The passion that lurks in self-control
Monday 19 October 1998
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)
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