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Christopher Nagle. Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era.

Christopher Nagle. Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 218. $79.95.

Christopher Nagle contends that Sensibility not only precedes Romanticism, but is indeed coterminous with it, and even outlives it. Moreover, Sensibility exhibits a queer excess that Romanticism seeks to contain yet fundamentally requires for its own expression. This is to say that Sensibility is not the rediscovery of feeling in the late eighteenth century, an ephemeral cultural craze that seeded the enduring age of Romanticism. Rather, Romanticism is part of the language and ideology of Sensibility, a reformulation of it that privileges the individual over the group, solitude over community, constraint over excess. Romanticism bears down on the more radical elements of Sensibility's promise of a liberating sexuality and communicative social intercourse; in effect, Romanticism seeks to co-opt Sensibility, to sublime it. It is "precisely in the period of ostensible attacks on Sensibility ... that we can learn much about how it continued to function and shape the culture of which it was a vital part.... Sensibility provides ... the discursive infrastructure of Romanticism itself" (4). Nagle claims more than this however; Romanticism belongs to the Long Age of Sensibility. This is a much larger claim, and is the true force of the book.

Nagle specifically associates Sensibility not just with the feeling, but with all the sexual extensions of feeling, in effect, with sexuality itself. Sensibility, he contends is coterminous with pleasure whereas Romanticism is coterminous with desire and all its deferments. Pleasure becomes something that must be increasingly controlled as to its production and circulation as Romanticism asserts its domination. Romanticism then, privileges imagination and vision while Sensibility privileges immediacy and materiality.

However, because Sensibility grounds Romanticism, Romanticism must always contend with it, embodying it rather than eradicating it. Sensibility never truly goes away. In a period of increasing disorientation due to swift changes in commercial and technological systems, Sensibility provided a brave new world of connectivity while Romanticism insisted on isolation and a focus on the individual. Nagle rightly points to the parallels between Sensibility's electrifying qualities of communicative expressiveness and today's technologies. Romanticism was, by contrast, a stern disciplinarian. In his portrayal, Sensibility begins to look more and more like an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century blogosphere or Facebook, while Romanticism is much less appealing.

Nagle focuses on William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley as his primary examples of how Romanticism engages Sensibility, drawing in other authors such as Mary Robinson as the main proponent of sapphism, for instance, to show differences in engagements of and continuous practice in Sensibility. The first chapter examines extensively the ways in which Lawrence Sterne engages Sensibility to productive effect. The Sterne chapter's most important claim is that Sensibility's utopian promise of promiscuity and permeable boundaries are presented, enacted and embodied in Sterne's texts. By focusing at length on Sterne, Nagle is able to show just how queer Sensibility is. Although Sensibility depends on body language, feelings (almost disproportionate feelings), social sensitivity, and aesthetic sensitivity, Nagle foregrounds Sensibility's close alliance with homosexuality. Calling attention to proximity as essential both to Sensibility's emotional and physical terrain, Nagle reads this proximity as queer, as promiscuity perverted. In rehearsing his argument, one sees how filiations of meaning are taken as proof. Again and again, Nagle draws conclusions from what others might see as possibilities or interesting connections rather than clearly substantial evidence. However, the exegesis is consistently persuasive and Nagle draws his reader along despite initial resistances. The benefit of such an approach is that Nagle's radical claims for Sensibility's importance in the making of modern cultural identity are both impressive and highly transferable.

Great attention is also shown to Wordsworth's prominent role in reformulating Sensibility's elements Romantically. Nagle argues that Wordsworth begins his career well-grounded in Sensibility, practicing its ethos and then refashioning it so as to focus on the individual ego, and the Romantic political will. Wordsworth's engagements with the poetry of Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson, and Helen Maria Williams all end in the absorption--the subliming--of these poets of Sensibility. Although each poet engages Sensibility in a different way, Wordsworth tackles each on their own terms, transforming their achievements into elements of his own. Important to Wordsworthian poetics is the denial of a radical sexuality, expressed both as a linguistic and affective excess. Nagle demonstrates how Wordsworth resorts to prose defenses to show his own poetic difference from this excess even though, as Nagle notes, the poetry does not bear this out. Wordsworth's defensiveness here is the reason, Nagle claims, for the much noted illogic of the prefaces. Because Nagle spends so much time looking at radical sexualities, what is odd about the Wordsworth chapters is lack of any mention of the relation between William and Dorothy Wordsworth and the relevance of their intimacy to the poetry. This lack makes one wonder at the omission of any treatment of Byron's Sensibility, particularly in regard to his own sisterly love. How forthrightly Romantic can Wordsworth be, as Nagle claims he is, when Dorothy's love for him throbs at the very heart of his Romantic identity?

The Austen and Shelley chapters are the most compelling uses of the book's premise. Indeed, Nagle's reading of Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the most convincing I have encountered. In a nutshell, Austen incorporates Sensibility, Shelley attacks its disfigurement by Romanticism. But Nagle is only talking about Persuasion, he doesn't take Austen's other novels into account. In this way he evades consideration of how Austen alternates methods, ideologies, loci between novels. Many critics have noted the oscillating way in which Austen examines or satirizes a particular theme throughout her career. By looking at Persuasion only, without taking into account Mansfield Park's rebuttal of Sensibility, Nagle draws conclusions that are satisfying for Persuasion but not for the oeuvre as a whole. But he admirably demonstrates Austen's incorporation of Sensibility in her focus on the social network, the importance of feeling for social sympathy, and harmonious community. In the Shelley chapter we see the creature as a Man of Feeling. The queer element of Sensibility is heightened in Frankenstein in the attraction-repulsion dynamic between Victor and his creation. As the creature's narrative demonstrates him increasingly to be a Man of Feeling, Victor is exposed as self-alienating, irresponsible, and unfeeling. Shelley's problematic is not that of self-other in the relation between Victor and the creature, but that of selfness and difference. While the fear of the other stems from seeing aspects of oneself in the other, difference implies that multiplicity allows for an unthreatened, autonomous self. The creature may be only part human, alien, unknowable and yet part of a sympathetic network when the self is a Man of Feeling like Captain Walton. In the end, it is the bond between Walton and Victor that proves the moral of the tale, the threat that Romanticism brings to Sensibility.

The weakest chapter is the last, a reflection on L. E. L. and Tennyson to move the argument concerning the Long Age of Sensibility toward its Victorian conclusion, Sentimentalism. Because Nagle is so concerned to show Romanticism's disciplining effect on Sensibility, he ties himself in a bit of a knot with his argument about Sentimentalism as an end-state of Sensibility. Even though he contradicts himself several times, mentioning the eighteenth-century phase of Sentimentalism and the eighteenth-century Man of Feeling, Nagle insists that the Man of Feeling is a distinctly Victorian product and that Sentimentalism is as well. In order to make his case, Nagle over-reads L. E. L. and, as he does throughout the book, often reduces a term's valence to a singularity. A lesser complaint is that because the book seems to have been edited down somewhat severely, some arguments are deferred until too late in the book, as in the formulation of "pleasure-in-pain," which does not come until the middle of the book and yet is essential to understanding the premise of Sensibility's queerness. At the same time a term like pleasure is parsed down to its libidinous or sexual meaning alone; there is no consideration of that kind of imaginative pleasure that Joseph Addison ascribes to literary work. Nevertheless, despite occasional frustrations this is an exciting book and one that deserves to be read and taught.

Elizabeth Fay

University of Massachusetts, Boston
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Author:Fay, Elizabeth
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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