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He did his duty

12 October 2012


HOW exactly ought we to live? What should we foster as the proper relationship between the competing forces of our thoughts, our feelings, and our moral determina­tion? I was unprepared for what serious considerations would be thrown up by the series Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An emotional history of Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays).

Hislop's documentaries are ad­mirable, but their one flaw is a slightly queasy contrast between his unfashionable but important points, and the jokey way he makes them. It is as though he is con­stantly fighting the temptation to pull the rug out from under his own feet, eager to entertain as well as instruct us, his default mode a kind of cheerful mockery.

He explained that the British used to be thought of as par­ticularly emotional, wearing their hearts on their sleeves and hot­headedly eager for action without much thinking about it first. In the 18th century, the cult of sensibility took over, demonstrating that real men (it was mainly men) were open to feelings.

But the subsequent restrained and reserved character of the British was a reaction: first, to the horrors and threats of the French Revolution, and then to Napoleon's conquests. Just look where untram­melled emotions got you!

We had to find a different path, and Nelson stood on the cusp between the older model and what was to come after: he had a gen­erous heart, and yet was actuated by overwhelming duty and loyalty. Jane Austen's works chronicle the turning point. Her clowns are over­whelmed by over-indulgent feeling, while her heroes are ironic, con­trolled.

The model of British reserve was Wellington: in the heat of battle he was disciplined, and aloof to pain and distress. But this was not because he was unfeeling; his dry understatement of speech was an act of repression, adopted so that he could focus on his duty.

Our main interest here is how much this thesis is paralleled in the character of the National Church.

The documentary series Servants: The true story of life below stairs (BBC2, Friday of last week) puts all those nostalgic costume dramas about sympathetic toffs and their chirpy underlings into perspective. The work was back-breaking and unrelenting, and many servants were considered to be essentially interchangeable. Their masters did not know their names, and they were in no sense, despite the influence of Christianity, equal. In the 19th century, servants' hier­archies were ever more minutely determined by different uniforms, their individuality sacrificed to their function.

The triumph of today's more equal society is no doubt accurately chronicled by the new thriller series Hunted (BBC1, Thursdays). Here, a young woman calls the shots, despite a traumatic childhood that means she can only enjoy a good night's sleep crouched in the corner.

She works as some kind of secret agent, seducing one victim after an­other, but keeping her heart un­sullied. She managed to kill, I think, five people in one sequence, but is clearly meant to be the moral centre of the piece, desperately trying to work out which of her colleagues is playing a double (or triple) game. It is compelling - and repre­hensible.

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