Britain's Traditional Reserve Erodes in a Torrent of Emotion
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 1997; Page A22
LONDON, Sept. 3—In the wake of Princess Diana's death, a nation famous for its stiff upper lip has gone weepy.
The celebrated English reserve, symbolized this week by the silent and withdrawn royal family, has been washed away by a tidal wave of tears and flowers from the tens of thousands of ordinary people mourning the loss of their princess.
It is a face of Britain the world has rarely seen, but one that has been waiting for the moment to appear. "It's quite clear that there was something pent up that was waiting to come out," said Anthony Sampson, author of numerous books about Britain. "It's an outpouring that's erupting as if it was suppressed and longing to be liberated."
The British, particularly the upper classes, have never been known to wear their emotions on their sleeves. This was captured most memorably many years ago when Queen Elizabeth returned from a foreign trip and walked past a waiting Prince Charles, then a small boy, without giving him so much as a hug.
But Diana was the antithesis of all that, a woman known for her warmth and caring and touching. She was regularly seen on television hugging sick children, comforting AIDS victims and reaching out to the poor.
With her death, British people across the social spectrum have responded in kind, with tears that are spilled openly and without the slightest sense of embarrassment. Strangers are massing in lines and sharing their grief together, huddling in the cold at night and comforting one another as they wait to pay respects to Diana. British reserve has completely given way outside London's palaces this week. Oprah Winfrey would feel very much at home here right now.
The British people are amazed by all this, and the papers are filled with comment about a side of Britain rarely seen. "We remember the images of tear-stained teenagers forming a shrine outside the Seattle home of Kurt Cobain," wrote Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian. "We recall too the sobbing, candle-lit vigils in Tel Aviv, on the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down. But that was them. Now the pictures on CNN of `a nation in mourning' are not of foreigners. They are of us."
Historians note that this is not the first time there has been an emotional popular outpouring here. The death in 1965 of Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister, brought the last huge state funeral and a moment of national grief that symbolized his bond with the people. But it was the tissue of patriotism that bound Churchill to his people, and his death was a collective recollection of the country's heroic resistance and victory in World War II.
"That was homage to somebody who was unique in a different way," said Alan Sked of the London School of Economics.
Diana, he said, had an uncomplicated appeal that was both "unsullied" and "admirable." "You got something that is not simplistic but pure enough to touch the heartstrings of millions," he added. "It was a reaction to a sort of virtue that seemed straightforward. . . . It is a feeling of remorse, of disaster, of distress."
The scenes of grieving on display this week are familiar to any American who has experienced such events as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City or the crash of TWA Flight 800. The collective outpourings, the memorial services, the psychologists on television have become almost commonplace.
But here that is not the case, which is why the scenes of grief this week have caught everyone, including it would seem the royal family, by surprise. But it was not until today that a statement was issued on behalf of the family acknowledging the reaction and saying how touched they were by it.
"What it shows," Sampson said, "is the terrific gap or vacuum that needed to be filled for emotional identification. The monarchy did at one time fill it. In some sense she's filled the gap left by the glamorous view of the monarchy."
Twenty years ago, he said, this expression of grief and the marriage of celebrity and tragedy might have been more identified with America or Monaco, but hardly Britain. He added, "It probably does imply an Americanization of British values, but there also is a feeling of starvation of that kind of simple emotion."
Or as the Independent put it today, "Britain is becoming less British." In a lengthy editorial, the newspaper noted that Britain has been better known for "the grave, silent faces" of military processions and the "repressed and duty-lined expressions" of the establishment at funerals and memorials. "Compared to that buttoned-up nation, the current torrents of grief over the dead princess seem American, or even somehow Neapolitan."
Whether this is a one-time expression that will quickly give way to traditional expressions of the British character will not be known for some time. But in her very modernity, Diana has given life to a sense of openness of emotion that could signal a change of more lasting proportions. "Modern Britain," the Independent said today, "knows that, un-British or not, it is good to cry."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company