The Blog

Forgotten Feelings: Our Emotional Past

What on earth has happened to the national reserve and emotional continence for which we Brits were once internationally famed? Where is the 'stiff upper lip' attributed to 'good Queen Bess' and the Duke of Wellington by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937?

We have just lived through a British summer marked by dizzying displays of feeling. Andy Murray's tearful interview on Centre Court in July was just the start. The Olympic and Paralympic games turned into a veritable orgy of emotion. Athletes were breathlessly asked: "Can you sum up your emotions? Can you describe how it feels?" Winners, losers, spectators, politicians: everyone was brimming over. Boris Johnson shed "hot tears of patriotic pride" at the opening ceremony, and remained in a state of emotional arousal throughout the games, right up to their "tear-sodden juddering climax".

This is part of a general trend, from the touchy-feely style of Tony Blair and New Labour, along with the nation's response to the death of Diana in 1997, through to the endless emoting on top-rating TV shows such as the X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent in the 21st Century.

Leading politicians have cottoned on to this cranking up of the emotional level. Gordon Brown and David Cameron both allowed themselves to be filmed welling up with emotion while discussing personal tragedies during prime-time television interviews for the 2010 General Election campaign. And since then things have got even more bizarre, with Nick Clegg boasting that he frequently cries when listening to music (admittedly he has had plenty to cry about), Ed Balls announcing that he weeps over The Antiques Roadshow, and Ken Livingstone dissolving into tears while watching his own campaign video earlier this year.

What on earth has happened to the national reserve and emotional continence for which we Brits were once internationally famed? Where is the 'stiff upper lip' attributed to 'good Queen Bess' and the Duke of Wellington by George and Ira Gershwin in 1937? With impeccable timing, that is exactly what Ian Hislop asks in his new BBC2 series on the emotional history of Britain.

As Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, and consultant on the series, I was able to help take the longer view. Historically, the British stiff upper lip is a pretty recent and unconvincing invention. It came to real prominence as a national characteristic only at the end of the 19th Century, and had already had its day 50 years ago. Andy Murray, Boris Johnson and the rest are in fact reconnecting us with a longer and more authentic British tradition of strong feelings and public emotion. Up until the Victorian period, Britain was a nation as famous for powerful passions, miserable moods, and tender sentiments as it was for stoicism or reserve.

Visitors to these islands in earlier centuries wrote of a people who were perhaps taciturn, sometimes obnoxious, rude, or unfriendly, but certainly not unemotional. Observers mentioned excessive public kissing and lewd drunkenness (British binge drinking is nothing new). The most pervasive trait, though, was brooding, mournful melancholy: we were a nation of Hamlets. Robert Burton's famous Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621, reflected this national characteristic. Over a century later, Dr George Cheyne christened melancholy 'the English malady', and the same phrase was applied to suicide. By the 18th Century, the English had a reputation across Europe as a nation of over-emotional miseries, with a propensity to do away with themselves at the slightest cause, from romantic disappointment to religious over-excitement.

A period sometimes remembered as a cold and scientific 'age of reason', the 18th Century was also an era that made a cult out of strong feelings. Fashionable men and women learned to sigh, tremble, and weep in response to stories, plays and paintings. My own favourite example of the sentimental genre is The Man of Feeling, a bestselling novel by Henry Mackenzie, published in 1771. The hero of the book encounters beggars and prostitutes, orphans and criminals, and sheds bucketsful of tears of sympathy in response. In novels like Mackenzie's, the characters embrace, fall upon each other's necks, kiss and weep. It is interesting to note that Mackenzie was a Scot. Perhaps Andy Murray is channelling this alternative Scottish tradition: not dour and humourless, but full of feeling.

Strong emotions were a feature of public life as well as fiction. The rites of religion, criminal justice, and politics were all performed with passion. The Methodist preacher, George Whitefield, renowned for the intense emotion of his hellfire sermons, often preached with a handkerchief in his hand. One contemporary described how Whitefield 'exceedingly wept, stamped loudly and passionately, and was frequently so overcome, that for a few seconds, you would suspect he never could recover'. Another flamboyantly emotional clergyman, and part-time sentimental novelist, was William Dodd, the so-called 'Macaroni Parson', who excited his congregations with racy tales of fallen women. Dodd was a controversial figure who was suspected of immorality and ultimately charged with capital forgery. Even a speech of penitence composed for him by Samuel Johnson was not enough to win round the jury, however, and the foreman announced the guilty verdict amid a flood of tears. Dodd was hanged at Tyburn.

At an earlier public execution, John Thrift, the executioner wept bitterly and asked for the forgiveness of the Jacobite rebel Lord Kilmarnock, before chopping his head off in front of a huge crowd. When George III lost his mind in the 1780s, his return to health was marked by the tears of affection he shed over his wife and children. A famous political feud between Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke reached its peak when both broke down in floods of tears on the floor of the House of Commons. Indeed, so emotional was the eighteenth century, that it sometimes seemed that everyone was in tears. Not only were actors, novelists, and poets forever sighing and sobbing, so too were preachers, politicians and the monarch himself, while travellers' tales told of weeping dogs, crocodiles, orang-utans, and horses. Even animals were more emotional in the 18th Century.

Drunken, passionate, melancholy, romantic, and tearful: how did such a people become the emotionally repressed nation of the twentieth century? It is a complicated story, involving Protestantism, science, and empire. But perhaps the most important single factor was the French Revolution of 1789. The bloody violence of that uprising was interpreted as the outcome of the cult of feeling. And the earliest versions of the idea that emotional restraint was an especially British trait appeared during the years that followed. The process had now begun of rewriting the national character in contrast with the revoltingly emotional French. Romance, enthusiasm, and strong feelings would have to go underground.

So, if Andy Murray and the emotional outpourings of London 2012 were unwelcome for some, one thing they were not is alien to our national heritage. The men and women of feeling may finally be making a comeback.

Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain is on BBC2 and starts at 9pm on 2 October.