Exploring Englishness, Part 4: English Emotional Life
(This is the fourth in a series of articles in which we attempt to pin down and dissect various aspects of the English character.)
Even if you have never seen the whole film, you will probably have caught glimpses of it on television: gleaming black-and-white photography, a tempestuous Rachmaninov piano score, Celia Johnson’s expressive eyes raised in mute supplication, and the trains, rumbling in and out of the small provincial station. This is David Lean’s Brief Encounter, widely regarded as the most romantic film of all time, and yet a film that is English to its core. This alone should make us stop and think a little harder than we usually do about the stereotypes of English emotional life. In truth, there is more to the inner life of the English than meets the eye, and this account of hidden passion and its conflict with the obligations imposed by middle-class society, which has long been one of the cinematic "texts" of Englishness, is one of the many indications of this in English culture. The contrast between the two principal characters' intense love and the determination with which they keep up appearances provides most of the poignancy and the tension of this film. But this was 1945, you say. Times have changed.
Fast forward fifty-eight years to 2003 and the sprawling, sentimental, messy and vulgar Richard Curtis extravaganza, Love Actually. Its merits as a film need not concern us here, but rather what it and its success tell us about our current emotional mores. With its numerous declarations of love and its liberal use of profanity and nudity, it seems to be the embodiment of a new, more Americanised sensibility, worlds away from Brief Encounter. Its massive popularity shows how much the English have changed; what we want now are over-the-top love-ins, not the restrained tenderness of Brief Encounter.
But do we, though? A closer look might prove otherwise. The characters' declarations of love are frequently awkward at best, and excruciatingly uncomfortable at worst. Only Colin Firth’s character is at all happy pouring his heart out verbally (the distinction between verbal and written communication is key; there is a graceful written declaration of love, and it has often been noted that the English are allowed to say all sorts of things in writing that they would never say out loud), but this is only because the speech is in Portuguese, a foreign language. (It is worth noting in passing that Firth, from Pride and Prejudice on, has made a fortune out of playing the sort of reserved but deeply romantic Englishman so popular in the films of the thirties to the fifties, and previously thought to have vanished with them.) Many of the characters in Love Actually attempt to hide their feelings from one another; in fact, many of them are at various points too overcome by shyness to express themselves emotionally to others. They may be brimming with feeling inside, but they are determined not to show it to anyone else, and when they have to, they invariably use humour as a way of coping with the situation. If the success of Richard Curtis's rom-coms is anything to go by, then, it appears that we want to watch characters progress from bumbling, tongue-tied devotion to finally getting up the nerve to express their feelings, thus bringing about the inevitable contented ending (“happy” may be too strong a word).
In fact, the only real difference between the emotional climates of David Lean’s tearjerker and Richard Curtis’ comfort films is, in fact, their philosophical outlook: the tragic fatalism of the one as opposed to the chirpy yet cautious optimism of the other. Have we become more hopeful about the possibility of love, or could it be that, if the American market were not allowed to intrude into the considerations of our scriptwriters, our films would not have such unqualified happy endings? It is certainly probable that English screenplays would not include public declarations of love, because the whole idea is embarrassing and painfully un-English. In our world, the essence of intense emotion, and declarations of it, is privacy, and this is explained by our native shyness.
