The Guardian view on the stiff upper lip | Editorial

Editorial
Prince Harry. ‘The paradox is that the great traumatic event of the princes’ childhoods, the one that caused Prince Harry’s emotional shutdown, was often seen as marking the end of an era of British repression.’ Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The stiff upper lip has been declared overrated by those who are supposed, traditionally, most ardently to uphold it: the royal family, or at any rate the junior members thereof. Speaking about mental health to the charity Campaign Against Living Miserably, the Duke of Cambridge declared that “There may be a time and a place for the ‘stiff upper lip’, but not at the expense of your health.” Prince Harry, too, has told of the damage caused to his own psyche by years of “shutting down my emotions”, culminating in two years of “total chaos”.

The paradox is that the great traumatic event of the princes’ childhoods, the one that caused Prince Harry’s emotional shutdown, was often seen as marking the end of an era of British repression, as tearful mourners lined the streets for the funeral cortege of the princes’ mother and the gates of Kensington Palace were heaped with bouquets. Now lips unstiffen at the faintest provocation, it seems. Judges weep, journalists weep and contestants in TV cookery competitions weep at the drop of a hat.

The stiff upper lip, in truth, may never have been as persistent and fundamental a part of British emotional life as it has been cracked up to be, and its high watermark was probably the first half of the 20th century, when a no-blubbing rule was one way (at least in the short term) to deal with the demands of an empire and fighting two world wars. But the very fact that lips have been seen as requiring cementing into position suggests that they have had, all along, a propensity to wobble – and that what Robert Burton called “excrementitious humours of the third concoction” have always had a habit of falling. The novels of Charles Dickens brim with tears, and have always elicited them – even when certain scenes, such as Little Nell’s deathbed, may also have provoked a snigger from wits such as Oscar Wilde. The grim, uncomplaining work ethic associated with 19th-century, nonconformist, manufacturing Britain may not have favoured snivellers, but there were still mass emotional outbursts – such as the passionate expressions of religious feeling that accompanied the early Primitive Methodist gatherings.

The greatest works of literature, after all, tell us that real men and women cry. The Odyssey is deeply soaked in tears: when the reader meets the poem’s hero, longing for home, he is sitting on a headland “weeping there as always / wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish / gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears”. In the words of Virgil in the Aeneid (and in Robert Fagles’s translation): “sunt lacrimae rerum” – the world is a world of tears.

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