from the Middle French esbaïr (to amaze, to trouble, or to be amazed or troubled when used reflexively). The derived English verb ‘abash’ can be used reflexively too: to be abashed, or to ‘lose one’s self-possession’ (OED). From this we get to the more specific definition for ‘bashful’: ‘of persons, shrinking from publicity, shamefaced […] “sheepish”’ (OED), suggesting that the bashful person feels undone, dehumanised, by the public gaze. This etymological trajectory from bang (amazement) to whimper (shrinking, sheepish) could be seen to enact something of the dichotomy which lies at the heart of the experience of shyness: a feeling of intense inner turmoil presented to the public as stuttering or silence.








What about other languages? In French, timidité is the lay term most widely in use, today defined by the Petit Robert as the ‘lack of poise and self-confidence in society’. Related terms include gêne (discomfort, embarrassment), and gaucherie (awkwardness). These are words which, like Van der Molen’s working definition, cast shyness in terms not of feeling, but rather lack of knowledge or ‘know-how’, suggesting a possible (perceived) correlation between shyness and social success and status. We also come across the intriguing farouche, which means either wild and ferocious or timid and distrustful. These apparently opposing meanings can be seen to have common ground if we think – as nineteenth-century writers certainly did – of the shy individual as being ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilised’: yet to learn the rules of society. We come back, interestingly, to shyness as an animal emotion.








Shyness is not just a verbal phenomenon, of course, and it is important to think about the role the body plays in experiences and representations of it. But literary and cultural history needs to pay careful attention to the words people have used, and still use, to describe their feelings. Our emotional experiences may be biologically based and thus in part universal, but the way these experiences have been put into language varies from place to place and era to era. It is the difference in words, attitudes, and evaluations that historians of emotions are interested in because they to help pinpoint social, cultural, and sentimental change, and cause us to rethink some of our contemporary assumptions about how we should feel and behave, and why.


[1] See e.g. discussion in Denise A. Chavira et al, ‘Scrutinizing the Relationship between Shyness and Social Phobia’ (2002), and Nancy A. Heiser et al, ‘Shyness: Relationship to Social Phobia and other Psychiatric Disorders’ (2003).

[2] Joanna Bourke writes in her history of fear: ‘The only access we have to fearful people from the past is through the things they left behind […] Analysis of these “texts” allows historians to pursue fluctuations in the nature of fear as the emotion is rendered visible in language and symbols’ (Fear. A Cultural History, 2005, p. 7).

[3] Support groups in France, for example, have been fighting for wider institutional acceptance of the term ‘social phobia’ in the country, explaining that it is a label and diagnosis they find helpful; see Stephanie Lloyd, ‘The Clinical Clash over Social Phobia: The Americanization of French Experiences?’ (2006).

A Picture of Shyness?


The Shy Sitter, William Henry Hunt (1790-1864)

As this is my first post, I thought I’d start off by introducing readers to the image I’ve chosen as the cover or logo for the blog: The Shy Sitter, by the British pre-Raphaelite artist William Henry Hunt (1790-1864). Unsurprisingly, it was the title of this watercolour, currently held at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, which first caught my eye: here was a pictorial representation of the very emotion my research project was seeking to explore. But things became more complicated when, on doing some preliminary research into the painting, I realised that the work hasn’t always been called The Shy Sitter, in fact, and has, on at least one occasion, gone under the name The Country Girl (a not uninteresting re-emphasis I’ll discuss further on). Is this a picture of shyness, then, or isn’t it? In fact, would it even occur to us that this young girl was particularly shy if we hadn’t been told so by the title?

Signs of Shyness

There are some visual clues, I think, that a viewer might pick up on: the red blush on the girl’s cheeks, this being one of the key physiological manifestations of timidity as discussed in nineteenth-century medical treatises (and by Darwin), and still something of a mystery today;[1] the indirect, three-quarter pose, suggesting a certain reluctance to meet the painter’s, and our, gaze head-on (a shying away); and, in relation to this, a sombre expression which might imply some level of fear on the part of the subject (shyness is often defined as a fear of social interaction).[2] But without the initial diagnosis indicated in the principal title, it would be hard to draw conclusions from such diffuse ‘symptoms’ (this being one of the difficulties of talking about emotions at all, in fact – do they have a clearly demarcated existence independent of language, or do they amount to rough labels that cultures have developed to get a purchase on the complexity of human subjectivity?).[3] We can’t know if the girl sitter was really feeling shy – whether this was something she might have articulated to herself or, if not, whether she was experiencing a number of physiological and psychological phenomena that moralists or medics of the day would have identified as shyness. But what the title does indicate is that since its creation – most likely in the 1840s – it has been thought pertinent and, moreover, appealing to talk about this painting in terms of shyness (a title being a way to clarify something of the spirit of a work, but also draw people to it).