These two conflicting themes –of a capacity for strong emotional attachment versus overwhelming shyness or a need to conceal for other reasons—occur together again and again in English culture. A lack of emotional expressiveness becomes, in this schema, not an indicator of a lack of emotion, but rather a method of coping with emotion. Shyness and an ability to feel profoundly are, in fact, flip sides of the same English coin. But what is the stuff in between that glues them together? It is not one thing alone, but rather a myriad of factors. Social necessity is one; life would be extremely difficult in a society as crowded as ours if we felt free to express our emotions all the time, particularly given the fact that many of us often feel intensely. The need to preserve one’s personal dignity, an off-shoot of the self-consciousness which goes hand in hand with shyness and perhaps a part of England’s classical inheritance, is another. A certain pragmatism, a preference for small-scale, unostentatious comfort and contentment over heavenly bliss, and a feeling that letting one’s emotions get out of hand would jeopardise such happiness, are also involved. As has often been remarked, we like moderate happiness. But sensitivity is at the core of all of these, linked to emotional vulnerability and an almost pathological fear of rejection. Our heightened awareness is one of the things that make us, as a nation, so productive of fine actors, insightful fiction, and good films, but it also makes us more susceptible to injury. An ever-present knowledge of this keeps English people from opening up very much, except to family members and close friends (an important point; love, the emotional all-protector, has to be there first before we feel safe enough to express our deeper feelings). Slight acquaintances and strangers are not to be trusted, particularly not foreigners, of whom we are suspicious anyway. (This explains, perhaps, why foreigners seem to have rather odd ideas about our emotional make-up; we behave especially stiffly around them, except, notoriously, when drunk or on holiday, or both.) A corollary of this awareness of English sensitivity also helps to explain why we don’t express our emotions much, particularly not if they are upsetting ones --we have consideration for the sensitivity of others and know that this would rattle them.
A capacity for warmth, kindness and sociability actually has little to do with emotional reticence; it is perfectly possible to possess all three without giving away much about what one is feeling, and many English people, often those of working-class extraction, excel at this. Consider, for example, Pop Larkin in H.E. Bates' Larkin family stories. He is almost always cheerful and hospitable ("Larkin by name, Larkin by nature", as he himself says cheerfully) but he also has hidden depths that do not often show themselves, except at moments of crisis, such as when he movingly confronts a businessman who wants to 'develop' a local beauty spot. In the case of the English, it is not just still waters that run deep, but often positively bubbly ones as well.
What are the effects of this pronounced need for emotional privacy, then? And why do we not all spontaneously combust under the strain of concealing our emotions? For a start, close friendships in particular provide us with an outlet for our need to express our feelings, particularly restricted emotions such as grief or other feelings of hurt. This state of mind brings other advantages as well. The fact that certain emotions are only displayed to those who know us well gives our friendships a special durability and closeness, based on rare mutual understanding. Romantic attachments provide us with a similar liberating intimacy. Lavishing affection on pets, and numerous other outlets for our intensity –hobbies, DIY, etc—mean that we are, on the whole, quite well-adjusted.
There are also communal ways in which we let out our feelings, and on these occasions we are allowed to be fairly animated. Among them are such events as major royal funerals or weddings, which allow for tribal expressions of emotion that the lone individual could not get away with. The Queen, in her role as a mother figure, provides on such occasions a focus for a lot of her subjects’ emotions (one reason why a republic might not be good for the English; we are able to fixate on the royal family with such a degree of intensity because their very appearance of ordinariness, their apolitical nature, and their lack of legislative power make them a safe touchstone for a majority of English people). Coronations and jubilees give us a chance to display another tabooed emotion, patriotism, as does the Last Night of the Proms.
Much the same kind of letting off steam can go on at football matches, which are perhaps more nakedly tribal in nature. But it has not often been noticed that rock and pop concerts perform the same sort of function, as footage of audience reaction to the Beatles’ concerts in England alone will show. Once again, this is a group response, and is legitimised by this fact. Rock’s role as an outlet, particularly in the early days, for the inner turmoil of outwardly placid English teenagers perhaps partly explains its huge popularity and success in England, and why so many young people seized on it, both as performers and as fans, often making it reflect a particularly English scene (typical of much of the Beatles’ work, as well as that of the Kinks). Rock was partly about letting go and in the process neutralising emotions which, if allowed to run riot in mainstream society or alternatively bottled up, could prove dangerous to either the community or the individual.
Our rules of emotion can also explain why acting has held such appeal for English people, for here it is possible to purge one’s emotions while pretending to be somebody else. Shakespeare in particular, with his great tragedies and tempestuous love scenes, seems tailor-made as a conduit for pent-up feelings. I do not mean to suggest in any of this, however, that those who are drawn to any of outlets are abnormally stifled, nor that their interest in these things is not genuine; merely that they provide, in addition, an outlet for emotion which can be highly therapeutic.
