Has Britain lost its stiff upper lip?
Self-restraint has long been part of our cultural DNA, but as the therapy culture gathers pace are we in danger of becoming a nation prone to tears and tantrums at the slightest opportunity?
By Marianne Kavanagh 7:00AM GMT 26 Feb 2010
The Duchess of Devonshire has shocked us to the core. In an interview in the March issue of Tatler, the last Mitford sister, now nearly 90, says the British stiff upper lip is quivering like blancmange. No one used to be sloppy and sentimental, she says. "It was all rather skated over. It wasn't the thing to keep belly-aching."
Grief she remembers as a private affair. "The disaster of someone dying was talked about for a bit and the person was mourned, but you didn't go on about it and take pills and have to be counselled. Money and illness and sex were not talked about in those days."
While most of us sit glued to reality television, from Big Brother to the Chilcot inquiry, the Duchess is resolutely maintaining standards: she won't watch anything sad or violent "or with heaving sheets".
So is she right? Have we all become horribly self-indulgent, spilling out our feelings to anyone who is prepared to listen? Is this really the end of that much-loved British quality of repressed emotion, the dignified silence we once laughed at but secretly admired?
If it's true, you can't help feeling that there should be a suitable period of mourning when we all wander about feeling lost and talking in hushed whispers, because the stiff upper lip wasn't just a code between Bertie Wooster and the implacable Jeeves.
The stiff upper lip was a way of coping with any number of huge feelings that threatened to overwhelm us. It was a very British stoicism that managed to treat issues of great seriousness as if they were utterly trivial. The Mitford sisters were notoriously irreverent, as their published letters show, and the late Sir John Betjeman, who wrote so beautifully about restrained passion, said in a letter to his father in 1929: "Often most 'serious' feelings are expressed in a joke. I very rarely talk about what I really feel."
It all started, this slow slide towards puddles of very public tears, with the Diana moment. That was when we realised that our stiff upper had started to wobble. "We've always allowed outpourings of collective joy – coronations, jubilees, cup finals," says the historian Juliet Gardiner, author of The Thirties: An Intimate History (HarperPress, £30). "But people are afraid of grief. Diana released the floodgates."
It's hard to remember today just how extraordinary the public outpouring seemed in 1997. This was Britain, after all, proud of its Blitz spirit, its black humour and its understatement. Even romantic heroes, from James Bond to Hugh Grant, only ever betrayed extreme emotion by a slight tensing of the jaw. But within hours of the death of the Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris, a youthful Tony Blair – in office just a few months after a landslide Labour victory – faced the cameras. She had been, he said, "the people's princess" and would stay that way "in our hearts and our memories forever".
Blair's approval rating shot up to more than 90 per cent because he had pitched it exactly right. This was what a shocked nation wanted: emotion openly expressed. As the flowers, notes and teddy bears piled up in a shiny, fluttering carpet outside Kensington Palace, the British public waited for more. Respectfully, but then with mounting hostility, they looked for a similar display of well-phrased grief from the head of the royal family.
But the Queen, a dutiful monarch, had been brought up to mourn in private.
It was a clash of two completely different worlds in one small country. It seemed, quite suddenly, as if dignified silence could be interpreted as cold and unfeeling.
Since then, with happiness and wellbeing high on the Government agenda, and everybody talking about issues, self-esteem and emotional baggage, we're wobbling and quivering all over the place. Expressing how you feel has become all-important. Poor Gordon Brown never seems to get it quite right, either giving us a rictus grin or coming over all emotional to Piers Morgan. Meanwhile Cheryl Cole (via Girls Aloud and The X Factor) has become the nation's sweetheart on the strength of her soulful eyes and friendly openness. The repressed emotion of Brief Encounter now seems rather quaint. (Imagine a remake in 2010: Celia Johnson would have her kit off in seconds.)
You could, of course, argue that we're well rid of the stiff upper lip because it belongs to another age, a way of being British that's tied up with class, wealth and the playing fields of Eton. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, says: "The stiff upper lip comes from the heyday of the British Empire."
You could only hold on to vast possessions, he says, by pretending that you were "somehow superior, immune to the weaknesses of the rabble and the masses". But nowadays the stiff upper lip may have outlived its usefulness. "There's something much healthier about the new Britain," he says. "Whether sad or happy, we're now prepared to cry."
