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How Britain's stiff upper-lip went wobbly

Published: 23rd May 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd May 2016 10:11 PM   |  A+A-

People cry too much nowadays. X Factor contestants weep because a song reminds them of their gran, who isn’t even dead. Bake Off judges sob over a winning flan. Even James Bond feels hurt. Thank goodness Daniel Craig is retiring: his Bond was one break-up away from group therapy.

Of course, bottling things up to the point of explosion is a dangerous alternative — and not nearly as British. Historian Thomas Dixon has produced some fascinating research suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon “stiff upper-lip” was a Victorian invention, popular only from about 1870 to 1945. The Americans probably invented the term; the British turned it into a lifestyle.

In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Charles Darwin claimed that “savages weep copiously from very slight causes” whereas the English “rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief”. Hence, the British reserve was supposed to be both proof of racial superiority and gift to the colonies. If Ian Fleming’s Bond ever strikes you as a psychopath, then it’s because he was the product of a public school system that tried to turn biological myth into a social reality.

Dixon’s quite right. There was a perceptible shift in cultural archetypes from the early Victorian period to the early 20th century — from the melodrama of Dickens to the cold-showers of Baden-Powell. But there was a wider context. Victorian Britain was a place of profound change. Millions moved to the big cities for jobs; crime and disease were rampant. There was a need to develop a new emotional ethic that was, in part, about maintaining social control. So the upper classes promoted family, religion and stoicism. The flipside of control was reform. Britain in 1870-1945 was not, as its grandchildren would parody it, just some arid desert of class tension and repression. It was also the era of a war on child prostitution, the passage of workers’ rights, suffrage and the beginnings of the welfare state.

This drive for social reform was inseparable from the cult of self-improvement. Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, was a proponent of temperance. It is no coincidence that British society was at its stuffiest when it was at its richest and its most reforming. Self-government of an individual’s emotions is critical to success.That’s blindingly obvious, isn’t it? And what goes for the individual trickles down to affect the rest of society. But Dixon’s history shows societies don’t change of their own accord. They are shaped by tastemakers and the media. And the emotional order being forced now can be very ugly. There is an inhuman pressure in 2016 to feel things deeply — even if one doesn’t. The result is an emotional incontinence.

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