Review: Ian Hislop’s ‘Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain’

Jennifer Wallis (QMUL)

Figure One: Ian Hislop and his many hats!

Ian Hislop’s three-part series Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain aims to ‘[explore] emotion and identity over the last 300 years’ – or more pertinently, how (and indeed, if) we British have attempted to tame, bottle up, and alter our emotions. Screening the history of emotions may not be as straightforward as the history of surgery or of World War One, but Stiff Upper Lip is a cleverly-crafted analysis that takes a seemingly intangible historical object and makes it comprehensible to a wider audience.

Episode two, Heyday, examines the nineteenth-century cultivation of emotional restraint. Hislop presents a picture of a proudly unemotional empire whipped into physical and moral shape by muscular Christianity and the Boys’ Brigade. The Crimean War, with its massive loss of life, is passionately described by historian A.N. Wilson as showing up the ‘total blundering stupidity’ of army officers. Here, the ‘ordinary man’ finally enters the picture as a praiseworthy counterbalance to incompetent officials. (It’s also a welcome antidote to the ‘great men’ – Nelson, Wellington, etc. – who dominated episode one.)

Figure Two: Crimean War: Sisters of Charity nursing wounded soldier, Wellcome Images

The high-profile official and the honourable common man are also joined by that epitome of Britishness, the eccentric. In the Victorian era, a stiff upper lip was essential both to overcome misfortune and achieve greatness, the latter being accomplished in all manner of ways. Thus we are introduced to Captain Matthew Webb, who swam the English Channel in 1875 with just a slathering of porpoise oil to protect him against the elements. Beef tea, brandy, and an all important ‘cold glass of cod liver oil’ were provided by escorts sailing alongside him, and he completed his swim in less than 24 hours. At the end of this feat, his only complaint was ‘a peculiar sensation in [his] limbs, somewhat similar to that … after the first day of the cricket season’. Webb’s combination of dogged determination and unconventionality has enduring appeal. His statue gazes out to sea at Dover, where Hislop meets modern-day Webb admirer Bryn Dymott, who plunges gamely into the murky grey waves as Hislop watches, shivering, from the beach.

The impression one gets of Britain’s stiff upper lip is a rather gender-specific one. This is perhaps unsurprising given the frequent militaristic focus, and yet, had you instead been watching BBC One’s The Paradise (scheduled in a competing slot), you may have come away with a rather different picture of Victorian emotionality (Jocelin Brookmire, her emotions in turmoil after separating from her husband, is adamant that no one should witness her faint on the floor of fashionable department store, The Paradise).

Whilst Stiff Upper Lip briefly discusses ‘the angel in the house’, we hear little of the experience of the working-class woman in the nineteenth century – a place where we might expect to find one of the most stark examples of the stiff upper lip as women worked and cared for children in often appalling conditions. Though a disappointing omission, it’s one likely to be rectified in episode three as women come to the fore during wartime and – in a phrase immortalised on countless book bags – ‘keep calm and carry on’.

All in all, Stiff Upper Lip is an engaging look at that most elusive of entities, the British national character. It is, admittedly, just one facet of that character (a 1961 book, Les Anglais, are they mad?, noted the decidedly unreserved British affection for animals, for example). It’s an important facet nonetheless, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see the less well-trodden fields of history making it onto our screens.

Jennifer Wallis is a PhD student at QMUL’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, where she is researching pathology and insanity in the late nineteenth century.

Related JVC articles

Tom Dixon, ‘The Tears of Mr Justice Willes’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2012) 17:1 (FREE)
Tiffany Watt-Smith, ‘Darwin’s Flinch: Sensation Theatre and Scientific Looking in 1872’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2010), 15:1.

Articles in Journal of Victorian Culture 16:2 (FREE)
Paul White, ‘Darwin Wept: Science and Sentimental Subject’
Carloyn Burdett, ;Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality’
Nicola Brown, ‘Tender Beauty: Victorian Painting and the Problems of Sentimentality’

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