We're also prepared to wallow in it. Ever since the publication of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes in 1996, the public has been hungry for misery memoirs, tales of terrible childhood abuse and deprivation (perhaps reading about other people's horrible lives made our own seem more bearable). It seems, too, that we've become more inward-looking, grappling with unanswerable questions like, "Who am I?" and "Where am I going?", and responding to polite inquiries like "How are you?" with vast amounts of personal information as if the person asking really wanted to know. Personally, I blame L'Oréal. "Because I'm worth it" has made us feel all self-important.
But what about the famous British spirit, our ability to keep going in the face of adversity? Has this disappeared? Snap out of it, pull yourself together, get a grip (or, as my teenage son would say, man up). Surely the stiff upper lip is deep in the national psyche, as British as fish and chips and a nice cup of tea. Look, for example, at how the British public behaved on the home front during the Second World War.
Historian Juliet Gardiner has just finished writing a new book on the Blitz, out in September to coincide with the 70th anniversary. Yes, she says, keeping morale high during the war was vitally important and people did just carry on as normal during the Blitz, to the great surprise of the government, which had cleared mental hospitals in readiness for people suffering from "war neurosis".
What this meant, in reality, was that many people just suffered in silence, often for years afterwards. "I think the collapse of the stiff upper lip is a good thing," Gardiner says. "I think today we've reached a happy medium – we're able to share emotion rather than repress it."
Can we really trace this emotional openness back to the Diana moment? Or had the stiff upper lip started trembling well before 1997? Perhaps it all started in the Sixties, when girls with sooty eyelashes and tiny mini skirts started challenging tight-lipped convention. Or perhaps it was the collapse of traditional communities that got us spilling all our secrets to strangers. (Maybe it was the death of the village pub: many a local landlord acted as unpaid counsellor.)
Or perhaps we should just blame the United States. The US therapy culture has crept over in films, self-help books and sitcoms like Friends (no one was ever "there" for anyone when I was a teenager). All those toe-curling phrases have become part of everyday speech – being in denial, wanting closure – and are now, according to Kathryn Ecclestone, professor of education and social inclusion at the University of Birmingham, firmly embedded in our education.
It's not just that children and young adults, from nursery schools to universities, are encouraged to emote all over the place, Ecclestone says. It's the fact that if they don't, it's somehow suggested that they might be repressing something that could turn out to be a problem later in life. It's all done with the best of intentions, she says, but "the danger is that it's possible we could be creating a generation who are very susceptible to the idea that they 'have issues'."
So with all this going on, must we finally say goodbye to that old-fashioned British reserve? Must I now behave with Mediterranean exuberance?
Perhaps we're just doing nowadays what the British have always done rather well, adopting an eclectic mix of the old and the new, trying out innovations but happy to stick with what works. In a recent, moving interview, Andy Sturgeon, this year's designer of the Telegraph Chelsea garden, said that it was tea, tears and alcohol that got him through when his wife Sarah died suddenly, rather than antidepressants or counselling.
Underneath it all, the gritty, stubborn determination to carry on, to hold things together in the face of adversity, still runs through our veins. We may be challenged by weeping politicians and talk of issues and anger management, but we know what to do in a crisis. Think back to 7/7. People were killed; there were horrible injuries. But the next day, Londoners were back on public transport. Of course we were shocked. But we still carried on.
Let's face it, the only thing that ever really breaks through the British stiff upper lip is a bit of unexpected snow. Terrorist attacks, global recession, MPs charged under the Theft Act and a world turned upside-down by climate change: we can cope with that. We're British.
That's quite enough talk about emotion. Cup of tea, anyone?
One who has a stiff upper lip displays fortitude in the face of adversity, or exercises great self-restraint in the expression of emotion. The phrase is most commonly heard as part of the idiom "keep a stiff upper lip", and has traditionally been used to describe an attribute of British people in remaining resolute and unemotional in the face of adversity. A sign of weakness is trembling of the upper lip, hence the saying keep a stiff upper lip. When a person's upper lip begins to tremble, it is one of the first signs that the person is scared or shaken by experiencing deep emotion.
