In defence of the British stiff upper lip

Speaking out on mental health. Stefan Wermuth/PA Wire

In April, Prince Harry disclosed the turmoil he suffered by “shutting down” his emotions in the years following the death of his mother, Diana, Princes of Wales. His brother, Prince William, condemned the stigma surrounding mental illness and urged people to talk more openly about their emotions.

For many observers, this was a key moment in the history of Britain’s emotional culture. The convention of not disclosing one’s feelings, even in the most extreme of circumstances, had apparently been abandoned in that last redoubt of what William himself termed the British “stiff upper lip”: the royal family.

The House of Windsor has all too regularly exposed the dangers of excessive emotional restraint. The uncompromising formality that characterised George V’s dealings with his children contributed to Edward VIII’s adult immaturity and George VI’s chronic shyness, speech impediment and notoriously explosive temper.

Elizabeth II’s rigorous adherence to the protocols of self-restraint in the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997 suggested that the Queen was out of step with the changing emotional temper of her subjects. And despite the young princes’ efforts to modernise the emotional culture of the royal family, real change may have to await the passing, not merely of the current sovereign, but of her son, the future Charles III.

Saying farewell to some of the less prepossessing connotations of the stiff upper lip – notably its association with hierarchical representations of class, gender and race – should come easily to progressive-minded people. However, emotional self-control and detachment should not be stereotyped as merely archaic survivals from a now vanished imperial and social order. Representing the “stiff upper lip” as an essentially elite public school creation that was subsequently foisted on the rest of the population ignores the broader currency of emotional restraint among all classes in 20th-century Britain.

Leaving it unsaid

In World War II, in particular, the suppression of nervous strain was presented as a genuinely national virtue that transcended class and gender differences. The underplaying of deep emotion went on to become a cliché in popular representations of the British officer class during the war and the immediate postwar years – and an object of scathing contempt in the “satire boom” of the early 1960s.

Yet, small gestures and veiled words, rather than rage or tears, were no less pertinent in a scene in Noel Coward’s cross-class wartime naval drama In Which We Serve during which robustly working-class seaman Shorty Blake (John Mills) calmly informs stoical lower-middle-class petty officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) that his wife has been killed in the Plymouth blitz. Restraint of emotion did not necessarily imply the absence of emotion.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the playwright Terence Rattigan succeeded in creating characters who – while superficially understated and undemonstrative – also succeeded in conveying powerful forces of human desire and compassion. Today, both Rattigan’s work and other classic texts of British emotional restraint such as Journey’s End and Brief Encounter are once again popular. This suggests that British audiences remain convinced that feelings are no less authentic for not being fully disclosed.

By contrast, the uninhibited emotional spasms of Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger now seem both dated and intrinsically phoney. This was the work that supposedly ushered in an era of increased authenticity in British culture and rendered Rattigan’s restraint an elitist anachronism. Yet, in Osborne’s play, Porter’s vituperative outbursts have a destructive impact on those around him. This should serve as a warning that the freedom to express one’s emotions cannot be unequivocally promoted as an inalienable right.

Room for restraint

It would be a tragedy if a commendable desire to improve mental health acted as cover for further encouragement to the less salubrious attributes of our era: narcissism, incivility, the devaluation of privacy and a relentless promotion of immediacy and sensation over contemplation and thought.

Hopefully nobody would begrudge the two princes for wanting to open up about the grief and trauma that so unexpectedly shattered their young lives. However, would we want to be quite so indulgent if those emotions that an individual wishes to share are not grief, fear or anxiety, but anger, hatred and contempt?
US president Donald Trump’s alarming early morning tweets suggest that this may not be the best historical moment to insist on loosening the protocols of emotional restraint in public life. In this sense, if nothing else, the stiff upper lip – provided we refuse to approach it through lazy stereotypes – still has a great deal to recommend it.

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