Weeping Britannia by Thomas Dixon

02 June 2020. There has been a lot of crying recently. The pandemic of 2020 has released a flood of emotion. Many TV viewers also, during the lockdown in April and May, have admitted to weeping over the BBC Three drama ‘Normal People‘ (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p089g8rs/normal-people) The memory of having being young once, in love, and the pain of it all, was too much. What, though, is crying? On the face of it, the salty effusion doesn’t seem to offer any obvious practical benefits.

On being first introduced to Tennyson’s poem ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45384) at school in 1976, I sensed that there was some depth to the verse but had to rely on Dr Pinkerton for an elucidation. His long experience of love and loss, plus memories of gay, golden years at St. John’s College, Cambridge clearly provided a hinterland which I lacked. There was a lot to learn. Where do the moist droplets come from and whose company do we keep in wetting the cheek? How is the act of weeping regarded by others? Thomas Dixon’s book offers some historical answers on the whole business of crying.

Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears is a tour through six centuries of British tears, from ‘extreme weeper’ Margery Kempe to the televised ‘sob-fests’ of Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. Dixon sets out to dispel the ‘persistent myth’ of Britain as a nation of emotionally repressed stoics, writing that the stiff upper lip, far from being a constant element in the national character, emerged only in the late 19th century amid the militarism in The Age of Empire.

Historians can point these things out. Public crying was characteristic of medieval Catholic piety. It was common for bishops to weep as they celebrated mass, and that the Pope ‘poured forth streams of tears’ as he delivered the eulogy of St Francis of Assisi. Medieval religious art and literature abounded with tears. However, come Protestantism and the British got more buttoned up. Public weeping became to be seen as blasphemous, ineffective and a Catholic superstition. Skip forward to the French Revolution. The bloodshed and violent political passions of that Revolution seemed to some social commentators to represent the logical extreme of public emotionalism. It suggested that ‘sensibility’ was a deranged morality with a propensity towards public disorder. And we can’t have that, can we? Crying isn’t just childish and effeminate, it might lead to not getting The Daily Telegraph delivered to Cavendish Square before breakfast. From then on we were to be distinguished from the intemperate froggies and other inferiors. We were to get on running the Empire with a ‘stiff upper lip’. But, as the following example shows, that’s pretty hard to do in extremis.

Rudyard Kipling’s only son Jack, despite his very poor eyesight, was commissioned into the army thanks to his famous father’s contacts. It was the month of his 18th birthday in August 1915. The following month he was missing, presumed dead, one of 20,000 British troops killed in the Battle of Loos. The last known sighting of him was by a fellow soldier,

‘who was sure he had seen Kipling, “trying to fasten a field dressing round his mouth which was badly shattered by a piece of shell”. The fellow soldier said he would have helped, but that “the officer was crying” from pain and he had not wished to ‘humiliate him by offering assistance’. Young Kipling had broken the code of the stiff upper lip, and his tears cost him the aid of one of his regiment’. “You’ll be a Man, my son” couldn’t be upheld on that occasion.

What of the 20th and 21st centuries, then? Have we relapsed into weakness and effeminacy? Social commentators point to the social and sexual revolution of the 1960s, the ‘new masculinity’ of the 1980s, and the death of Princess Diana as showing a new approval of tears. Dixon’s examples of weeping since 1945 are drawn in the main from the consumption of film, television and popular music. Perhaps our own times are too complex (with globalised, instantaneous communication) to tell if weeping is going in or out of fashion. Next time you’re in danger of welling up at least you’ll know there’s a historical context to it. Abandon yourself to a good blubber.

This is a highly enjoyable and instructive read, and I commend it to you. It would be a crying shame to miss it.

Professor Thomas Dixon is a historian of philosophy, science, medicine, and religion at Queen Mary, University Of London (http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/staff/profile/4525-dr-thomas-dixon)

Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock.

Further bibliographic detail may be found here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Weeping-Britannia-Portrait-Nation-Tears/dp/0199676054/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1591080909&sr=8-1

456 pages in Oxford University Press

First published 2015

ISBN  978-0199676057

Professor Thomas Dixon
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