The myth of Britain's stiff upper lip
- 16 February 2011
- From the section Magazine
The death of Diana is often said to be the moment the UK lost its stiff upper lip and the British started being comfortable crying in public. But has the UK always been a nation for mass outpourings of national grief?
In recent years it seems Britain has become a nation of cry-babies, despite its long-held reputation for keeping emotions firmly buttoned up.
From the most unlikely politicians and public figures - including Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell - to just about everyone on a TV talent show, the tears are coming thick and fast.
Often, this shift towards public crying is linked with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. This collective moment of mourning is seen as releasing a nation from the restraints of being reserved and stoical.
But the British actually have a long history of very public outpourings of grief and their reputation for being emotionally reserved is only a relatively recent thing, says historian Dr Thomas Dixon, who is researching a history of crying.
The public show of grief at Diana's death is nothing new. She was one in a long line of public figures to be mourned en masse.
"We've been a pretty weepy country through the centuries until the 20th Century," says Dr Dixon.
"It was unusually dry in terms of tears. There was a lot of stoicism and reserve. But if we go back before the 20th Century, we have other peaks of sentiments, emotion and weeping in the late 18th and up to the mid-19th Century. There's been more crying than you might think.
"Even in the 19th Century there were large outpourings of national grief in response to the death of famous figures."
One comparable event was the death of Admiral Lord Nelson in 1805. He had won the Battle of Trafalgar against the French and Spanish navies, but died in doing so.
"There was a huge state funeral and there were many pieces of journalism reporting the event in the national press and many of them talk about 'tears gushing from every eye' and the 'nation's tears', 'Britannia's tears' at the falling of her hero and poems about Nelson and so on," says Dr Dixon.
The UK is currently in a middle of a new wave of weeping in public life, he says. It started in the 1990s, with incidents like Margaret Thatcher leaving Downing Street with tears in her eyes in 1990. In the same year Gazza bawled his eyes out at the World Cup. Then there was mass crying when Princess Diana died.
"We may have much more to come," he warns.
So where did Britain's reputation for the stiff upper lip come from?
"That came from World War II," says Dr Dixon. "The 20th Century is where the tears started to dry up. A time of war is no time for weeping, whether you're on the home front or fighting the war against Hitler around the world.
"It's at that point that this ethos emerges that however much private grief one might have, this ethos emerges that British people don't cry because they are strong and determined and resilient and stoical."
Social historian Dr Julie-Marie Strange says that until the mid-19th Century, it was considered fine for men and women to cry in public.
"It's particularly surprising for us when you get Victorian men crying in public. It was deemed fine to cry at a bereavement at a particular situation, for example because of a child death. Lots of people admitted crying at the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop [by Charles Dickens]."
Even before the Victorian period officially began, there were occasions of conspicuous public mourning, says Dr Strange.
"The heroes were Byron and Shelley, men who made careers and reputations from being very emotional."
When Byron died in 1824, nearly 20 years after Nelson, lots of young men wore black armbands and wept openly, she says. But by the end of the century, the tone had changed so much that such behaviour was characterised as weak and intellectually stunted.
From the 1880s onwards, it became less acceptable for men particularly to cry in public, she says, partly due to the emergence of what has been called "muscular Christianity", which emphasised a vigorous masculinity in the face of anxieties about the decline of the Empire and the degeneration of Britain as a nation.
This change was best symbolised by writer Oscar Wilde, who sneered at the grief displayed by fans of Charles Dickens over Little Nell.
"One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing," he famously remarked.
What Wilde would make of today's blubbing, one can only imagine.