Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears 
by Thomas Dixon.
Oxford, 438 pp., £25, September 2015, 978 0 19 967605 7
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To weep or not to weep​ : that has always been a question, repeatedly posing itself, and never answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Crying is such a two-faced thing: on the one hand, we think of it as uncontrollable, like a flinch; we burst into tears, we are racked by sobs. But we know that crying can be wilful too, a deliberate demonstration to the world of how we feel, or how we would like others to think we feel. On such occasions we have a choice and we know we have one.

Tears were, on the whole, rather approved of in our house. My father liked to say: ‘I have no time for a man who cannot weep’ (he may have been quoting Churchill). At bedtime, tears would gather in his blue-bloodshot eyes as he read his favourite poems to us. John Dowland’s ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ was a favourite. Another was Christina Rossetti’s ‘When I am dead, my dearest, sing no sad songs for me’. Both injunctions not to cry made us cry too, as such injunctions do, the admonishment of the dying Socrates to his support team being an early example.

At the same time, the anti-blub code in force at school and the fear of ridicule kept my lips from trembling too visibly in public. Private sensibility and public stoicism coexisted, uneasily perhaps, but taken for granted. Literature taught us that the choice to cry or not to cry could be a noble one: ‘If you have tears, prepare to shed them now’; ‘Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail or knock the breast.’ Samson’s father, like Mark Antony, assumes that his audience could choose to mourn their dead hero either by weeping or not weeping, and that he can offer cogent reasons to move them one way or the other. In that sense, ‘a tear is an intellectual thing,’ as Blake puts it in ‘The Grey Monk’.

For the same reason, the history of weeping is a slippery enterprise. At the end of his immensely readable and often puckish exploration, Thomas Dixon sighs, with reason, that ‘it is impossible to pin tears down.’ Dixon directs the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. Keats might have thought this rather like a Department for Unweaving the Rainbow. Dixon is no dry-eyed Dryasdust. He confesses that he himself is liable to weep at operas and soap operas, at the triumphs and disasters of Wimbledon and the Olympics. He points out nicely that Andy Murray followed Kipling’s injunction to ‘treat those two impostors just the same’, which is inscribed over the entrance to the Centre Court, by weeping both when he lost and when he won. I share Dixon’s weak – or is it strong? – tear ducts. As he reminds us of the great tear-jerkers of English culture – Sydney Carton’s imagined speech from the scaffold, Nurse Cavell’s last words, Celia Johnson’s return to her husband in Brief Encounter – the allusions alone were enough to start my eyes pricking.

Now and then Dixon may be a fraction too jocular for some tastes. Effusions tend to be described as ‘damp’, ‘aqueous’ or ‘briny’. There is also a good deal of repetition. We are reminded four times of Blake’s maxim, almost as often of Robert Burton’s admittedly splendid description of tears as ‘excrementitious humours of the third concoction’. But Dixon’s instinct for connections and comparisons is unfailingly sharp and illuminating. He ranges effortlessly from Margery Kempe (b. 1373) to Marjorie Proops (d. 1996). We may be vaguely aware of the way fashions in emotional display have changed over the centuries and of how they vary too across nations, classes and cultures, but to see the violent swings set out for us, and in such a rich mulch of reference, is to gain a livelier sense of how mutable and malleable we are. I would like to have seen Dixon explore the linkages, barely touched on here, between tears and laughter, and anger too. I also regret that the book refers only fleetingly to the classical heritage of crying and not-crying, particularly because the recurrent revivals of Stoicism have such a bearing on the ups and downs of English weeping.

In fact, a comprehensive lachrymatics might begin with the tears of Odysseus. How often and how easily he weeps: on the shores of Calypso’s island when he thinks of home, then when he sees his drunken shipmate Elpenor in Hades, also in Hades when his dead mother tells him that back in Ithaca Penelope’s eyes are never free from tears, there too when he meets Agamemnon and they swap unhappy memories and the tears roll down their cheeks. Homeric tears, like Homeric anger, seem natural and unforced.