Notable examples in British history include, Captain Lawrence Oates's understated act of Antarctic sacrifice: aware that his ill health was compromising his three companions' chances of survival, he calmly left his tent and chose certain death; Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before embarking on the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and Lord Uxbridge's calm assessment of his injuries (he had lost his leg) to the Duke of Wellington when hit by a cannonball during the Battle of Waterloo in the Napoleonic Wars.
The ideal of the stiff upper lip is traced back to Ancient Greece – to the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice inspired the English public school system; and to the Stoics. Stoic ideas were adopted by the Romans, particularly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, "If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now."The concept reached England in the 1590s, and featured in the plays of William Shakespeare; his tragic hero Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so". Poems that feature a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism and a stiff upper lip include Rudyard Kipling's "If—" and W. E. Henley's "Invictus". The phrase became symbolic of the British people, and particularly of those who were products of the English public school system during the Victorian era. Such schools were heavily influenced by stoicism, and aimed to instill a code of discipline and devotion to duty in their students through competitive sports, corporal punishments and cold showers.
Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: an Emotional History of Britain, BBC Two, review
Michael Deacon reviews Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: an Emotional History of Britain (BBC Two), in which our host set out to learn whether we've always been so reserved and unflappable.
By Michael Deacon7:30AM BST 03 Oct 2012
Our definition of Britishness must come from a very old dictionary. In Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip: an Emotional History of Britain, a new series for BBC Two, our host set out to learn whether we’ve always been so stoic, restrained and unflappable. Well, if we ever were, we surely aren’t now.
Today we’re a nation of whingers, of squawking doom-mongers, of I-know-my-rights solipsists. When we don’t complain, it’s usually only because we’re afraid of the person we’d have to complain to. “Still, must grumble” is our 21st-century motto. Which is curious, because, even allowing for the recession, we’re richer, better fed and longer-living than any generation before us. No smog, no cholera, no prospect of conscription... In short: the less we have to moan about, the more we moan. Lord knows I do. Look at me now: moaning about moaning.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The series is chronological, so in last night’s episode, the first of three, Hislop was examining the British temperament between late medieval times to the early 1800s. Five hundred years ago, it seems, we were an exuberant, even friendly people, who always greeted strangers with a kiss (“You cannot move without kisses!” recorded a Dutch visitor).
Writing a little later, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) found us “ill-natured” and “uncivil”, but then Swift hated more or less everyone, so let’s not take it too badly. Other sources from around that time suggest that we (or at least, those towards the top of society) treasured “politeness”, meaning not simply good table manners but a refusal to gush. This isn’t to say we were unemotional, or thought emotion unmanly. In early novels such as Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), “sentimentality” (meaning the feeling and expression of emotion) was celebrated. Nelson, our national hero in the late 1700s, was in many respects sensitive and insecure; he wasn’t ashamed of that, and nor was his adoring public. Forget Hardy – any man in the land would have kissed him.
It wasn’t until the 1800s, said Hislop, that we developed our stiff upper lip (funnily enough, an American phrase). Hislop argued that stoicism and reserve were forced on us by the French: we had to pull together to stop the filthy, foppish Frogs building an empire to eclipse ours. Wellington, our new national hero after Waterloo, was a paragon of cold resolve. In his youth a fine musical talent, he ended up tossing his violins on the fire; he was determined to be a great military leader, and he wasn’t going to let anything so wet as art get in his way. Look at the portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence: arms folded, lips thin, eyes glaring. There might as well be a speech bubble saying, “Yeah? And? Want to make something of it?”
Next week: the Victorians. I hope we’ll hear more from the main talking head, an academic at somewhere called the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions, if only because it seems so brilliantly bizarre that such a place should exist. Imagine the lectures. “Sadness was discovered in 426 BC…”
A history of a nation’s emotions is rather a nebulous idea, but Hislop told it well. He’s good at documentaries, and quite different in approach from the derisive team captain we see on Have I Got News for You. Small, courteous, round-faced, shuffling around old buildings in a nice warm coat, he puts me oddly in mind of GK Chesterton’s crime-solving Edwardian cleric, Father Brown. If ever I need a slightly far-fetched murder looked into, I’ll be sure to give him a call.