Visiting UK scholar debunks the myth of the British ‘stiff upper lip’

The characterisation of Britons as a repressed, stoic people with a ‘stiff upper lip’ is not borne out by history, says a renowned UK scholar visiting Australia this month.

Academic, author and broadcaster Professor Thomas Dixon believes the ‘stiff upper lip’ was the product of a relatively short period of history between 1870 and 1945, though its influence on the national consciousness has lingered.

“When Diana, Princess of Wales, died many people were asking how this mass hysteria could happen in the UK, how the public could behave in a way that was so ‘un-British’,” Professor Dixon says.

“We have a divide in Britain now between those brought up to be unemotional and those who weep profusely while watching their favourite reality TV show.”

The author of Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears is visiting Australia as a partner investigator with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Charting six centuries of crying in Britain, Weeping Britannia investigates the importance and influence of tears in painting, literature, music and theatre since the Middle Ages and includes the famous tears of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and soccer star Paul Gascoigne.

“Tears have meant so many things over the course of history and what is fascinating to me is the way the emotional hyperinflation of reality TV is so similar to 18th-century novels of sensibility,” he says.

“The nature of what it means to be British appears to be changing – and, with it, our perception of the place of tears in our society.”

Professor Dixon’s next project will investigate anger in all its forms, from divine wrath to Twitter rage, and focus on the philosophical, religious and medical techniques used to try to manage it over history.

The history of emotions is a growing academic discipline across the globe, and Professor Dixon is the director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, one of only three such centres in the world.

Media contact: Emma Miller, emma.miller@unimelb.edu.au; tel +61 (0)401 642 535