How different from the world of the Roman courtroom, where manufactured tears were part of an advocate’s armoury. Cicero tried to have it both ways when he told the court, ‘But I must stop now. I can no longer speak for tears – and my client has ordered that tears are not to be used in his defence,’ in the hope of disarming the jury by acknowledging that many lawyers’ tears were false and manipulative while claiming that his own were genuine. As always, tears were a risky weapon. An unconvincing weeper could be laughed out of court. If there is one constant in this history, it is the popular suspicion of public tears, especially when shed by a notorious tough nut, such as Oliver Cromwell, Lord Eldon, Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher. The Protector was repeatedly denounced for his ostentatious pretences of piety and feeling: he was ‘fluent in his tears’, endowed with ‘spungy eyes and a supple conscience’. In The Masque of Anarchy, Shelley sneers at Lord Chancellor Eldon, who was as notorious for his tears as for his reactionary views:

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to millstones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Which recalls Auden’s inversion in ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ of Motley’s epitaph on William the Silent: ‘When he cried, the little children died in the streets.’ Edmund Burke was accused by Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine of putting it on in his lament for Marie Antoinette, but Burke protested that he had wept as he wrote and that the tears had ‘wetted my paper’. In any case, Wollstonecraft herself had been moved to tears when she saw Louis XVI being taken to his trial. This suspicion of tears in high places still burns hot and strong. After George Osborne wept at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, he was cross-questioned at some length on the Today programme by John Humphrys, who, as Dixon points out, seemed unable to credit that a grown man could genuinely grieve for his former party leader whom he greatly admired.

If today, as Dixon tells us, ‘we live under the almost unchallenged reign of emotion,’ there are still some places where we think weeping out of place. In 2006, Judge Julian Hall, a nice man whom I happened to be at school with, was ridiculed for breaking down in tears after hearing a mother’s tribute to her daughter who’d been killed by a reckless driver. He was further pilloried for the supposedly lenient sentences he passed on several paedophiles. The implication in the press and among the cybertrolls was that a new generation of soft judges was betraying the stern traditions of British justice. Only this November, Mr Justice Dingemans, renowned as the remorseless counsel to the Hutton Inquiry, broke down in tears as he sentenced the stepbrother of Becky Watts for her murder. Eight members of the jury were in tears too. In this case, the crime was so peculiarly horrible that nobody thought the worse of any of them. In the Victorian age the whole courtroom was often awash, the judge not excluded (at the subsequent hangings the executioner sometimes wept too). In the celebrated case of Constance Kent (described in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher), when the notoriously susceptible Mr Justice Willes assumed the black cap to pass sentence of death, he was weeping so uncontrollably that his words were almost inaudible. Kent was weeping too under her black veil, as were her counsel and the jury. All this was in 1865, the supposed heyday of Victorian repression of emotion. Only seven years later, in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin, though often moved to tears in private life, declared that ‘Englishmen rarely cry,’ whereas ‘savages weep copiously from very slight causes.’

Darwin was desperately keen to prove that animals also wept. He seized on any evidence that tears had been seen to roll down the cheeks of bereaved mother elephants or monkeys in distress. He even conducted experiments at the zoo, giving snuff to a monkey to make it sneeze and drop tears, which it didn’t. If only the evolutionary continuity between the higher mammals and homo sapiens could be shown to include the propensity to weep. But Darwin had no luck. Nor have modern scientists, most of whom are convinced that only humans shed tears when they are sad. Darwin offered no suggestion as to what evolutionary advantage might be conferred by the ability to weep, whether hereditary or acquired. Can it be that the faculty is somehow a useless primitive survival, perhaps doomed to be bred out in the long run as savages became civilised, rather like Richard Dawkins’s view of the religion meme? Is that the implication?

If so, this is precisely the opposite of the Christian view, especially in the Middle Ages, that shedding tears was the sign of an advanced soul, one which had been pierced by God. This piercedness, or ‘compunction’, was one of the three key ingredients of salvation, along with faith and baptism, and the sign of its presence was a flow of tears. Weeping was not simply emotional self-indulgence or psychological release. It was efficacious. As Dixon puts it, ‘in the Catholic worldview, tears could do things. They had real, spiritual consequences for the souls of the penitent on earth as well as for the wept-for departed.’

Thomas Becket and Francis of Assisi were both noted for their tears. St Francis was reputed to have gone blind with his weeping for the sufferings of Christ. On his deathbed, he remembered to thank his donkey for carrying him through his arduous ministry. In response, the donkey wept too, which would have thrilled Darwin. By contrast, witches were incurably dry-eyed. Dixon tells us that a woman accused of witchcraft was caught both ways: if she could not weep, that proved she was a witch; if she managed to squeeze out a few tears, that showed how deceitful and manipulative she was.

