The Stiff Upper Lip

MedievalNicola here, reflecting on the qualities associated with the
“stiff upper lip” and whether they are the type of characteristics we like to
read about in our heroes – and heroines.

No Self-Control

A new series on TV in the UK is tracing the “emotional
history” of Britain and it is interesting to discover that the nation has not
always been associated with reserve, resilience, restraint and emotional
coolness. In the Middle Ages visitors including the Dutch scholar Erasmus
commented on the fact that the English were always kissing each other, weeping,
arguing and generally allowing their passions to get the better of them.
Italian visitors to the Elizabethan court also commented unfavourably on how the
British lacked self-control. It was a time when the Brits were renowned for
letting it all hang out emotionally and it was the French who invented the word
“sang-froid” to describe a quality that their neighbours across the Channel
singularly lacked.

During the English Civil Wars of the 17th century
the Parliamentarians, famous for frowning on
Cavalier celebrations of festivals such as
Christmas, represented the virtues of modesty and discipline whilst the
cavaliers revelled in pleasure and panache. This vogue for indulging the
emotions was popular during the Restoration and by the 18th century the
word “sentimental” was a term of praise. It referred to a person of taste and
refinement, someone who would openly show emotion. Both men and women wept over
books such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and sentimental paintings were
Nelsonvery
much in fashion. The last great hero of this era was Horatio Nelson, flamboyant
and sentimental, a man who paraded his passions in public.  This was a man who had no hesitation in
asking one of his closest friends to kiss him goodbye on his deathbed. When
Nelson died the huge outpouring of grief at his funeral mirrored the emotional
nature of his life.

 

The Lip Stiffens 

But the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution were
changing British attitudes towards the
Darcy expression of passion. The French
Revolution was seen as a disastrous result of the outpouring of rampant
emotional expression. Passion was seen as dangerous to life and liberty.  At its most extreme, political passion
resulted in revolution. So it was time to stiffen the upper lip and reject the
display of emotion. Jane Austen’s heroes reflect this change. They have admirable self-control and seldom express their feelings. When they do, what
they say is concise, heartfelt but not flamboyant: Mr Darcy, for example, only expresses his admiration for Elizabeth Bennett when goaded into it by Miss Bingley. Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey is determinedly unsentimental, rejecting the heroine's wild flights of imagination. Even Frederick Wentworth, possibly the most open of Jane Austen's heroes is still a model of military restraint, resourcefulness and fortitude. As for the heroines, Elinor, representing sense, is favoured over Marianne, representing Sensibility.

WellingtonLord Byron was another man who simply could not resist
indulging his emotions. In contrast, the Duke of Wellington came to exemplify all
that was admired in stoicism and self-control. The “Iron Duke” was emotionally
restrained. One could not imagine him asking his best friend to kiss him under any circumstances. The
story of his exchange with Lord Uxbridge at the Battle of Waterloo demonstrates this. When Uxbridge had his leg shattered by a cannonball he declared: “By God,
Sir, I’ve lost my leg!” “By God, sir, so you have,” Wellington replied calmly.

The Doughty Victorians

The Victorian era enshrined
the stiff upper lip as a virtue throughout all classes of society. Britons’
Florentia Sale
inclination to express passion was suppressed, beaten out of young men at
public school and repressed by the Church. 
Explorers and soldiers were models of cool self-control and so were the
women who supported them. Florentia, Lady Sale, during the disastrous British
retreat from Kabul in the First Afghan War wrote in her diary: "Today we
fought our way through the Jugdulluk Pass. Fortunately, I was only wounded
once."

Much of the literature of the
Victorian period reflected this cool stoicism. Invictus by WE Henley, Vitai
Lampada by Henry Newbolt and If by Rudyard Kipling all praise the quality of
the stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. However, the flip side to such fortutide could be a lack of imagination and empathy. There was a strong backlash against the stiff upper lip at the start of the 20th century from those who felt it ironed out all sensitivity.

Is there still a place for the stiff upper lip?

Andy Murray cryingThese days there is a general
consensus that the stiff upper lip is quivering too much with
sentimentality. We Brits cry regularly – even tennis player Andy Murray, the dour Scot, gets emotional. We get
passionate for the things we care about. And yet some of the British classic
understatement and stiff upper lip does survive. In my family the enquiry “How
are you?” is always greeted with the answer “fine, thank you” regardless of
circumstances. When my other half and I were driving through the African bush
and got stuck in deep sand we took turns in digging the Land Rover out whilst
the other one kept watch for a lion attack. We needed all our reserves of calmness and fortitude then. 

I’m not suggesting that the
qualities of coolness in the face of danger, resilience and restraint are
exclusive to the Brits. Far from it. I don’t see them as the preserve of one
particular nation over another. During the Victoran period there was in fact a fear that the Americans in particular were going to overtake the British in terms of their coollness under pressure and their positive attitude. Other races were also acknowledged to possess the stiff upper lip: The Germans were renowned for their discipline, the Australians for their resilience and resourcefulness and the Nordic races for their calm.

