Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears
Oxford University Press 456pp £25
I begin this review with a confession. I am an inveterate weeper. I cry in the cinema, at television programmes and at the news. Music can leave me sobbing, as can school assemblies. I have also, shockingly, been known to bite back a tear in the archive, when I find a particularly moving story. I am also old enough to be embarrassed by this emotional incontinence and can usually be found trying to discretely wipe these tears away. Thank goodness, then, for Thomas Dixon’s Weeping Britannia and its assurance that this unwelcome lachrymosity is part of a long tradition of tearfulness, one that far from being alien to British culture is a long-standing aspect of national identity. I come from a long line of weepers.
Dixon’s enjoyable and scholarly work takes the reader on a tearful journey. He shows us that crying has its history, beginning with the story of Margery of King’s Lynn, whose near constant weeping so annoyed her fellow pilgrims en-route to Jerusalem in the 15th century, to the more recent tears of Paul Gascoigne, Margaret Thatcher and endless contestants on television talent shows. After a ‘stoical pause’ between approximately 1875 and 1945, it is again widely considered an acceptable emotional response to a variety of events.
At the heart of Dixon’s study is the shift in British emotional cultures, from sensibility to stoicism and back again. While Protestant reformers understood weeping as a Catholic emotional indulgence, it was not until the late 19th century that the stiff upper lip took precedence over the sentimental in British culture. Even then, it was only among certain social groups. The growth of Empire and the the 20th century’s two world wars helped to spread a repressive emotional culture from public schools, those incubators of imperial administrators, politicians and military leaders, to wider British society. As Britain defined itself against the supposedly emotional subject peoples of Empire and attempted to manage mass death in wartime, stoicism and restraint became aligned with British culture. Giving rein to one’s emotions, particularly tears, was seen as a sign of regrettable weakness.
However, one of the many pleasures of Dixon’s book is the range of examples that he uses to show us how this story of weeping and the emotional cultures framed by it is never absolute. One fascinating story is of First World War soldiers who, fresh from the horror of the trenches, packed into theatres to weep over a sentimental play about fairies. Near the height of the cult of stoicism, when the bereaved were being advised to control their grief, combatants were finding an emotional release in the darkness of the theatre. A robust fondness for the pleasures of ‘a good cry’ never, it appears, entirely disappeared from British culture.
Lucy Noakes is Reader in History at the University of Brighton.