Stoics could weep too, but only in moderation and in proportion to the occasion of their grief. They endured suffering, they did not embrace it. Marcus Aurelius tells us that the readiness for death must ‘proceed from inward conviction, not come out of mere perversity like the Christians, but out of a temper rational and grave and, if it is to convince others, unostentatious’. The very opposite of the medieval mystic Margery Kempe of King’s Lynn, with whom Dixon begins his book. Kempe was a one-woman deluge of tears, weeping so noisily that she was banned from church for drowning out the sermon. But however annoying she might have been, nobody thought her tears were of no avail.

‘Fools for Christ’ (and their equivalents in other religious traditions) deliberately affronted every rule of conduct dear to the Stoics. They made embarrassing and extravagant exhibitions of themselves, starving, stripping, howling, laughing, pretending to be crazy and of course weeping buckets. A mutant form of this Kulturkampf continues into our own day. Should it be the aim of the good life to remain sober and steady under pressure, or should it be to get high, to shake the bourgeoisie out of their complacency, to pierce nose and nipples, but above all pierce the soul? Kempe would certainly have wallowed in the counterculture.

The supposed efficacy of tears diminished sharply at the Reformation, which Dixon rightly takes as one of the turning points in the history of tears. The tears of Mary Magdalen had offered an ideal example of penitence all through the Middle Ages, but at some date in the early 1600s ‘maudlin’ became a pejorative adjective. In much the same way, ‘seely’ or ‘silly’, which had described a state of blessed innocence, now turned to mean ‘foolish’, even ‘feeble-minded’ (the German selig preserves something of the original meaning). Archbishop Matthew Parker – for Catholics the arch-villain, said by the Jesuits to have been indecently consecrated in the Nag’s Head tavern in Cheapside – denounced ‘howling or blubbering for the departed in the manner of the heathen’. In his famous confrontation with Mary Queen of Scots, John Knox, the father of the Reformation in Scotland, met her tears with stony disapproval: ‘I never delighted in the weeping of any of God’s creatures; yea, I can scarcely well abide the tears of mine own boys, when mine own hands correct them, much less can I rejoice in your majesty’s weeping.’

Yet tears spurted out again in the 18th century: in the secular sphere, thanks most notably to the publication of the sentimental novel The Man of Feeling by an Edinburgh lawyer called Henry Mackenzie; in religion, thanks to the rise of Methodism as a reaction against the bland Anglicanism of the age. The unashamed appeal of Methodism to the emotions horrified its critics then and since, from Dickens to E.P. Thompson. The undoubted star here was George Whitefield rather than John Wesley. Whitefield never finished one of his open-air sermons without dissolving into tears, and he was always gratified to see thousands of his audience in tears too, for example at the collieries outside Bristol: ‘The first discovery of their being affected, was, to see the white gutters made by their tears, which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits.’ I was reminded here of Wellington’s doctor, John Hume, just after the battle of Waterloo bringing the Iron Duke news of the death of his favourite ADC, Alexander Gordon: ‘He was much affected. I felt his tears dropping fast upon my hands, and looking towards him, saw them chasing one another in furrows over his dusty cheeks.’

The cult of sensibility faded almost as quickly as it had begun. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars induced revulsion against everything Rousseau was supposed to stand for: false sentiment, surrender to passion, romantic longing for the impossible. The second of Dixon’s turning points is 1789, and the third follows hard on its heels: the rise of the British Empire as an arduous national enterprise which demanded that its servants brace themselves to their duty. Dixon dates the heyday of the stiff upper lip from the 1870s onwards. The phrase itself is first found in 1871, in the magazine All the Year Round founded by Dickens, where it is included in a list of ‘Popular American Phrases’. But the thing itself must have been instilled well before that, as Dixon shows in examples from school stories of the 1840s.