I have to confess that I do find many of the qualities associated with the stiff upper lip to be attractive, in real life as well as in my fiction. I suppose ideally I would like a
hero who possesses some restraint and a great line in understatement, but who is still
emotionally literate enough to declare his love to the heroine. I also love strong heroines who are clever and resourceful. 

What about you?
Do you prefer the strong silent type of hero who suppresses his passion or the sort of
man like Nelson or Byron who isn’t ashamed to show his emotions in public? Or a
hero somewhere between the two? Are there any particular examples of restraint
and self-control you admire in real life or in novels? And what about the heroines? After all, the stiff upper lip isn't the sole prerogative of the male of the species!

A Flask of Regency Liquor

A la bonne bouteilleNo, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men: but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.
Samuel Johnson

Joanna here, talking about Regency tipples.  The hard-drinking Regency or Georgian gentleman is such a stock figure in Romance, it's worth stopping a minute to wonder what sort of liquor he was likely to be imbBeer brewingibing. 

There was ale and beer, of course, and their cousin, porter.  Ale and beer weren't precisely a gentleman's drink, but it's likely your hero lifted a mug of ale before the hunt and he may well have drunk beer with his breakfast, especially if he lived in the deep country. 

Beer and ale were drinks native to England, universal, and cheap.  The drink of the people, as it were.  Even small children drank a low-alcohol sort of beer called 'small beer' made from the second or third re-fermentation of the mash during brewing and containing just enough alcohol to preserve the drink.

Singleton_Ale-House_Door_1790By the Regency, the distinction between ale and beer lay not so much in the ingredients that made them up, as in the proportions.

Ale differs from beer in having fewer hops, which, giving less bitterness, leaves more of the soft smooth sweetness of the malt. It is usual, too, to brew it with pale malt, so that it is not so brown as beer. 
Scenes of British Wealth, Isaac Taylor, 1825.

Porterlater this was also called 'stout'was a style of strong, dark, well-aged beer dating back to the Eighteenth Century, much favored by the working class of London.  Thus 'porter', because porters drank it.  Not a stylish beverage.  If you're wondering what it was like; Guinness is stout.

Why so much beer drinking?  I read, here and there, the thought that folks drank beer or ale instead of water because the water was contaminated.  Beer is boiled during the fermentation process and afterwards the alcWomen drinking beer manetoholic content kills off pathogens.  In a land of contaminated water, beer is a lot safer to drink.  The argument is that historical people somehow sensed this. 

This has always struck me as applying twenty-first century attitudes back into historical times.  The modern popularity of beer or wineor coke for that matterisn't an indication folks don't trust the water. 

I think folks in Regency times made beer as a way of handily preserving grain; they drank beer because they liked the taste; and probably, like modern folks, they enjoyed getting a little tipsy.

. . .  sober maids are wooed in wine.
Samuel Johnson

Wine, not beer, was the gentlemanly table drink, being imported and expensive and therefore fancier.  Agricultural experimentation, starting in Roman times, had demonstrated the sad truth that England is not a wine-producing country.   I wonder if some of the ancient conflict between England and France boils down to a certain jealousy that France can make wine and England can't. 

It was to France the English had traditionally turned to fill up their glass.  The two decades of war between England and France made the enjoyment of French wines more problematic.  Our Regency gentleman, who would once have poured out Bordeaux, (which they were likely to call claret,) burgundy, hermitage, (from the Rhône region south of Lyon,) or a sparkling champagne, now maybe substituted Tokay, an old favorite from Hungary, or hock, which was a catchall term for German wines. 

Amontillado wikiBut he might also have turned to some new favorites the English had found among the wines of Spain, Portugal and the mid-Atlantic islandsthe wines called Madeira, Malaga, port, or sherry.  Sherry, which, just to liven things up, was also called sack or Canary. 

Next time you see a character in a book with sherry-colored eyes, that over on the left is probably what the author means.  That's a mid-range sherry.  Sherry runs all the way from clear to dark brown.   

These new favorites were fortified wines, most of them heavy and sweet.  They were made by mixing traditional varieties of light, generally sweet wines and then adding brandy at some specific point in the fermentation process.  This fixed the flavor and sugar content and brought the alcohol level up to 15% or 20%.  The high alcohol prevented spoilage during shipment.  These fortified wines were less temperamental in the keg and the robust alcohol level was a nice compromise between ordinary wine and harder liquors.

A fortified wine like port was likely to be passed around the table after a fine dinner when the ladies had withdrawn and the gentlemen could start telling dirty jokes.  Meanwhile the ladies, in the salon, were helping themselves to a ladylike glass of 30-proof sherry and engaging in their own risqué conversations. 

Zwiebelflasche Sherry bottleI don't want to zip right past wine without saying that the size of the ordinary historical wine bottle may have been determined by the amount of air in a glassblower's lungs.  Georgian and earlier wine bottles had a long-necked, onion-bodied shape, which made them a bit less likely to get knocked over.  Wine bottles assumed the bullet shape we're so familiar with today when transportation improved in the Eighteenth century.