It is important to point our that not all emotions are tabooed. Jollity, in fact, is usually de rigeur and highly appreciated. In fact, most emotions whose expression does not leave the individual vulnerable are usually all right, except for those calculated to make the individual a nuisance to others (which is why we don’t complain in restaurants). Amongst the deeply tabooed ones, however, are, as I have hinted, grief (for obvious reasons), and romantic attachment, usually before the individual is sure that the feeling is reciprocated. That the English nevertheless can and do fall in love, despite the difficulties involved in expressing this emotion to begin with, cannot be in doubt. A cursory glance at the rich tradition of English love poetry will show this, from the earliest Old English fragments, through the almost unbearably plangent lyrics of certain English folk-songs, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and right on to the modern age with Auden’s poetry and the love-songs of many English rock and pop groups, such as the Beatles and the Hollies. The thing about most of these expressions of feeling, however, is that they are often highly unconventional, extremely intimate in that they focus usually on a particular person rather than on archetypes of the Eternal Feminine or similar, expressing sentiment and suggesting devotion in oblique ways. It is very unusual for an English poet to wax on directly about how much he or she loves someone else; not in exactly those words, that is. These poems usually focus more on the qualities of the Other, not on the feelings of the poet, and this pattern continues right through English verse. ‘For God’s sake, don't let's talk about me’, seems to be the general panicked approach. The fact that straightforward expressions of love are so rare in English culture gives them an extraordinary force on the infrequent occasions on which they are made, as, for example, in Noel Cowards’ Private Lives, when, in the emotional equivalent of an earthquake, Amanda interrupts Elyot’s inconsequential talk about travel to say “Oh darling, I do love you so.” It is an example of the kind of emotional access to which the English are sometimes prone, and which constitutes a favourite plot device of English writers, such as Stevens’ tears at the end of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (a novel which, incidentally, probably exaggerates English reticence). These accesses take the form mainly of either grief or love, because these are the two most tightly-controlled feelings in the English canon and therefore the ones most likely to erupt, and they usually accompany an emotional epiphany of some sort.
Another difference between English and Continental love poetry is that, although English poets focus on the qualities of the loved one, these are usually internal qualities, not external ones. Extemporisation on the subject of the loved one’s physical attractiveness simply isn’t done, particularly not in modern times, although it was fairly popular with some of the poets of the Restoration as well as with Donne. The reason for this is that the English idea of love has historically tended to emphasise devoted, domestic monogamy over sexual passion. As with many other things, Shakespeare was probably the first to adequately articulate this perspective, in the scene in Henry V when the eponymous hero woos Princess Katharine with this encouraging speech: “A speaker is but a prater, a rhyme is but a ballad; a good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wax hollow, but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon.” English male poets, in particular, prove more reluctant than some Continental poets to reduce the object of their devotion to nothing more than a beautiful face and body, which gives their poetry an admirable universality and humanity.
A discomfort with intense emotion has also, it appears, made English literature somewhat more varied than it might otherwise have been. Generally speaking, English writers don’t do melodrama or over-the-top love stories, so they tend to focus more on character and the details of the physical world to add interest to their stories. And when emotion does enter, it is hardly ever treated without a tinge of humour, and it is not dwelt on for too long (a characteristic as well, as we have seen, of Richard Curtis films). In fact, humour is one of the greatest aids to the English when it comes to the expression of feeling. It allows us to convey through a joke an emotion that we could not talk about seriously. An element of self-satire must be present, especially if we are going to talk about our feelings to people to whom we are not close (which we usually try to avoid altogether, if we can help it). This perhaps accounts for the inventiveness of much of our fiction, and for our special prolixity in the area of children’s fiction, which, of course, rarely lends itself to extremes of emotion. In fact, our discomfort with overwhelming emotion, particularly “adult” feelings such as romantic love or intense grief, may explain why we seem to envy children, and engaged in childlike games and sports before most of the rest of the Western world (not to mention special, regressive sports such as conkers, etc). This discomfort has also had an effect on the English style of psychological novel-writing. Emotion is conveyed more often by what characters say or do than by long interior monologues. Subtlety is prized over complexity and wallowing in introspection, in other words. Emotional restraint may also benefit our culture in another way; reluctance to spill one’s guts every five minutes helps to preserve an individual inner world, the source, perhaps, of so much of the distinctiveness of English literature.