Critical Contradictions

The reasons for this response interest me because it draws out some of the contradictions and tensions within the nineteenth-century discourse on shyness. Certain nineteenth-century moral guides condemned shyness as an emotion implying an excessive, egotistical concern with the self which it was important to rid individuals of from a young age. But late nineteenth-century works of psychology thought shyness was only ever a problem for men: timidity was understandable (necessary, even) in children, and synonymous with ‘innate’ sexual modesty for women. When we consider this portrait’s alternative title, The Country Girl, we can see, by a process of association, that shyness is acceptable and attractive when it is synonymous with feminine virtue and a simple, rural way of life far-removed from the cut-throat Victorian city – where timid sorts won’t survive for long. The art critic John Ruskin alludes to this when, in a catalogue accompanying a posthumous exhibition of Hunt’s work at the Fine Art Society’s Galleries in London in 1879, he discusses The Shy Sitter (with this title) alongside The Fisher-Man’s Boy and The Blessing:

‘The strength of all lovely human life is in them; and England herself lives only, at this hour, in so much as, from all that is sunk in the luxury – sick in the penury – and polluted in the sin of her great cities, Heaven has yet hidden for her, old men and children such as these, by their fifties in the fields, and on her shores, and fed them with Bread and Water.’ (p.90)

For Ruskin, then, The Shy Sitter is symbolic: a portrait of a threatened morality and an endangered England embodied in the virtuous poor who alone can redeem the nation. While he may be forcing a sentimental social agenda onto Hunt’s work (as the art historian Tom Jones argues),[4] his lyricism nonetheless suggests that shyness is associated, for Ruskin, with a pre-industrial age of innocence: an interesting contrast to another possible narrative of shyness which postulates that it is in fact a modern emotion brought about by the ‘civilising process’ (Norbert Elias) and the growth of politeness and self-control. Which of these narratives, if either, was the most prevalent in the nineteenth century is what I hope my research will uncover.

Changing Contexts

The final point of interest in relation to this portrait is the nature of the adjectival ‘shy’. Medical debate in late nineteenth-century France, for example, distinguished between the fleeting attack of timidity and the chronic state of timidity (which frequent experiences of the former would often result in). Again, we can’t attempt to work out whether the real girl this portrait depicts was temperamentally or temporarily shy, but what the painting makes me think about is the relationship between cultural and technological shifts and the new forms of shyness these might have created or reconfigured. We have talked about being ‘camera-shy’ in English since the early twentieth century (OED, 3rd edition): a form of social discomfort triggered or exacerbated by the use of the camera. Might the democratisation of the portrait in the nineteenth century – or the growth of realism and painterly interest in rural communities – have created new contexts for shyness for those uncomfortable with, or unused to, the intensity of focus on the self these representational practices entail (being ‘canvas-shy’, or something like that)? Again, these are questions which I hope my research will go some way to answering.

[1] E.g. The Psychological Significance of the Blush, edited by W. Ray Crozier and Peter J. de Jong (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Crozier has suggested, however, that blushing is associated more with embarrassment than shyness.

[2] Shy, Germanic in origin (unlike timidity which is Latin), originally meant to be ‘easily frightened or startled’. It was most frequently applied to animals, before being extended to humans; see an interesting discussion in The Tablet by John Morrish (‘Awkward moments’, 28 May 2015). My next blog post will explore the semantics of shyness in greater detail.

[3] Questions discussed in e.g. Tiffany Watt-Smith’s The Book of Human Emotions (London: Profile Books, 2015) and Jan Plamper, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2015).

[4] In William Henry Hunt, 1790-1864 (Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 1981).