A new series on TV in the UK is tracing the “emotional history” of Britain and it is interesting to discover that the nation has not always been associated with reserve, resilience, restraint and emotional coolness. In the Middle Ages visitors including the Dutch scholar Erasmus commented on the fact that the English were always kissing each other, weeping, arguing and generally allowing their passions to get the better of them. Italian visitors to the Elizabethan court also commented unfavourably on how the British lacked self-control. It was a time when the Brits were renowned for letting it all hang out emotionally and it was the French who invented the word “sang-froid” to describe a quality that their neighbours across the Channel singularly lacked.
During the English Civil Wars of the 17th century the Parliamentarians, famous for frowning on celebrations of festivals such as Christmas, represented the virtues of modesty and discipline whilst the cavaliers revelled in pleasure and panache. This vogue for indulging the emotions was popular during the Restoration and by the 18th century the word “sentimental” was a term of praise. It referred to a person of taste and refinement, someone who would openly show emotion. Both men and women wept over books such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and sentimental paintings were very much in fashion. The last great hero of this era was Horatio Nelson, flamboyant and sentimental, a man who paraded his passions in public. This was a man who had no hesitation in asking one of his closest friends to kiss him goodbye on his deathbed. When Nelson died the huge outpouring of grief at his funeral mirrored the emotional nature of his life.
The Lip Stiffens
But the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution were changing British attitudes towards the expression of passion. The French Revolution was seen as a disastrous result of the outpouring of rampant emotional expression. Passion was seen as dangerous to life and liberty. At its most extreme, political passion resulted in revolution. So it was time to stiffen the upper lip and reject the display of emotion. Jane Austen’s heroes reflect this change. They have admirable self-control and seldom express their feelings. When they do, what they say is concise, heartfelt but not flamboyant: Mr Darcy, for example, only expresses his admiration for Elizabeth Bennett when goaded into it by Miss Bingley. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is determinedly unsentimental, rejecting the heroine's wild flights of imagination. Even Frederick Wentworth, possibly the most open of Jane Austen's heroes is still a model of military restraint, resourcefulness and fortitude. As for the heroines, Elinor, representing sense, is favoured over Marianne, representing Sensibility.
Lord Byron was another man who simply could not resist indulging his emotions. In contrast, the Duke of Wellington came to exemplify all that was admired in stoicism and self-control. The “Iron Duke” was emotionally restrained. One could not imagine him asking his best friend to kiss him under any circumstances. The story of his exchange with Lord Uxbridge at the Battle of Waterloo demonstrates this. When Uxbridge had his leg shattered by a cannonball he declared: “By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By God, sir, so you have,” Wellington replied calmly.
The Doughty Victorians
The Victorian era enshrined the stiff upper lip as a virtue throughout all classes of society. Britons’ inclination to express passion was suppressed, beaten out of young men at public school and repressed by the Church. Explorers and soldiers were models of cool self-control and so were the women who supported them. Florentia, Lady Sale, during the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War wrote in her diary: "Today we fought our way through the Jugdulluk Pass. Fortunately, I was only wounded once."
Much of the literature of the Victorian period reflected this cool stoicism. Invictus by WE Henley, Vitai Lampada by Henry Newbolt and If by Rudyard Kipling all praise the quality of the stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. However, the flip side to such fortutide could be a lack of imagination and empathy. There was a strong backlash against the stiff upper lip at the start of the 20th century from those who felt it ironed out all sensitivity.
Is there still a place for the stiff upper lip?
These days there is a general consensus that the stiff upper lip is quivering too much with sentimentality. We Brits cry regularly – even tennis player Andy Murray, the dour Scot, gets emotional. We get passionate for the things we care about. And yet some of the British classic understatement and stiff upper lip does survive. In my family the enquiry “How are you?” is always greeted with the answer “fine, thank you” regardless of circumstances. When my other half and I were driving through the African bush and got stuck in deep sand we took turns in digging the Land Rover out whilst the other one kept watch for a lion attack. We needed all our reserves of calmness and fortitude then.
I’m not suggesting that the qualities of coolness in the face of danger, resilience and restraint are exclusive to the Brits. Far from it. I don’t see them as the preserve of one particular nation over another. During the Victoran period there was in fact a fear that the Americans in particular were going to overtake the British in terms of their coollness under pressure and their positive attitude. Other races were also acknowledged to possess the stiff upper lip: The Germans were renowned for their discipline, the Australians for their resilience and resourcefulness and the Nordic races for their calm.
I have to confess that I do find many of the qualities associated with the stiff upper lip to be attractive, in real life as well as in my fiction. I suppose ideally I would like a hero who possesses some restraint and a great line in understatement, but who is still emotionally literate enough to declare his love to the heroine. I also love strong heroines who are clever and resourceful.
What about you? Do you prefer the strong silent type of hero who suppresses his passion or the sort of man like Nelson or Byron who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions in public? Or a hero somewhere between the two? Are there any particular examples of restraint and self-control you admire in real life or in novels? And what about the heroines? After all, the stiff upper lip isn't the sole prerogative of the male of the species!