“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul”
This week BBC2 aired Ian Hislop’s second episode in his series about the famous British Stiff Upper Lip - in which he argues that we have the Victorians to thank for making the stiff upper lip a genuinely national characteristic. The unwavering fortitude of the British in the face of adversity and hardship, commonly known as a stiff upper lip is still firmly in place, without any assistance from botox injections, according to Ian Hislop. He looks at how suffering in silence was considered the ideal norm and gives us some examples of unusual national heroes of the times like Captain Matthew Webb, the first person to swim the Channel.
Captain Matthew Webb
A recent survey by YouGov suggests that the stiff upper lip is softening but is still stiffer than others. In their recent survey:
“62% of the public believes that British people have become more emotional in recent decades. Only 14% say British people have become less emotional, and 18% believe they are about the same.
Despite the majority view that the British stiff upper lip is becoming a thing of the past, 57% of the public say that British people are generally less given to displaying their emotions than people from most other countries. A very small proportion (8%) believe Brits are more given to displaying their emotions, and 26% are of the view that British people display their emotions to about the same extent as people from most other countries.”
In Episode 2 , the BBC tells us:
“Ian returns to his own boarding school, Ardingly College in Sussex, which he admits forged his own character. He looks at how the English public school system instilled a powerful ideology of stoicism into both upper and middle-class boys, preparing them to run both the country and the fast expanding British empire. Later in the century, these ideas were extended to the roughest parts of Glasgow and beyond through the Boys’ Brigade, founded 25 years before the Scouts, as a panacea for ‘degenerate’ working-class youth.
Ian also argues that it was the Crimean War which gave rise to the democratisation of the stiff upper lip. The bravery of ordinary privates was admired by all and for the first time they became national heroes – the new Victoria Cross was the first honour for which all ranks were eligible.
Victorians tended to believe that a good dose of emotional restraint could even fortify women, and that by being uncomplaining and endlessly supportive – ‘the angel in the house’ – women could aspire towards their own version of the stiff upper lip.
Yet by the early 20th century some intellectuals, radicals and aesthetes were beginning to question the homogenised, quasi-industrial approach to character building – and were equating the stiff upper lip with hypocrisy and repression. And ultimately, the Victorian ideal of reticent stoicism shot through with imperial swagger could not survive the mud of Flanders. Yet it was precisely these values which fed the front line and persuaded so many officers and men to endure the First World War’s unspeakable horrors. Ian goes to the battlefields of the Somme to tell the remarkable story of how one officer literally treated war as a game, using football to motivate his men to go over the top.
Ian also introduces the weeping policeman ‘Robert Emotional’, explains the dark context to Charles Darwin’s observation ‘Englishmen rarely cry’ and talks to MP Rory Stewart about how the stiff upper lip helped see him through his time as a deputy governor in Iraq.”
As to the question of whether the British stiff upper lip is a good or bad characteristic, which underpins the emotional well being of the nation, the jury is still out. Part 3 of the series may reveal the answer to this burning question or you may already have made up your own mind. I, for one, continue to find the series interesting and will reserve judgement until next week’s final episode which airs on 15th October.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 11th October 2012