The extreme sensitivity to nuances of emotion required by our culture has helped to develop the awareness and precision of our world-renowned character actors, capable of expressing a world of feeling with a raised eyebrow, an intonation, a laugh, or a trembling hand. A perfect example of such a device is the “slow burn”, evolved in music-hall but frequently used by serious actors, which involves starting with a poker face, then smiling slightly and slowly developing this into a full-fledged beam, used perhaps to greatest effect by Laurence Olivier in the film The Prince and the Show-Girl. It has been deployed by English actors in everything from drama to comedy, and has a powerful effect on an English audience because, in our culture, sustained eye contact accompanied by a long drawn-out smile constitutes a fairly intense expression of liking.
So much for the effect of the English approach to emotion on the arts. What about its impact on social life? Like people everywhere, we do still have a need to figure out what others are feeling and to express emotion ourselves. However, vulnerability and the need to camouflage it require the adoption of a number of oblique and sometimes almost impenetrable ways of communicating emotion. These include, as I have already indicated, the use of humour to deal with anything painful or otherwise threatening to our composure, but the use of understatement or even denial of emotion to communicate our feelings is also popular (this is particularly the case with romantic attraction; the best example of this in popular culture is the almost cosmic declaration-through-denial of 10 cc’s hit song I’m Not in Love). More simply, we often use facial expressions and body language calculated to be comprehensible only to those already in tune with us and to convey our feelings to them only. When it comes to figuring out how others feel, our socialised sensitivity and the fact that we use all these sorts of signals ourselves make the English incredibly adept at reading emotional messages in behavioural cues that more expressive peoples might miss. A gulp, a hasty look away, a twitch of an eyebrow, a slight tremor in the voice, are all signals that allow us to decode one another’s feelings without being told. English people who are naturally intense (and there are many more of them than foreigners imagine) tend to communicate this intensity more through the tone of voice in which they say things than through what they say. (The intense type who does let it all hang out at the same time, a particular type of “luvvie” actor, for example, is usually regarded with horror by other English people.) It also gives to English acting its sublime subtlety, helping to produce films in particular which throb with feeling but which are, amusingly, often written off by foreigners as “boring.” Film itself, with its intimate camera, is perfect for picking up on subtle displays of emotion.
The eliciting of emotional expression from others is a highly delicate business in English culture, generally requiring empathetic body language and ways of communicating a predisposition to be an understanding listener without asking too pointed a question. For example, when we ask “How are you?” it is the tone of voice which determines whether we expect a detailed and sincere reply or not. Otherwise a simple, and often false, “Fine”, is all that is required. Once again, a close relationship with the person is usually required before he or she will open up. For example, in the superb fifties film The Cruel Sea, the First Mate comes upon the captain of their corvette after he has had to torpedo a submarine floating underneath a group of shipwrecked sailors. "Are you all right, sir?" enquires Number One sympathetically. "No," replies the captain. "I don't mind telling you. I'm not," and tears roll down his face.
This is not the only English emotional stance, of course, only one of the best-known and most common. A number of conclusions can certainly be reached, however. It is neither the case that we do not feel, as some foreigners and a few of our own would still have it (which is dehumanising), nor that we are the repressed, hysterical basket-cases teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown that others believe us to be (which is ridiculous). As with many other things, we value moderation and privacy when it comes to emotion. But, you might ask, isn’t it all rather complex and round-about? Aren't the display rules of English emotion more trouble than they're worth? Some would say yes, but, from one point of view, such rules often make things more interesting, lending subtle undercurrents of emotion to our interactions that often give them a certain piquancy or poignancy, depending on the situation. What is more, consciously controlling one’s emotions sometimes produces a quiet and gentle character of a type that is all too rare in the modern age, and it requires us to be considerate of other people to quite an extraordinary extent. Above all, the ability to control one’s feelings is a survival mechanism, allowing English people to live comfortably in a crowded society, and to cope with crises and catastrophes with, often, an incredible stoicism. It may not always be easy being English, but at its best there is a sort of latent nobility about it.–Isabel Taylor