Erica Wagner writes: Helen Maria Williams observed the French Revolution at first hand. A poet, essayist and novelist known for her support of radical causes, she entertained the likes of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft in her salons. Among the things she perceived, in her accounts of political turmoil across the English Channel, were differences in national character when it came to expressing emotion.
“You will see Frenchmen bathed in tears at a tragedy,” she wrote in 1792. “An Englishman has quite as much sensibility to a generous or tender sentiment; but he thinks it would be unmanly to weep; and, though half choaked with emotion, he scorns to be overcome, contrives to gain the victory over his feelings, and throws into his countenance as much apathy as he can well wish.”
And so you would be forgiven for thinking that the stiff upper lip – the complete refusal of lachrymosity, no matter what disaster befalls us – has been paralysing the faces of Britishers since Stonehenge was raised on Salisbury Plain. But, as Thomas Dixon shows in his erudite and entertaining book Weeping Britannia, you would be wrong. Once upon a time and not so very long ago, this nation was given to paroxysms of sobbing at almost any opportunity. Dixon, a historian of emotions, philosophy, science and religion (phew!) at Queen Mary, University of London, asks what dried our tears and wonders whether the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 unlocked the floodgates again.
Both he and Tiffany Watt Smith, in The Book of Human Emotions, offer a reminder that “emotion” is a pretty novel idea. [Continue reading…]