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31 August 2022

From Diana to Meghan – why do the British problematise displays of emotion?

It’s not victimhood to express feelings – it’s good for your mental health.

By Terri White

“What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart…” 

This line, from the live TV broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral – Diana died 25 years ago today – still shocks. It was a very public display of feelings from the person who most embodied a fundamentally “British” way of dealing with them: to keep that upper lip stiff and the rest of your mouth closed.

That line: unthinkable then, and unthinkable still. 

Last night I watched The Queen, Stephen Frears’s cinematic take on those dark days for the Crown: when the rolling silence from the monarch saw her branded cold and out of touch, a reaction that ultimately prompted the address and that line.

The film reminds us of the media’s and the public’s mood before the Queen made that speech. The same newspapers that had portrayed Diana in life as overly emotional and hysterical rushed to insist on a grand show of emotion from her. The headlines demanding, “Has the House of Windsor Got a Heart?”; “Your people are suffering. Speak to us ma’am”; “Show us you care”. 

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But some commentators were shocked at the country’s reaction: they thought the public’s behaviour – sleeping in the streets before the funeral, openly weeping – was proof of an unfixable crack in the country’s collective stiff upper lip. A breach, it was feared, that would allow all of our feelings to gush out unchecked forever. And why? The contention – both then and increasingly now – is that to “share” is disingenuous or desperate or both. That it displays nothing but a collective desire for victimhood.

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We only have to look at this week’s wildly disproportionate reaction to Meghan Markle’s candid interview with the Cut in New York. Something only dwarfed in hysteria by the wildly disproportionate response to her candid interview with Oprah Winfrey. You know, the one in which she famously spoke about her spiralling mental health and suicidal ideation while six months pregnant with her son, Archie.

Leaving aside those who chose to set fire to their empathy and claim she was lying, there were many more who balked at a royal, a woman, a biracial woman, an American biracial woman (any or probably all of the above) who had married into “British royalty for heaven’s sake”, being so open, so free with her feelings. It is implied that sharing trauma, the cataclysmic impact that certain events can have on mental health and emotional wellbeing is at best a weakness, at worst a manipulation.

What is it about the British way – of keeping it unexpressed – that we believe gives us either the moral or intellectual higher ground? That drives us to attack those who reject being that way, while suppressing our own emotions until they fit neatly into a tiny box that we lock inside a safe we don’t know the code to.

Perhaps it’s part of our romanticism about the UK’s past. The one where there was frost on the windows and no food in the pantry and kids were seen but not heard and, yep, emotions were welded to our insides. Sounds great doesn’t it?! What a way to spend your time on the slow march to death.

We know all too well where refusing to talk, to take care of our brains and hearts can lead us. Sure, on World Mental Health Day or another nominated day that compels us to be kind, we say, “Hey, let’s talk!” But also, 25 years on, we say, “Oh, but not you. And no, not like that.”

[See also: What is left of Princess Diana?