In India, the contrast was already being drawn between the manly ‘pluck’ and ‘steadiness’ of the British and the womanish tears shed by the Indians at all levels of Indian society. In his history of the Indian Mutiny, Sir John Kaye described General Outram being sent to depose the King of Oudh and the king dissolving in ‘a passionate burst of grief’ as he took off his turban and handed it to Outram: ‘In this exaggerated display of helplessness there was something too characteristically Oriental … No man was more likely than Outram to have been doubly pained, in the midst of all his painful duties, by the unmanly prostration of the King. To deal harshly with one who declared himself so feeble and defenceless was like striking a woman or a cripple.’ It is Outram we are expected to feel sorry for, although the king really was helpless because there were 13,000 British troops advancing on Lucknow.

When​ did the stiff upper lip begin to quiver? The conventional wisdom dates the new sensibility from the moment we first heard that terrible howling outside the gates of Kensington Palace, and that torrent of tears which would once have been known as ‘weeping Irish’. ‘Dianafication’ dissolved a nation in sobbing. It will be interesting to see how long that appellation lasts. Certainly the funeral of the doomed princess was the moment at which the media became conscious that we were living in a new age. Crusty columnists – Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Toby Young – denounced this new ‘emotional incontinence’, a phrase apparently coined in the 1870s by the psychiatric pioneer Henry Maudsley, a friend of Darwin’s, and thus not so new.

But Dixon points out that public weeping on screen began at least in the mid-1950s when This Is Your Life started. As the celebrity of the week sobbed on meeting her estranged daughter or his long-lost comrade from the trenches, the audience figures soared, but so did the criticism. Cassandra in the Daily Mirror denounced the programme as ‘a phoney, cloying, repulsive stunt’ and ‘a preposterous, snivelling charade’. Similar attacks had been made on the ‘tear-jerkers’ and ‘weepies’ in the cinema well before the war – as on the mawkish sentimentality of ‘housemaid’s novelettes’ before the cinema was even thought of.

The trend is now firmly set. If the producer knows her stuff, tears will flow every time a contestant reaches a bake-off semi-final with her jam sponge or a celebrity discovers that his great-great-grandfather was brought up in the workhouse. For me, the comble of this genre was reached when the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner, who has endured terrible injury with courage and equanimity, broke down on Who Do You Think You Are? on learning that he was descended from William the Conqueror. Literal-minded observers remain baffled that people can weep for someone they never knew or cry over a chopping board.

What is going on? What does all this sobbing do for us, or to us? How does the physiology of tears relate to the psychology? Why should it be sadness that especially drenches our cheeks? And if it is, how can we also weep tears of joy (the ancients thought we could, and so do we)? I find it comforting to report from these pages that neither doctors of mind nor of body can agree on answers to any of these questions. The most popular medical explanation is that weeping is a kind of purging. Tears eliminate stress chemicals, according to Dr William Frey of Minnesota. Phyllis Greenacre, an influential American Freudian, argued in the 1940s that weeping was a displacement of urination. In women, she said, it was a hangover from infantile penis envy: fits of female weeping were attempts to emulate the glories of male pissing. Breuer and Freud thought that tears could be a healthy channel for flushing out repressed memories. Not much advance really on the ‘excrementitious’ explanation offered in The Anatomy of Melancholy.

But why the association with grief? And how can you weep for joy? The American analyst Sandor Feldman says that you can’t. Even at the birth of a child or after victory in a Test match, your tears are really a delayed or displaced ‘discharge of negative affect’: ultimately you are bewailing the fact of death, your own and those of whom you love. Dixon quotes from the ‘Hymn on Death’ by that 18th-century wonderwoman Anna Laetitia Barbauld: ‘Therefore do I weep, because death is in the world; the spoiler is among the works of God: all that is made must be destroyed; all that is born must die: let me alone, for I will weep yet longer.’

This is wonderfully stirring, but can it be quite right? These explanations seem both mechanical and reductive. Is every fan who weeps when Leyton Orient are relegated suffering from the same repressed memories or from the same intimation of mortality? Haven’t we left out of account the amazing ingenuity of human beings at making something out of nothing, of investing with giddy significance an experience which may seem quite trivial to those not affected; and on top of that, the no less amazing ability of the mind to make the body jump? The interplay of will and imagination is capable of generating the most heartrending pathos and the most abject bathos with equal facility. Perhaps, after all, we should take note of Margery Kempe’s report, as she jumped out of bed after one of her tearful visions: ‘Alas, that ever I sinned! It is full merry in Heaven.’

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