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Response to Review of Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears

I wrote Weeping Britannia in the conviction that the history of emotions can provoke people to feel by making them think and to think by making them feel. I can therefore have no complaint at all about a reviewer who testifies to having been moved not only to laughter and tears but also to historiographical reflection by my book. I am very grateful to Hannah Rose Woods for her attentive, involving, and thought-provoking review.

As Woods quite rightly observes, Weeping Britannia is a contribution to the history of emotions that aims to reach both an academic and also a wider readership. It is a relief to learn that she thinks it has succeeded in this dual aim, at least to some extent. One of the decisions I made, in attempting to produce an accessible work, was indeed to minimize explicit discussions of theoretical literature. For the most part, I packed that kind of academic scaffolding away in the notes and further reading. However, my hope was that a relative lack of explicit discussion of named scholars and named secondary texts need not entail a lack of engagement with methodological issues and theoretical ideas. As Woods notes, I articulate various theoretical stances, including a cognitive approach to emotions, a social and relational understanding of weeping, and a commitment to a certain kind of cultural and intellectual history, informed both by microhistory and the history of emotions. I also make suggestions about how the evidence deployed is relevant to larger historiographical questions, for instance about the enduring power of Christian modes of thought and life in modern Britain, or the intersection of the history of emotions with the histories of gender roles and political culture.

I share Woods’s overall sense that there is a surprising amount of continuity in attitudes to tears across the six centuries covered in my book, and indeed beyond. This is true of the gendering of tears as feminine, and of enduring anxieties about their authenticity or lack of it. I also agree that it would be wrong to assert too simple or complete a division between pre- and post-Reformation attitudes to tears. I did not intend to suggest a one-dimensional transition from a Catholic culture of tearfulness to a Protestant one of restraint. Rather, there were several different dimensions to Reformation debates about tears. Reformers criticized funeral tears in particular (rather than all kinds of crying) on theological grounds. And while Protestants never doubted the appropriateness of weeping over the sinfulness of oneself and others, there still remained those who doubted the genuineness of the piety supposedly advertised by the shedding of such tears, as in the case of Oliver Cromwell.

Most tears leave no trace of themselves at all, and everyday tears shed in private are much harder for the historian to access than those shed, and analysed, in the public domain. Private letters, journals, and first-person memoirs recording and discussing instances of weeping are rare treasures compared to the common currency of cultural representation and journalistic comment. It was a particular treat for me to discover the responses to the 1950 Mass Observation directive asking about tears in the cinema, and the Mass Observation archive undoubtedly holds huge further promise for historians of emotion. It might well provide valuable evidence, for example, on the very interesting topic of masculinity and the suppression of emotion, which Woods mentions. My chapters on the new masculinity of the 1970s and 1980s, and on the new age of sensibility we are now living through, aimed to show that although arguments in favour of a more emotionally expressive masculinity have been mainstream for almost half a century, older stereotypes are hard to shift. It seems to me that ideas about it being unmanly to cry or to talk about feelings never went away (as opposed to making any recent resurgence). I look forward to further research being carried out into whether there is any link between lack of emotional expressivity and, for example, higher suicide rates among men. I am sceptical about the existence of such a link, but so far there is little evidence on which to make a judgement.

There is only one point on which I think Hannah Rose Woods and I disagree. Woods is by no means alone in thinking that we should draw a clear boundary between crying over a work of fiction and crying over a real-life loss or bereavement. However, I intentionally set out to blur that boundary in Weeping Britannia. It is from our culture in all its forms that we learn how to feel, how to think about how we feel, how to show how we feel, how to understand how we feel. Throughout the book I tried to show how people learned and rehearsed their emotional repertoires through the narratives and exemplars offered in a range of cultural forms, from the bible and devotional manuals, via drama, poetry, paintings and novels, to movies, advice columns, and television programmes. For instance, in the chapter about Dickensian pathos and infant mortality, I tried to show that there was a flowing back and forth between real bereavements and idealised literary representations, with each giving structure and meaning to the other. It was with these ideas about the education of our emotions and expressions in mind that I chose as the epigram for the book the refrain from a late medieval poem, written in Middle English and in the voice of the Blessed Virgin mourning over her son: ‘Therfor to wepe come lerne att me’.

In 1941 the Annales historian Lucien Febvre published a foundational essay on ‘La sensibilit√© et l’histoire’, about the challenge of reconstituting the emotional life of the past. He exhorted his fellow historians to get to work in this new field – to start examining representations of emotions and sensibility in conduct books, court records, paintings, sculpture, music, and novels. ‘I am asking for a vast collective investigation to be opened’, he wrote, ‘on the fundamental sentiments of man and the forms they take. What surprises we may look forward to!’(1a) For those of us who have been making attempts in this direction for some years, it is a pleasure to see a new generation of scholars now taking such a vigorous interest in the history of emotions, redefining and expanding its parameters, and finally making good on Febvre’s sense of its enormous promise as a form of historical endeavour.


  1. Lucien Febvre, ‘Sensibility and history: How to reconstitute the emotional life of the past’ (1941), in A New Kind of History: From the Writings of Febvre, trans. K. Folca, ed. Peter Burke (London, 1973), pp. 12­–26, at p. 24.Back to (1a)