The passion that lurks in self-control

Literary Notes

A READING of contemporary literature, let alone the Booker prize finalists, reveals a welter of passions, of emotional rather than intellectual encounters. Far from the image of "cool" Britannia, feelings abound. But was this always so?

In the earlier part of this century, the formative years of our parents, the assumption of "Englishness" was of self-control. Emotions were all very well, but were the stronger for their suppression. Italians and others could let themselves go, but the English wouldn't. Elgar might feel as deeply as Mahler, but would be more controlled. In the literature of the time the great virtue was not for the supression of emotion, but the subservience of emotion to intellect.

All the work of the great heroes of children's literature of the last hundred years, at least until recently, laud the peculiar values of the British. Their bravery and their compassion were all based on the idea of self-control. Herbert Strang, as well as others, writes of being intellectually "cool" even at times of great stress.

The self-control of passion in time of battle is a useful commodity, avoiding the over-exuberance of triumphalism, and hence cruelty and, more importantly, avoiding the infection of fear. But the writers of the time are not just pragmatic. They believe that such a sense of self-control reveals bravery and the command of the inner feelings from the earliest days.

In the many boys' books centred on public schools the real and central virtue is the ability not to cry when being beaten: "But I remember with pride that I did not squeal".

While it might seem slightly far-fetched to suggest that caning was written about as a virtue, it is accurate to report that the ability to withstand it with dignity intact was considered essential. Being brave, or withstanding pain, might seem to make a "man" the more self-disciplined.

But this is not just a version of making the young "lean, competitive and hungry" as in the Thatcher ethos. It is also consistently based on the assumption that self-control is the antithesis of lacking emotion. On the contrary, the British feel the more deeply, if less showily than other "peoples". It is what they have to suppress that makes them almost incredibly powerful.

Perhaps this self-control is most revealingly and consistently stated in those many passages where those of the most close and passionate relationships meet each other. An elder brother, for instance, has just survived a barrage of fire, burning decks, and various other adventures to rescue his friend, who should be grateful. "Hello Kid!" he said, in the young Briton's casual manner of greeting.

Such a laconic, almost disinterested, manner of approach might be mistaken for the matter of fact, not distracting from the plot. But it is actually a constant motif; a touchstone on which the British are tested. "Had they been of any nationality but British, the lads would have fallen on each other's necks and perhaps kissed each other. Instead they stood a yard apart and laughed - but their mutual joy was none the less genuine."

The question posed over more than 50 years is whether openly expressed emotion can be genuine. That sense of self-command, of real feeling made the more powerful by suppression, is held up as a distinct virtue. The "stiff upper lip" might be the expression of coolness but is really the symbol of repression; of unexpressed, or rather inwardly expressed feelings. Brothers meet after amazing traumas. " `Hulloa there, Gerald, old boy! How goes it' . . . `See you later' was Gerald's equally unconcerned reply, although at heart the brothers were longing to shake each other by the hand."

Emotions are rife in all these books of adventure and heroism. But they are kept in check. Even shaking hands might be one loosening too far.

Professor Cedric Cullingford is the author of `Children's Literature and its Effects' (Cassell, pounds 45 hardback, pounds 15.99 paperback)

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness