Self-erasure and practices of motivated forgetting in nineteenth-century Britain

Project Description

Far from being unique to the digital present, a preoccupation with personal data protection was already discernible in the nineteenth century. This project brings into focus historical fears about an overbearing recording system by examining the emergence of self-erasure long before GDPR. Increasingly concerned with questions of legacy and what they would be leaving behind, public figures in this earlier period began actively destroying those personal traces they wished to shield from future attention. While a vast body of research has studied the making and reproduction of modern memory, this shift to consider forgetting enables a new account of memory’s deliberate unmaking.

The project deploys materialist and sociological frameworks to ask how, why, and with what effects these practices of motivated forgetting emerged. Comprised of three case studies centred upon nineteenth-century London, it investigates the systematic destruction of personal memory engaged in by a series of celebrities over the course of this period. It will contribute new knowledge to several research fields—memory studies, the history of canonization, celebrity studies and media history—while casting a longer perspective upon the EU’s recently legislated ”right to be forgotten”. Examining how past individuals worked to shape their prospective erasure, its results promise a means of rethinking contemporary dilemmas about the control and future of digital memory.

Burning letters in the hearth. Illustration by Arthur Hopkins. Wilkie Collins, ”The Haunted Hotel”, Belgravia, vol. 36, November 1878, p. 126

Om projektet


2021 – 2023


The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

Senast uppdaterad: 2021-09-21