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Last night Jane Austen made an appearance in the first of Ian Hislop’s three-part essay on that interesting phenomenon: The Stiff Upper Lip. This is a series of three programmes chronicling an Emotional History of England, and which was broadcast by BBC 2.

The theme of the programmes is of a chronological history of the British and their emotions. In last night’s episode – Emergence– we were taken on a journey from medieval times(when we were known, both men and women, as ready to kiss each other and strangers at the drop of a hat) to the situation just after Waterloo, when all such soppy displays had ended. Ian Hislop’s argument was that the stereotypically British virtues of reticence and stoicism only began to assert themselves during this period: the stiff upper lip ( an American expression, apparently) had its beginnings as a reaction against the excesses of the French revolution and in our subsequent wars with Napoleon.  After Waterloo, the emotional excesses of the 18th century men of sentiment, as personified by the hero of Henry Mackenzie’s novel, The Man of Feeling (1771) were then not quite the thing. Nelson, the Nation’s hero after his death at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was a far more openly emotional man than the Duke of Wellington. Between Trafalgar  and Waterloo, ten years later, the nation’s emotions had become far more reserved. And of course Jane Austen’s novels, with their emotionally restrained heroes and heroines demonstrates  this sea-change in our emotional life rather well…

On a visit to the Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton, Ian Hislop gave us some Austenian examples of British Reserve and that all important attribute, Politeness, at its best:

The meeting of George and John Knightley in Chapter 12  of Emma, was given as one of the prime examples of the new, restrained attitude that was then acceptable in the early years of the 19th century. Here, while the reception the brothers gave to each other may appear outwardly polite and indifferent, inwardly their mutual  love  and affection is acknowledged . We know that, despite this emotionally cool meeting, they would move heaven and each to help each other.

The discussion continued with Louise West ,who is the Curator of the Jane Austen’s House Museum. They argued that Austen produced a new type of romantic hero: the reserved, upright man, who only confesses his feelings of deepest love after a novel full of incident. This is very true of Darcy, Wentworth George Knightley and Edward Ferrers. It was posited that the most guarded of Jane Austen’s characters often display the deepest, most genuine feelings. Of the heroines, only Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility  gives way to excesses of sentiment, but even she is more sedate, reserved and sensible by the end of the novel. She has reformed to the state of  emotional restraint thought desirable by  late Georgian society.

I think we can all agree that Jane Austen respected rational beings of both sexes, to borrow as she did Mary Wollstonecraft’s phrase, and the argument that her novels are testament to her society’s admiration for certain aspects of The Stiff Upper Lip, and are, moreover, good examples of the era when an excess of sentiment was seen as something to be avoided, is an interesting one.

Two points did annoy me. That old chestnut, that Jane Austen never wrote about politics or  incidents in the wider world- the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Abolition etc etc- reared its ugly head yet again, in a reference to a letter written by Winston Churchill upon having had Pride and Prejudice read to him while he was convalescing from illness in 1943:

Does this view really still prevail? Really? Not in my opinion or on my website. And to be frank, I really did not see the point of its inclusion here. Perhaps I missed something crucial. And I did not appreciate the scenes in the Museum’s gift shop, where Ian Hislop wonders,  rather disapprovingly in my view, what Jane Austen’s reaction to the stock, in particular the “I Heart Darcy bookmarks” might be. I think she might be glad that the shop is contributing funds to the privately run Museum so that it can continue to celebrate her life and works….but then that’s just me being pragmatic, and not a little annoyed.

However, on the whole this was an interesting programme to watch, with plenty for those of us interested in the late 18th/early 19th century to ponder. You can go here to its website to see some clips and here to the BBC iPlayer to view the whole of Episode Number 1

(….and yes,we will get back to the Lefroys in my next posting!)

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