When sentencing the killers of sixteen-year-old Becky Watts in November 2015, the presiding judge, Mr Justice Dingemans, broke down in tears. This was seen as so unusual it was reported in the press, although sympathetically. The chief investigating officer defended him: ‘The judge was addressing the family and reacted in an entirely understandable way. He’s a human being and not a robot. It does not affect his integrity or the exemplary way in which he conducted the trial.’ While this statement is obviously supportive, it is clear that some explanation was perceived to be required for the judge’s tears, despite the horrendous nature of this particular case. In mid-eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century Britain, however, crying judges were not nearly as notable. As Thomas Dixon relates, one such judge, Sir James Shaw Willes, cried when hearing the case of a mother who had poisoned her baby: ‘at one time he buried his face in his note-book and shed tears and seemed almost unable to proceed with the evidence.’ The tide was turning by the 1850s, and Willes’s outbursts were criticised; earlier, ‘weeping judges were a regular feature of public justice.’
What has changed since the mid-eighteenth century to make the crying judge such an unusual figure? Although Weeping Britannia covers a remarkable range of case studies, the descriptions of these displays of emotion from the judiciary were how I first encountered Dixon’s work (he gave a fantastic paper at the Cambridge Cultural History seminar a few years ago). The idea seems so counter-intuitive from a modern perspective because we associate judges with impartiality, objectivity and reserve; qualities that we no longer associate with tears, hence the chief investigating officer’s insistence that Dingeman’s integrity was not compromised. But one of the key messages of Dixon’s book is that the ‘stiff upper lip’ was a brief, modern British phenomenon that dominated only the years 1880 to 1945, and that before (and now, after) that period, ‘masculine’ qualities such as dignity and objectivity were not compromised by a more emotional style. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) makes a predictable appearance, but Dixon also examines earlier examples, such as the weeping of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. More subtly, he argues that we need to unpick the cultural meaning of tears in these earlier periods, challenging our assumption that tears are always linked with emotion rather than reason; for example, in his exploration of the mid-eighteenth century philosophers who argued that tears were the supreme expression of rationality, distinguishing man from the animals. ‘A tear is an intellectual thing,’ asserted William Blake.
Weeping Britannia is very accessible to general readers because of the division of the book into relatively self-contained case studies that are easy to dip in and out of. On the whole, this is pulled off very skilfully, without compromising the integrity of the argument as a whole, with perhaps the exception of the very first chapter on Margery Kempe; this felt isolated from the central concerns of the book, and chronologically, it is also removed from even the earliest of the other case studies by more than a hundred and fifty years, the biggest leap that Dixon makes. Nevertheless, I can see that it was included as a kind of counterpoint to what is to come. Although I understand why the book was written the way it was, as an historian, I’d love to read a lengthier exploration of some of the case studies here; crying judges would be high on my list, but the chapter on wartime British cinema seemed full of relatively untapped potential as well, especially if Mass Observation’s studies were used more extensively. Nevertheless, this book is a crucial contribution to the still relatively undeveloped field of the history of the emotions, and like other offerings in that vein, its greatest usefulness is perhaps to provide a refreshing new perspective on debates that have grown rather dry.