Britain and the British

Lady Di’s Death Revealed Unchanged Passions: Part 1— Myth and Reality — the Stiff Upper Lip

The reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales … was meant to mark a profound shift in the history of British sentiment as it moved from the stiffness of upper lips to the quavering intuitions of the heart.” Hywel Williams.

Part 1— Myth and Reality — the Stiff Upper Lip

Reserved, stiffening the upper lip, being strait-laced and sexually repressed, with tongue-in-cheek, understated humour is how the British stereotype is still described. It is a commonly held belief that as a child, Queen Victoria was encouraged to keep her chin up and maintain a stiff upper lip by a prickly sprig of holly placed under her collar.

Faced with misfortune or adversity, the upper lip tends to quaver, and stiffening it is an external sign of inner resolve. Emotion perceived by an audience deemed inferior democratises the relationship between superior and inferior, an undesirable change for the continuity of aristocracy. The class society of Britain relied on distance and exclusivity for its perpetuation. Entrants from the middle or lower middle classes into the colonial services maintained this trait in their relations with native peoples they considered their inferiors just as in the hierarchy of the aristocracy in Britain these colonial officers, by birth, were near the lower rung of the social ladder. As Queen Victoria grew up, and eventually became Queen-Empress of the British Empire, maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity assumed the proportions of a national virtue common to all classes in Britain. It enlarged its scope from facing adversity with dignity to suppressing emotion, and at all costs, avoiding its tactile expression.

The heart might quaver, but the upper lip would not betray it. Intuition, something that the science of the second half of the nineteenth century was incapable of explaining, was not taken into consideration. It was only after the twentieth century was well into its way that writers such as E.M. Forster were able to deal with this subject by comparing the intuitive and emotive approach of the Italians with the tight-corseted attitude characteristic of British females.