Early wine was shipped in kegs.  The householder or tavern owner tapped the keg and poured it into the nearest pitcher or bottle.  In the Eighteenth Century, better roads led individual wine growers to bottle their own wine.  The long, cylindrical bottle with a tight cork could be stacked and stored on its side and shipped economically.

When our Regency gentleman wasn't drinking wine, what were the other choices?  There was a formidable array of distilled liquors for him; brandy, arrack, whiskey, gin, cognac, rum, and cordials of every sort.  Exotic drinksAbsinthe-ducros-fils-110kb could be brought back from odd corners of the Continent; kirshwasser, distilled from cherries in Switzerland and Germany; vermouth, from Italy; maybe a bottle of Green Chartreuse liqueur brought out of France and hoarded from before the Revolution. Absinthe, the green liqueur containing wormwood, was being made in France, preparing for a long career as the decadent man's drink of choice. 

Considering a few of these 

Geneva was the period name for what we'd call gin.  It was probably not passed around the table after dinner by your average Regency gentleman, gin being notoriously the beverage of the depraved lower class.  The nickname, 'blue ruin', seems applicable.

The poet, also, is disguised, and seems, if we may use his own mixed phraseology, to have "drunk deep" of blue ruin, instead of the "Pierian spring."
Monthly Review, Ralph Griffiths

 
Arrack.  This was strong liquor imported from India and the East Indies, made from any of a number of 220px-Cocos_nucifera_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-187grains, such as rice, along with sugar and the juice of the coconut tree.  It was regularly imported into England from the Eighteenth Century onward.  It seems to have been drunk, in England, mainly as an ingredient in punch.

Not to keep thee longer in suspense ; last night, it seems, the infamous woman got so heartily intoxicated with her beloved liquor, arrack punch, at the expense of Colonel Salter, that, mistaking her way, she fell down a pair of stairs, and broke her leg:
Clarissa, Samuel Richardson

Was arrack punch a wee bit vulgar?  Our sporting gentlemen probably preferred a rum punch when he met friends at the inn after a long day's ride.

Brandy.  Gessa y ariasAh.  Now here is the quintessential liquor for our Regency gentleman.  This is what lurks in the decanter he hands round the table after dinner.  This is the tot served to male guests in the library.  When in doubt, the hero pours brandy.

Brandy is distilled from wine.  Eau-de-vie is most properly the distilled liquor made from other fruits or grains, but in this period they were often called brandies as well.   

So you could have a 'brandy' made by fermenting peaches.  Or you could have a brandy made from grape wine that was later infused with the flavor of peaches.  These fruit-infused brandies were made by soaking crushed fruits like cherries, apricots or blackcurrents in brandy.  There are numerous recipes for this.

To make Cherry Brandy. Take six pounds of cherries, half red and half black.  Mash or squeeze them to pieces with your hands, and put to them three gallons of brandy, letting them stand steeping twenty-four hours; then put the mashed cherries and liquor, a little at a time, into a canvass bag, and press it as long as any juice will run; sweeten it to your taste; put it into a vessel fit for it; let it stand a month, and bottle it out. Put a lump of loaf sugar into every bottle.
The Frugal Housewife, Susannah Carter, 1800

  
Our gentleman will almost certainly serve French brandy, though it seems a bit vulgar to mention the origin.  A gentleman will take that for granted.  His brandy may, in fact, come from Cognac, a region so famous for brandy that the liquor is simply called Cognac. 

He has delivered himself over to strong libations of pure cognac, and is daily plunged in intoxication and stupor
Patrick Kennedy

Gilray punch_cures
Rum.  Our fashionable gentleman, unless he's spent his youth at sea, is unlikely to drink rum straight up, but if he's a sporting gentleman, he will most probably drink rum punch.

It is made with rum, brandy, lemon, hot water, and sugar.  . . .  Put in as much sugar as the water will dissolve. If you brew, say, a quart of punch, let it contain the juice and the rind of one lemon. The juice, I say; not the pulp. The rind also; not all the peel; none of the white pith: only the yellow outside pared off thin . . .  Mix your hot water, sugar, and lemon. Let the water be boiling hot—fresh from the kettle on the fire.  . . .  put a wrapper consisting of a folded napkin over the mouth of your jug, and lay a thick octavo or some other equivalent body, over the mouth of that vessel, and let it stand for five minutes. Then add the liquors.
Punch

Whiskey.  Gaelic usquebaugh, from the Latin 'aqua vitae' or 'water of life', became 'whiskey' in English.  It's a distilled malted grain liquor.  Scotch whisky shares with French brandy the distinction of being an illegally smuggled import in England during the Regency.  Would our gentleman have served it? 

Well … if he were Scots or had spent time in Scotland, very possibly.  Or our gentleman might simply like to add the fillip of illegality to his after dinner relaxation.

Meissenier louvre C19 cropWhen I think of my historical gentleman, at ease, talking with a friend at the table, I think of him with a glass of good simple wine set at his elbow. Black Hawk

What about you?  When you settle down to talk to your friends, what drink do you like to sip, and why?

 

One lucky commenter will win a copy of Black Hawk.