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Edith Cavell: the British nurse who taught women the way of the stiff upper lip

Pre-war life in Brussels.

In 1932, Madame Tussaud’s asked their younger visitors to choose from among the waxworks the individual they most wanted to be like when they grew up. The most popular answer was not the kind of figure you might expect. Daring explorers such as Captain Scott and Sir Earnest Shackleton were among the top choices, as were Joan of Arc, and Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. But the winner of the poll was a pious, middle-aged nurse from Norfolk who had worked in Belgium during its German occupation in World War I.

This was Edith Cavell, who had been instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers not only by providing them with medical care, but also by helping to smuggle them secretly back home across enemy lines. After her undercover resistance work was discovered by the German secret police, Cavell was tried for treason, found guilty, and shot at dawn by a firing squad in Brussels on October 12 1915, exactly 100 years ago today.

The shooting of Cavell – a woman, a nurse, an icon of feminine care-giving – became an international incident, and was used as propaganda tool in Britain and America to heighten anti-German feeling and boost recruitment. The American artist George Wesley Bellows, in his The Murder of Edith Cavell (1918), depicted the English nurse as something between the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel, almost hovering at the top of a staircase, dressed in white, above a dark scene of the brutality and chaos of war. But from the outset, it was Cavell’s courage and firmness, as much as her angelic goodness, that were emphasised. The combination of selflessness and stoicism – the two hallmarks of the “stiff upper lip” – still strongly appealed, decades later, to the children visiting Madame Tussaud’s.

George Bellows, Edith Cavel, 1918.

Cavell’s innocence of the charges of espionage brought against her was an important part of the propaganda message. But in a fascinating recent documentary, former head of MI5 Stella Rimmington discusses evidence suggesting that Cavell was indeed helping to transmit documents and secret information, as well as allied soldiers, back to Britain.

For me, the most compelling segments of the programme are the archival recordings from the early 1960s of women sharing their recollections of working with Cavell, who seems to have been an extremely austere character. Ruth Moore was a probationer at Cavell’s nursing school in Brussels in 1912. She remembered a pale, very thin figure with “practically no sense of humour” – a strict disciplinarian. Cavell would sit at the breakfast table with her watch next to her plate, checking that all her charges were seated by the appointed hour of a quarter past six.

Keep it all in

It was Cavell’s character, especially as it was posthumously represented, that first caught my own attention when I was researching the histories of tears and emotions in Britain. When contemplating the notion of a British “stiff upper lip”, we might think first of men – of an explorer like Captain Scott, or of the famous face of Lord Kitchener on recruiting posters, or of the ideal of manliness expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If–”.

But searching through the literature, journalism and popular culture of the early 20th century, it becomes clear that the admiration of Edith Cavell was just one element of a wider trend celebrating a newly restrained and unemotional femininity. The “stiff upper lip” mentality may have started as the preserve of elite men – especially ones with military connections – but it was soon extended to women too. And Edith Cavell was one of the first British women to be celebrated for her “stiff upper lip”.

Cavell (seated centre) with a group of her student nurses whom she trained in Brussels.

Although the immediate public reaction to the killing of Cavell had been one of outrage and grief, this was soon followed by calls in the press for resolve and stoicism. One periodical article complained about the “hysterical outburst” which had followed the execution, interpreting it as “one among many signs of the flabbiness of certain people’s minds”. The piece concluded with the observation that:

Nobody would have been more startled or distressed by the public attitude in the matter than Miss Cavell herself, who, when all is said, died not in the spirit of sentimental patriotism but because she was a firm woman and insisted on the stiff upper lip.

A few weeks later, a poem entitled “Edith Cavell” was published in The Cornishman and Cornish Telegraph. Its opening line set the tone: “Weep for her, sigh for her, cry for her? No!” Celebrating Cavell’s exemplary life and death as evidence of how proudly a woman may die, and how close a woman may come to the example of Christ, it continued:

To think on her name is to thrill and to glow –
But weep for her, sigh for her, cry for her? No!
Fight for her, ache for her, wake for her? Yes!
Brothers! This murder is yours to redress!

At the same time as Cavell’s stoical spirit was being invoked in this way in newspapers, her image was used to a similar end on British recruitment posters with the words “Murdered by the Huns”.

Help stop such atrocities! © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12217), CC BY-NC

Votes not tears

The period in Britain covered by the two world wars was a time when modern women struggled to escape from the age-old idea that theirs was the lachrymose sex – soft, caring, soppy, sobbing, hysterical, and manipulative. This was true in several different spheres, both private and public. Advice columns told women that tears would spoil their looks, annoy their husbands, damage their health, and alienate their friends. Newspapers carried advertisements for products called things like “Dr Williams’ Pink Pills” and “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” offering women relief from nerve-strain and its attendant tearful outbursts.

Tonic for the blood and nerves. © Wellcome L0058211, CC BY

The argument for female suffrage also required women to show that they could master their emotions sufficiently to make rational political decisions. Many were certain they could not.

In America, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress. Her election coincided with President Wilson seeking support for American entry into the war, in April 1917 – the eventual outcome of earlier incidents such as the sinking of the Lusitania and the shooting of Edith Cavell. Rankin was one of a substantial minority of 50 representatives who voted against joining the war. As she explained her reasons, she was reported to have shed tears.

Some of the male representatives wept too, but the press focused on the actions and tears of Rankin. In Britain one article wrote about the “lady member of Congress who, asked to decide between war and peace at the great session, could only burst into tears and say nothing”. A principled pacifist stand, albeit a tearful one, had been recast as a paralysing outburst of feminine emotion.

In this context, figures like Edith Cavell – brave, principled, and coolly unemotional – would be of propaganda value not only in short-term military recruitment campaigns, but also in longer term ones against centuries of gender stereotypes.

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