Having written a chapter of my dissertation on the cult of sensibility and its effects on attitudes to the theatre, watching the first part of Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip – An Emotional History of Britain was rather like having an impromptu revision session. Hislop traces the changing attitude of the English towards their feelings – from the cult of sensibility that emphasised the nobility of emotion to an increasingly reserved ideal of stoicism and refined opinion. These changes affected contemporary tastes for a wide range of entertainments, from theatre to the rise in popularity of pleasure gardens. Hislop visits the excellent Johann Zoffany exhibition at the Royal Academy; Zoffany’s portraits demonstrate the increasing emotional involvement of eighteenth-century portraits.
The cult of sensibility and fine emotion allowed the public to demonstrate their morality and virtue. It was accepted that everybody was capable of emotion, but those higher in society cultivated their feelings, and there was an almost competitive element to the displays of emotion that the elites experienced in response to theatrical performances in a bid to assert their superiority and understanding of the play’s deep sentiment. These displays could be almost pantomimic, with ladies falling into hysterical outbursts that were as much about demonstrating their emotional capacity to others as about any deep personal response to the play.
The cult of sensibility dominated eighteenth-century society while it lasted, but it was fleeting, and it increasingly came to be replaced by the ideal of politeness. While it was still acceptable to show feeling in response to the theatre, moderation and manly composure became predominant. Excessive displays of emotion became more and more associated with femininity and a lack of control. Hislop looks at James Boswell’s diary as an example of a man attempting to balance the holding in of coarser feelings with the letting out of refined opinions. Boswell identified the need to put up a public façade to hide his emotions– yet I would say that sensibility had equally been about creating a public façade.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft urges women to stoicism, to fight against the ideas of ‘femininity’ that they have been taught. Women were thought to be enslaved to feeling and not rational – a tendency exacerbated by ‘feminine’ pastimes such as reading novels. As sensibility fell out of fashion emotional displays were increasingly felt to be a feminine weakness.
The move away from sensibility was catalysed by the fear of social breakdown that accompanied the onset of the French Revolution. This was perpetuated by Britain’s imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution – both of these factors expanded Britain’s ambitions and created a new moral seriousness in the country. Zoffany’s work reflected this change, as he abandoned his old subjects in favour of depictions of the Revolution – his later work is hellish, showing the mob gone wild and the normal order of society turned on its head. Excessive emotion was becoming increasingly linked with radical politics in the public consciousness.
Until now I had never really considered the marked difference that exists between the sensibility of the eighteenth century and the stoicism and reserve of British imperial culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – another area that I studied in detail. Hislop identifies the lasting impacts of the French and Industrial Revolutions as well as British imperialism as creating the beginnings of the idea of the stiff upper lip that has come to define the British. The next episode of Hislop’s documentary promises to explore how the Victorians entrenched the stiff upper lip as a national characteristic.