Stiff upper lips: an English history of emotion

Two new books chart our changing feelings around feelings.

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Helen Maria Williams observed the French Revolution at first hand. A poet, essayist and novelist known for her support of radical causes, she entertained the likes of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft in her salons. Among the things she perceived, in her accounts of political turmoil across the English Channel, were differences in national character when it came to expressing emotion.

“You will see Frenchmen bathed in tears at a tragedy,” she wrote in 1792. “An Englishman has quite as much sensibility to a generous or tender sentiment; but he thinks it would be unmanly to weep; and, though half choaked with emotion, he scorns to be overcome, contrives to gain the victory over his feelings, and throws into his countenance as much apathy as he can well wish.”

And so you would be forgiven for thinking that the stiff upper lip – the complete refusal of lachrymosity, no matter what disaster befalls us – has been paralysing the faces of Britishers since Stonehenge was raised on Salisbury Plain. But, as Thomas Dixon shows in his erudite and entertaining book Weeping Britannia, you would be wrong. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, this nation was given to paroxysms of sobbing at almost any opportunity. Dixon, a historian of emotions, philosophy, science and religion (phew!) at Queen Mary, University of London, asks what dried our tears and wonders whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 unlocked the floodgates again.

Both he and Tiffany Watt Smith, in The Book of Human Emotions, offer a reminder that “emotion” is a pretty novel idea. For centuries, the theory of bodily “humours” – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile – held sway; personality was determined by the balance of these. Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, understood tears as part of this balance. “To these humours,” he wrote in 1621, “you may add serum, which is the matter of urine, and those excrementitious humours of the third concoction, sweat and tears.” (Dixon opines that his favourite phrase for tears is “excrementitious humours of the third concoction” and it is hard to disagree.)

Emotion only appeared on the scene in the 19th century. Smith credits the Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown for introducing the term, which blended physiognomy with feeling: “The coinage indicated a novel approach to the life of feelings, one which used experiments and anatomical investigations to focus on observable phenomena: clenched teeth; rolling tears; shudders; wide eyes.”

Where Dixon is concerned almost exclusively with those rolling tears, Smith’s book presents itself as an encyclopaedia, giving extended definitions not only of those emotions with which we are familiar but also conditions of the soul that seem to belong exclusively to particular cultures or times: the Japanese amae or the Portuguese saudade; the acedia that afflicted devout Christians in the early centuries of the religion and then vanished nearly without trace.

Both of these books demonstrate the way in which emotions are social constructs, arising not only from our physical selves but also from culture and chronology. Dixon moves from the Middle Ages to the present day in charting the shifting meanings of tears and British attitudes towards them; I write “British” advisedly, for there are plenty of examples in which the nations that make up this sceptred isle disagree on the matter. The Hull Daily Mail, observing David Lloyd George speak in 1909 to his constituency of Carnarvon Boroughs – a meeting at which both the then chancellor of the Exchequer and his audience wept – despaired of this “display of fulsome feeling” as revealing of a “flowery and fervid national character”. In “hard-headed and self-possessed Yorkshire, such an exhibition would have been enough to empty the hall”. The Dundee Evening Telegraph was of a similar opinion.

Dixon’s examples are largely English. He begins with Margery Kempe, the 15th-century mystic whose autobiography of her spiritual journey was rediscovered in the 1930s. Dixon calls her “the fons et origo” of English tears – her account of her life is nearly overwhelmed by weeping and sobbing (search online through Margery’s text and you will find 105 mentions of “wepyng”
alone, never mind dozens of “sobbyng”, “crying” and “terys”).

Dixon traces a line through the Reformation, the French Revolution and the building of the British empire to show how the nation gradually renounced its tears but, for much of the intervening centuries, the British and even the English were happy to keep their feelings to the fore. Queen Victoria wept when she learned that she was to be queen. Charles Dickens was a master of pathos; at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, “the world mourned”, one of the author’s obituaries noted. As for Oscar Wilde’s reported acerbic quip – that one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing – Dixon does well to remind us that Wilde was the author of “The Happy Prince”, one of the greatest sob-fests ever set down on paper.

This is a book that surprises and delights. I won’t give away its biggest surprise, which is the origin of the phrase “stiff upper lip”. Dixon notes that, particularly after the First World War, women never did well with their weeping. They were urged not to cry (“Modern girls don’t cry, even if they feel like it,” said the actress Dorothy Brunton) – but if they didn’t, they might be judged “hard-faced hussies”. Plus ça change.

Both of these books bring to mind Inside Out, last summer’s hit Pixar film, in which five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust – belonging to a little girl called Riley battle it out for control of her personality. How fortunate that the animators didn’t get hold of Smith’s book; the movie would have been a mess. The Book of Human Emotions is published in association with the Wellcome Collection, an organisation that is always trying to bridge the gap between science and art. The result is a kind of very high-class book to keep on a shelf in the lav.

Smith’s most entertaining entries are – somewhat by default – those that concern those unfamiliar, culturally specific emotions. Amae, since you were wondering, is the need to be coddled and comforted by a loved one. Saudade is a melancholic yearning for someone or some place far distant or lost – it was thought to have been named in the 13th century and popularised during the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Some of Smith’s choices are hard to quantify as ­emotions, however: does Emily Dickinson’s “formal feeling” really qualify? “Postal, going”? I’m not so sure.

But there’s no solution to the human puzzle – thank goodness. In 1950, Mass Observation sent out 300 questionnaires to its correspondents, asking whether they ever wept in the cinema. Many did and a great deal of the weeping went on at screenings of David Lean’s 1945 stiff-upper-lip classic Brief Encounter.

“I try so hard not to cry,” one respondent wrote. “I’m furious with myself for crying and yet the tears do come.” 

Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears by Thomas Dixon is published by Oxford University Press (456p, £25)

The Book of Human Emotions: an Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith is published by Profile Books (208pp, £14.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article appears in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue