Oscillations of sensibility.
Eighteenth-century female novels of sensibility - contributions to the genre written by and mostly about women - differ from their male counterparts most obviously by emphasizing the situation of the afflicted rather than that of the responder to affliction. In such works, female victims typically suffer endlessly and ingeniously, revealing their virtue by their acceptance of what Providence dictates. Frances Sheridan's Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1761), to which I shall return, exemplifies the mode. Its heroine, narrating her own career, tells of ever-increasing mishaps, all of which she accepts as opportunities for goodness. For a time unexpected prosperity, the direct reward of her virtue, alleviates her distress, but a third-person narrator intervenes to assure the reader that accumulating disasters soon ensue: Sidney's wealth promptly disappears.
An organizing scheme for fiction dependent on female victimization may respond directly to the relative lack of opportunity for agency experienced in actuality by many middle-class eighteenth-century women. But female novels of sensibility, which have received little critical attention as distinct from their male equivalents, also reveal unexpected ideological complexity. Despite their apparent predication on the value of emotional vulnerability and responsiveness, they often imply serious questions about the utility for women of commitment to that stereotypical female value, sensibility. Such implicit interrogation does not depend on political allegiance and does not occur only in late-century works, nor is it confined to novels. In fact ambivalence about the representation of sensibility as simple virtue marks all forms of female literary production well before explicit critiques of sensibility became a literary commonplace.
Eighteenth-century women's treatment of sensibility thus constitutes an important swerve in literary history, an implicit critique of literary convention and of the social conventions on which it is founded, and a critique occurring at the very moment of the convention's dominance. To treat sentimental fiction by men and by women as a single genre obscures differences of both historical and theoretical importance.
I do not mean to suggest that something in the nature of males and females dictates different attitudes toward and uses of sensibility as literary resource. On the other hand, the social and moral history of the eighteenth century implies that sensibility must bear different meanings for men and for women. Laurence Sterne or Henry Mackenzie, constructing fictions based on male characters' lavish indulgence in the pleasures of sympathy, could rely on their own assurance and that of their readers that men are "by nature" rational. Yorick's mournful imaginings of Bastille prisoner or dying lamb titillate partly by virtue of the disjunction between the stereotypical reasoning male and Sterne's boldly emotional evocation of a male imagination compelled by sympathy. The hero of sensibility allows himself to feel. His female counterpart can't help herself.
Actually, the hero of sensibility has no real female counterpart, given the naturalization of sensibility for women. Janet Todd observes that the "cult of sensibility stressed those qualities considered feminine in the sexual psychology of the time," specifying "intuitive sympathy, susceptibility, emotionalism and passivity."(3) But the attribution of sensibility to women did not seem so bland a matter to eighteenth-century female writers. Although certain late-twentieth-century feminist critics believe that sentimentality offered eighteenth-century women significant opportunities of self-expression,(4) those women did not necessarily think so. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft attributes the limited intellectual development of most women to the social pressures forcing the female to feel rather than think: "Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry, all tend to make women the creatures of sensation. . . . This overstretched sensibility naturally relaxes the other powers of the mind, and prevents intellect from attaining that sovereignty which it ought to attain."(5) Wollstonecraft associates sensibility with instinct and reads the asserted fink between women and sensibility as reducing the human female to the level of the "brute," necessarily lagging behind "man, who, why we cannot tell, had the power given him of attaining reason in his first mode of existence" (63).
The heroine of sensibility, then, only plays out the instinctual nature of her sex, fostering the culture of female victimization. The hero differentiates himself from other men precisely by his capacity for fine feeling. The heroine, in contrast, may suffer more than other women, but she suffers like them. When women imagine her, they typically see the menace she implies to female self-realization as well as her profound appeal to male and female readers alike.
Novels provide the most obvious support for my argument, but I shall begin with a brief detour through a play, Sheridan's The Discovery (1763), not focused on sensibility as an issue but illuminating in its delineation, within a comic structure, of the problematic of female goodness, a subject profoundly relevant to consideration of the sensibility, often taken to define such goodness. The unexpected context lends special urgency to an eruption of concern and ambivalence about conventional gender arrangements.
Author of one of the century's most popular tear-jerkers, Sheridan began her literary career with a comedy. The Discovery, first staged with the playwright's husband Thomas acting in conjunction with David Garrick and Hannah Pritchard, had a 1763 run of seventeen nights, impressive for the period. Its prologue, opening with apology for the Female culprit' who has dar'd to venture on poetic grounds," goes on to claim "simple nature" and "plain sense" as the play's foundation and to boast originality. "the story's new."(6)
At the outset, the story seems far from new. A lecherous, tyrannical, aristocratic husband commands his daughter to marry for money an aging, ridiculous man, abandoning young Branville, whom she loves. Although the father also wishes his son to make a convenient marriage, he offers commands only to wife and daughter. But the story indeed provides something new in its imagining of the wife who, although entirely subordinated to her husband, apparently dedicated only to fulfilling his wishes, willing even to sacrifice her daughter to his will, enacts her compassion for a younger woman. Lord Medway, the autocratic husband and father, has made considerable progress toward seducing young Lady Flutter, recently married to Sir Harry Flutter. Lady Medway, who has condoned her husband's previous infidelities, intervenes to save the Flutters' marriage and to protect the young woman.
Behind a facade of utter compliance, in other words, lurks resistance. Beneath female sensibility lies female anger. The play investigates the paradox of goodness, showing that the woman whose virtue apparently consists in total softness can call upon unexpected resources of toughness, all the while professing her subordination. More than the man of feeling, this woman of feeling makes things happen - by means both of sympathy for another woman and of covert impatience with an unreasonable husband.
In contrast, the men in Sheridan's comedy, possessing total social power, betray massive anxiety and prove ineffectual. They worry about female rhetoric and female changeableness, but also about their own "manliness." Sir Harry Flutter, Lord Medway explains, treats his wife in the way that children treat small animals in their power, because he thinks such behavior makes him look manly' (44). Talking with Sir Harry, the lord explains that rough behavior "is not manly" (46), but "a sort of sneering, ironical treatment" is. Lady Flutter laughs at her husband's claim to be a man; the comic butt Sir Anthony expresses his vulnerability to female sexual wiles by characterizing himself as "but a man' (99). "Manliness," in other words, constitutes an effort at self-protection for men vividly conscious of women's skill at dissembling, their association with rhetorical force, their capacity to undermine male power by talking or by sexual allure. The scene in which Lord Medway orders his daughter to marry the man of his choice, a scene in which he allows her to say hardly a word, emphatically conveys male fears, as the man in possession of complete autocratic power imagines what his daughter might say, given the chance. Such imagining defines male vulnerability.
The play has it both ways. This casual colloquial formulation expresses a crucial truth about Sheridan's work and that of other women. The Discovery delineates a compliant woman in the control of a brutal man. She has married for love, but love has soured. It also shows the man achieving nothing he thinks he wants (although he learns to want better things, which presumably he can attain), the woman getting everything she desires, including the return of her husband's respect and possibly even affection. The play can thus be read as female wish fulfillment fantasy, a dream of male reform as a result of almost invisible female power. For if Sheridan's play has it both ways, so, emphatically, does Lady Medway, who practices and embodies goodness, acknowledges no selfish desire, accepts abuse without resistance, but nonetheless attains the exhilarating experience of control. Her goodness, the goodness that issues from right feeling, supplies both source and disguise for her power. The same covert connection between feeling and power emerges in many women's novels.
Sheridan's exploration of the complicated matter of female virtue had begun earlier, in Sidney Bidulph, which makes the point about goodness as hidden power even clearer.(7) The Discovery, however, emphasizes the necessity of the goodness/power nexus. Given the constrictions of female existence, especially within marriage, a woman's desire for agency will express itself with energy generated by pressure. The comic scheme that contains Lady Medway is manifestly artificial, but the contrived aspects of the happy resolution implicitly-emphasize the comparable contrivance of the social arrangements that give a lady no control, for instance, over plans for her daughter's marriage. Yet Lady Medway's "sensibility" lends urgency to her actions. Her sympathy for another potential female victim compels her to discover ways of doing as well as being. In making the discovery, she anticipates the next literary generation of feeling heroines.
The details of women's fiction carry its meanings, so only examination of these unfamiliar details can reveal characteristic patterns of - well, certainly not rebellion, but at least interrogation. In the harrowing narrative of women's experience that constitutes Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, Sheridan afflicts her heroine with overwhelming hardship, devising multifarious forms of misery. Sidney herself considers Providence or fate the cause of her misfortunes. Her brother, Sir George, however, thinks her afflictions Sidney's own doing, and considerable textual evidence supports his view. If Sidney causes her own suffering, she does so by being too good, in the most orthodox female fashion. Unlike lady Medway, her goodness carries no obvious undertones of rage. (On the other hand, as we shall see, Sidney resembles her dramatic successor in finally establishing virtue as power.) Her utter submissiveness to the will of her mother, whose intellectual and moral inadequacies she clearly sees, prevents her marriage to Faulkland, the admirable man she loves, who also loves her. (Her mother objects to the marriage because she thinks Faulkland the unfeeling seducer of another innocent girl.)
Sidney's compliant silence, the conspicuous sign of her refusal of overt agency, results mainly in unhappiness. She does not tell Mr. Arnold, the husband her mother chooses for her, about her own past relation to Faulkland, she does not mention seeing her husband at the play with another woman, she refuses to complain about her suffering, she will not ask her brother about Miss Burchell, the young woman whom Faulkland earlier impregnated. Each refusal of utterance entails sequences of imposed suffering. Had Sidney asserted her own will and responsiveness more fully, she and others would have endured less misery. Her refusal to make such assertions, however, declares her virtue impeccable.
Her "goodness" constitutes her claim to power, and she uses it effectively. Before her mother severs her tie to Faulkland, Sidney boasts to a friend about her own capacity to curb desire by duty. Her lover, in contrast, claims to have eyes, ears, and sensations only for one object, Sidney herself. He thus makes himself vulnerable in ways that Sidney rejects: her premarital virtue derives from proclaimed lack of feeling, although her account makes it clear that the "lack" signifies refusal rather than absence. After her marriage to Arnold, her goodness, now more obviously the product of sensibility, thrives but wins no conspicuous reward until her husband, having rejected her, sees the error of his ways and feels humbled by her virtue. No longer necessary to the action, he forthwith dies, and Sidney uses her virtue's power to make Faulkland marry Miss Burchell, against her own true wishes, in spite of her freedom now to marry as she chooses. Feeling for a time that Faulkland's goodness has made him her superior, she finally agrees to marry him when he appears once more free of marital ties only because she finds herself again in a morally superior position.
The only female story, this novel (like many other fictions of the same period) suggests, narrates female suffering. A series of interpolated tales, about apparent breast cancer, about a tyrannical mother, about diabolical seduction plots, reiterate the point. The only lasting form of female power derives from virtue. Although male narratives center on agency, female ones on submission, women's stories also suggest virtue as subterranean agency.
Possibly destructive agency, though. Although Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph does not fully explore this possibility, it allows the hypothesis. Should a woman always obey her mother? Sidney does not ask the question; the novel implicitly does. Should a woman automatically reject a man for being a rake? Dozens of eighteenth-century novels say so; Sidney's mother says so too. But Sidney's obedient rejection entails almost uniformly bad consequences. Is female goodness an inevitable agent of suffering? The novel permits this question too.
It does not reach clear subversive conclusions about any of these matters, any more than The Discovery openly concludes that women, with more sense than men about emotional matters, should control their children's marital choices even in opposition to their husbands. Novel and play alike allow but never confirm unsettling possibilities. They raise questions about female orthodoxies; they do not provide answers. The compliant woman, the woman marked by her capacity for sensitive, compassionate response, the woman committed to her own subordination - this familiar eighteenth-century icon, in Sheridan's figuration, contains destructive as well as redemptive potential. If she partially realizes both, she neither indulges in nor provokes overt reflection on their meanings. Meaning remains the province of the reader.
Historians of gender have not yet devoted close attention to sensibility as an eighteenth-century phenomenon. A conventional view has it that the increasing literary emphasis on sensibility as the prerogative of refined men testifies, among other things, to the "feminization" of culture as the century moved toward its end. "Men admired in sentimental fiction," G. J. Barker-Benfield writes, "were those who chose the kind of space women inhabited - the space of retreat from a busy and corrupt world.(8) "Sensibility defines a new male rather than female character type," Ann Jessie Van Sant observes, because the intensified capacity for feeling associated with it either belonged "naturally" to women or implied the dangerous possibility of female sexual experimentation." But in fact heroines of sensibility flourished at the same time as Laurence Steme's Yorick and Henry Mackenzie's Harley, in the novels and plays of women writers. Lady Medway and Sidney Bidulph are such heroines.
Not even Steme's complex ironies seriously undercut the value of Yorick's responsiveness. The mixture of sexual and compassionate feeling characterizing that responsiveness carries a partly comic charge, but it marks its possessor's superiority to less sensitive men. Harley, the Man of Feeling, participates emotionally in other people's suffering. Such participation, along with the charitable actions that Harley's sensitivity inspires, measure his worth. The fictions that represent male sensibility rarely challenge its moral substance. Fictions of female sensibility, on the other hand, at least those conceived by women, flourish on revelations of moral ambiguity.
Van Sant's account of the physiology of sensibility helps to explain why eighteenth-century drunkers understood sensibility as "natural" for women. In the period's conventional polarities, women were creatures of body - of sensation, responsiveness - and men of mind. Yet women appear most distinctly troubled by the problematic of sensibility. Sheridan's work epitomizes one form of this problematic: the tension between female goodness as genuine compliance and as covert power, between help to others and betrayal of the self. Other women writers explore other forms of paradox: between sensibility as tenderness and as toughness, sensibility as vulnerability and as protection. Women's friction flourishes on awareness of opposed alternatives implicit in the most conventional of female moral/emotional positions.
The complex critique of sensibility implicit in a large body of women's writing largely predates Mary Wollstonecraft's repudiation, in the Vindication of the Rights of Women, of sensibility as self-indulgence and weakness, encouraged in women by men who wish to define the female sphere in ways that will not threaten them. And the cumulative critique does not necessarily imply repudiation: only recognition of how fully the idea of sensibility contains emotional contradiction. The polarities of Sheridan's version of female sensibility (dominance/submission, strength/weakness) recur repeatedly, as do the ambiguities of judgment associated with it. The History of lady Julia MandeviUe (1763), for instance, Frances Brooke's rather clumsy sentimental fiction, represents men and women alike as controlled by sensibility but provides also a sharp female observer, a direct descendant of Anna Howe and Charlotte Grandison, to supply commentary. Lady Anne Wilmot, a young and prosperous widow, values the freedom of her condition, which includes liberty to mock, affectionately but lucidly, the sentimentality and unworldliness of Lady Julia and her lover Henry. Through Lady Anne's eyes the reader sees how insistently the impractical young pair lay up trouble for themselves, anticipating difficulty where none exists, and making interpretive mistakes that ultimately entail their deaths. Here, as in Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph, questions of causality loom large. A comic action turns suddenly disastrous: why? Julia suggests that her failure to confide in her father and mother - she has distrusted 'the indulgence of the best of parents"(10) - accounts for the disasters, but it is at least equally plausible to argue that the elder generation's unwillingness to reveal their plans to their descendants makes catastrophe inevitable. One can read the novel, in other words, as an indictment of patriarchal autocracy, despite its abundant explicit praise for the systems of patriarchy, national and familial.
One can read the novel thus, but one need not. Once Julia and Henry die, Lady Anne, who has consistently criticized the extravagances of sensibility, proves herself governed by the quality she has mocked, referring twice to the voluptuousness of sorrow' (II, 179; II, 202) which she and all members of the family indulge after the untimely deaths. Suffering rather than erotic fulfillment provides gratification for onlookers within and readers outside the novel. The liberated young woman rushes to embrace a conventional female position, offering commiseration, help, and sympathy to others, luxuriating in sorrow, and anticipating her own marriage, despite her previous insistence on deferral. Does guilt at having evaded the role of victim account for her sudden compliance? At the end, the novel loudly repudiates its earlier hints that the established order of things, including conventional relations between parents and children, leaves something to be desired. Retreating into sensibility, it implicitly denies all connection between the extravagant emotionality of Henry and Julia and their premature demise. Yet the unexamined, indeed unacknowledged, incompatibility between lady Anne's early emotional/moral position and her final one signals strain: a familiar index of sensibility's ambiguity.
The novels and the plays I have touched upon have in common, along with their tacit interrogation of sensibility, their failure to investigate in any consistent or coherent way the implications of that interrogation. Implying that sensibility is never univalent, they neither seek nor find the full dimensions of its value. Novels thrive on questions rather than answers. If these books do not fully explore the questions they ask, they yet define a new range of problems and delineate at least faintly the shape of complicated knowledge. As the century neared its end, however, women's novels began to depict more openly sensibility's complexities and ambiguities. Frances Burney's Cecilia (1786) foreshadows the intricate judgment and angry awareness that mark Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, published five years later.
More richly than any women's novel preceding it, Cecilia, the story of a woman who keeps changing her mind, investigates as well as records female ambivalence. To write such a story constitutes a daring enterprise, as we may realize by thinking back to Henry Fielding's Amelia, with its insistent reference to the Virgilian tag, Varium et mutabile semper Foemina: Woman's a various and a changeful thing.(11) By 1786, men had long used the notion of female instability to chastise women. Amelia, who never changes, represents a rare form of female virtue. According to one strand of the developing popular mythology, men make up their minds and adhere to their determined course. Women experience great difficulty setting any such course, let alone sticking to it.
Burney reveals the kinds of pressure that provide moral obstacles to any woman aspiring to steadiness. She presents as her heroine a young woman handsome, clever, and rich, like Jane Austen's Emma after her. Unlike Emma, Cecilia does not suffer from having had her own way, although she lives free from parental interference, an orphan provided with three guardians until she comes of age. She wishes less for happiness than for goodness, seeking ways to lead a useful life, impeded by the self-interest of all around her. The plot develops from her efforts and their intersection with her developing erotic attachment to an aristocratic young man who proves unwilling to relinquish his name, as her uncle's will demands, in order to share her wealth. Cecilia must give up her own name and most of her inheritance as conditions for marrying the man she loves.
For reasons obvious and pressing, Cecilia not only changes her mind repeatedly - she finally falls into the radical incoherence of madness, which registers the succession of incompatible alternatives that confront her. Others urge her toward impossible decisions. One guardian, Mr. Harrel, husband of Cecilia's girlhood friend, demands her money to finance his extravagance and avert his fall into financial disaster. The wife of another guardian, Mrs. Delvile, asserts her own moral superiority and requires Cecilia's absolute submission to her will. Everyone wishes to exploit Cecilia: her old friend and would-be lover Monckton, Harrel, Mrs. Harrel, the alleged madman Albany, the poor girl Henrietta, Henrietta's mother Mrs. Belfield. All these people have more or less overt designs on Cecilia's money. Albany wants to use it for charity, everyone else wants it for his or her own ends. The wealth that constitutes Cecilia's nominal independence thus becomes the sign of her vulnerability.
Cecilia experiences herself not as changing her mind but as responding to changing circumstances, and indeed the conditions of her existence alter with dizzying rapidity. As a consequence, she revises her determinations frequently, about small matters and large: whose household she will inhabit, whether she will visit the Belfields, how Delvile feels about her, how much of her wealth she should devote to charity. Like all Burney's protagonists, she must interpret ambiguous verbal clues, a process made inordinately difficult by the incompatible assumptions held by various characters and by idiosyncratic uses of language. A parodic sequence makes the point:
"Is he a good man? that's the point, is he a good man?"
"Indeed he appears to me uncommonly benevolent and charitable."
"But that i'n't the thing; is he warm? that's the point, is he warm?"
"If you mean passionate," said Cecilia, "I believe the energy of his manner is merely to enforce what he says."
"Don't take me, don't take me," cried he, impatiently; "can come down with the ready ... ? eh?"(12)
The participants in this unlikely dialogue share a vocabulary but not its significations. At a more subtle level, such is the case for many of the novel's characters. Mutual understanding can constitute only a dim hope.
For much of the novel, Cecilia appears to seek her own independence, only to discover the impossibility of female independence as either financial or moral self-sufficiency. She has to give up her money, her name, and, temporarily, her sanity, in order to survive. Unlike many heroines of sensibility, she shows the capacity to act and think for herself, making crucial decisions and taking necessary actions after Harrel commits suicide, bravely deciding to follow her lover to France even though she cannot consult him about this measure. At the opposite extreme, she explicitly relinquishes her desire for moral independence and submits her will to Mrs. Delvile's. Neither independent action nor absolute submission makes any difference. People continue to make impossible demands and to refuse to provide necessary help no matter what Cecilia does. Her inability to withstand the rigors of her social environment with sanity intact stems from her highly developed sensibility, which makes her intensely responsive to the desires of others - and intensely desirable herself.
The unconventional female figure who appears in every Burney novel takes the form in Cecilia of a free-spirited young aristocrat, Lady Honoria Pemberton, who undercuts various forms of conventionality. She makes fun especially of the Delvile family pride and the stuffiness that attends it, but also of Cecilia's mastering desire to prove herself "good." And she mocks sensibility, in her percipient view as much a mark of conventionality as is female goodness or aristocratic arrogance. Like the other free spirits in Burney's work, Lady Honoria is herself the object of disapproval from almost everyone else, including the normative figure of Cecilia herself. But like those others too, she calls attention to troubling facts that orthodox patterns of plotting and of living obscure.
Sensibility is one such fact, "troubling" because, as Wollstonecraft would point out, it fosters and justifies female weakness. Cecilia cannot remain "independent" because her feelings, her responsiveness to others, interfere. She wants to help the Harrels, to give Albany what he wants, to gratify the Delviles and the Belfields and Monckton, unaware of the meretriciousness of others' wishes because governed by her experienced - and presumably inculcated - need to respond richly in emotional and in practical terms. Lady Honoria makes fun of her attachment to young Delvile's little dog, and indeed that attachment epitomizes the weakness, the indiscriminacy, of sensibility. The dog's metonymic function for Cecilia precludes judgment. Not coincidentally, her near-obsession with the dog (which Lady Honoria has in effect stolen and sent to Cecilia as a joke) becomes the means to a happy ending: Delvile overhears her loving apostrophe to the animal and feels impelled to declare once more, and to fulfill, his own love for her.
Lady Honoria in fact has almost the last word in Burney's text, mocking to the end. But the denouement-by-dog reiterates an evaluation of sensibility more complicated than Lady Honoria's. On the one hand this resolution rewards Cecilia for preserving the capacity to feel richly, even under the hard pressure of circumstance. On the other, it calls attention to the extravagance and perhaps even the triviality of the modes of response toward which women in particular are directed. The young woman's emotional intensities turn finally toward - a little dog. Denied all opportunity to function fully as an independent being, Cecilia learns to accept her ability to feel as virtually self-justifying. It's all she has, all she can keep.
As Lady Honoria reminds us, sensibility offers its possessor little sustenance. The action of Burney's novel implies the same point. It forces the reader into an experience of reading that imitates the chaos of Cecilia's emotional experience. Like Cecilia, the reader feels rushed from one situation to another, with too much happening, too many adjustments to make, too little control. For the reader too, events demand emotional reaction. But the reader's fate, less constricted than Cecilia's, does not depend altogether on the nature and the enactment of feelings. Cecilia's fate almost entirely does.
Perhaps the fullest exploration of sensibility's complicated valence occurs in A Simple Story (1791), Elizabeth Inchbald's first and greatest novel. Its two-generation plot, duplicating a mother's dilemma in a daughter's, implies the necessary repetitions of female experience, given a restrictive cultural context, and provides details of action and characterization that reiterate structures of duality.
A Simple Story differs from its predecessors, for all their abundant investigations of ambiguous sensibility, in its rich and relatively open rendition of the crucial paradox that intense emotion implies the coexistence of opposite emotion. It tells of a young woman, Miss Milner, who falls in love with her guardian, Dorriforth, despite the double prohibition of his roles as Catholic priest and as surrogate father. Released from clerical vows by the convenient death of a titled relative, Dorriforth (now Lord Elmwood) marries his ward, although her willfulness and insubordination temporarily drive him to repudiate her. Despite the couple's mutual love, Lady Elmwood lapses into infidelity in her husband's prolonged absence, angry at his refusal to explain his nonappearance at home. (He is in fact ill.) When he comes back, she flees. He sends their daughter Matilda after her mother, rejecting her completely, but after Lady Elmwood's death he agrees to allow the girl to inhabit one of his houses as long as he never need see her. The second-generation plot follows Matilda's career, her eventual reconciliation with her father, and her probable marriage to her cousin Rushbrook.
All the novel's central characters-Dorriforth/Elmwood, Miss Milner, Rushbrook, Matilda - and the two most important minor characters, Sandford and Miss Woodley, explicitly possess (or are possessed by) powerful sensibility. The absence of this quality in Miss Fenton, whom the new Lord Elmwood briefly plans to marry, for the sake of producing an heir, provides grounds for dismissing her cavalierly from the text. Yet although the narrator clearly assigns positive value to the sensibility of important characters, the work by no means values sensibility unambiguously or suggests that the concept holds the same meaning in every instance.
In the novel's most powerful characters, Dorriforth/Elmwood and Miss Milner, sensibility has a dark side. Lord Elmwood's decision to forbid everyone around him from speaking the name of his wife or daughter, for instance, stems from his sensibility. He can never forget the happiness he has lost - and it was this sensibility that urged him to fly from its more keen recollection [that is, the recollection of lost happiness] as much as possible - this he alledged as the reason he would never suffer Lady Elmwood, or even her child, to be named in his hearing. But this injunction ... was, by many people, suspected rather to proceed from his resentment, than his tenderness; nor did he himself deny, that resentment mingled with his prudence; for prudence he called it not to remind himself of happiness he never could taste again ... ; and prudence he called it, not to form another attachment near to his heart.(13)
"Resentment" and its equivalents (anger, rage, aggression) are suppressed or displaced terms in most novels of sensibility. A Simple Story in its exploration of psychological nuance acknowledges both linguistic and emotional complexity. What Lord Elmwood calls "prudence" designates powerful feeling, which incorporates anger as well as love. His wife's adultery stems from a comparable complex of feeling - "violent anger" mingling with and deriving from "her fondest, truest affections" (196). In Lord Elmwood, the "dark side" of sensibility displays itself as tyrannical pride. Miss Milner displays comparable pride, manifest as a will to contest power and to resist incorporation. Both the lovers enlarge conventional definitions of sensibility, demonstrating that emotional responsiveness implies the possibility of sternness, even ferocity, as well as softness.
The different social roles of men and women entail different ways of revealing what I am calling the dark side of sensibility, and Inchbald makes careful distinctions between masculine and feminine realms when such distinctions suit her narrative purposes. But she also plays with role reversals. The novel opens with a characterization of Dorriforth, at that originary narrative moment a remarkably virtuous priest. Miss Milner's dying father makes Dorriforth his daughter's guardian specifically because of his goodness, hoping that the priest will "in time make good by choice rather than by constraint, the dear object of his dying friend's sole care" (5). To make Miss Milner good, in other words, is Dorriforth's assigned function. The narrative founds itself on the situation of a flawed female cared for by a flawless male-a reversal of familiar fictional arrangements. Moreover, the erotic desire conventionally and dangerously implicated with sensibility for females (as all Ann Radcliffe's novels attest) obviates Dorriforth's slightly inhuman virtue. Once he realizes that Miss Milner loves him, he falls from feminized priesthood into manhood. (Technically, of course, he has already been released from the priesthood; psychically, he remains a priest.)
The oscillations of sensibility, as Inchbald figures them, have nothing to do with gender. They express themselves not only in the shifts and balances between "resentment" and love but, as in Cecilia, in frequent changes of mind, real or apparent, by the characters. Miss Milner alternately declares that she does and that she does not love Sir Frederick, that she will and she won't do what her guardian commands. Sandford proclaims first that he will not, then that he on principle will, enter Miss Milner's house. He urges Lord Elmwood not to marry Miss Milner, then commands him to do precisely that. For Dorriforth/Elmwood, with more socially assigned power than the others, changes of mind carry more weight. He refuses to see Rushbrook, then welcomes him to the house; he determines not to marry Miss Milner, then marries her.
Early in the novel's final section, the narrator announces explicitly that in two crucial instances (the two cited above), Lord Elmwood changed his mind under the influence of love. The narrative voice then strongly implies that he will change his mind no more: "the magic which once enchanted away this spirit of immutability was no more-Lady Elmwood was no more, and the charm was broken" (251). In fact, though, Lord Elmwood reverses himself twice more, in instances paralleling his earlier shifts: he revokes Rushbrook's second sentence of banishment and Matilda's. The other important characters in the second-generation plot, on the other hand, display no comparable oscillation, and their sensibility reveals no "dark side." Matilda, a weeper and fainter like other heroines of sensibility (and like them a victim), concerns herself more consistency with what is "proper" than with what she wants. When Sandford, having just visited Lord Elmwood, comments that Matilda has not asked about her father, Matilda responds "timidly," "I did not know it was proper" (217). The trivial incident exemplifies the repression implicit in her bland version of sensibility. Although she occasionally displays malice, she chastises herself severely for every negative feeling. Rushbrook exhibits comparable repression, figuring his own developing erotic feeling for Matilda as "sympathy." Although he proves capable of defying Lord Elmwood, he instantly after "felt he deserved all he was going to suffer, and he fell upon his knees, not so much to deprecate the doom he saw impending, as thus humbly to acknowledge it was his due" (291). A feminized hero, he here reveals the masochistic aspect of his sensibility. Like Matilda, he weeps at moments of crisis.
The link between tenderness and rage, in other words, has gone underground in the second generation. Matilda, product of a worthy education through adversity, reveals qualities of mind morally preferable to her mother's; Rushbrook shows a kind of moral consistency impossible for Lord Elmwood. Both have been chastened and controlled through suffering. Both are less engaging than their more flamboyant predecessors.
The subject of oscillation, although the phenomenon vanishes in the Matilda-Rushbrook story, remains crucial to the narrative argument of A Simple Story because the changing of minds, the reversals of affect dramatize the conflicting impulses that characterize human beings of both sexes - unless, like Miss Fenton, they have repressed all feeling or like Rushbrook and Matilda have been chastened into repression or guilt as means to deal with negative emotional response. The ethical/ psychological importance of the second-generation story depends on that story's revelation of why emotional oscillation disappears and why it remains significant in its absence. Propriety banishes paradox. And propriety matters: A PROPER EDUCATION, the novel's last words assure us, would have constituted the best gift Mr. Milner could give his daughter.
We need not take these words ironically. A Simple Story endorses propriety as a means of survival-and counts its costs. (Charlotte Lennox had pursued a comparable project, writing in a less plangent key some forty years earlier, with The Female Quixote.(14) It's not that the novel offers a compliant text and a more authentic subversive subtext. Demonstrating that Matilda can survive, given her PROPER EDUCATION, when her mother cannot, it shows also that Matilda must - in the interest of survival - allow herself less wit, less verbal skill, less will to independence. Female diminishment equates with female survival - and male dependency entails comparable diminishment for a man. Miss Woodley, who reveals Miss Milner's love to an ecstatic Lord Elmwood, feels alarmed by the intensity of his reaction. "She wished him to love Miss Milner but to love her with moderation" (I 30). Her wish belongs to the repertoire of propriety. Moderation in love inheres in consciousnesses properly trained: in repression and restraint.
With remarkable fullness, A Simple Story explores ambiguities of sensibility. It makes explicit what many of its predecessors had consigned to the realm of suggestion. And it hints a possible reason why women might investigate dualities of emotional experience: because their social position encourages them to recognize how such dualities develop from the discrepancy between social imperative and individual impulse. A powerful male - a man like Lord Elmwood, with the privileges of rank, wealth, and gender - may retain the freedom to change his mind without penalty. A woman, like a dependent man, risks more in acknowledging her own ambivalences. Woman writers, however, examining the intersections of ethical and psychological effort, could analyze at a safe verbal distance the doubleness of feeling and reveal its meanings. They thus embarked on a course of generic innovation, enlarging the territory of the novel of sensibility in ways that have not yet been fully acknowledged, demonstrating how sensibility as a form of responsiveness facilitates understanding of emotional/ethical dilemmas, and revealing literary power in restrictive experience.
They recognize that the capacity for feeling can lead a man or a woman in various directions, that sensibility does not automatically equate with virtue. They know that goodness - the version of goodness figured as compliance, passivity, and alternate control and indulgence of feeling - may constitute a danger for its possessor and for those around her. They understand that women, like men, may wish to exercise power, and that they can make their goodness an instrument of power. They recognize, know, and understand, in other words, much about exactly those forms of moral and psychological ambiguity that twentieth-century critics perceive in an undifferentiated "literature of sensibility."
University of Virginia
(1) See, e.g., Robert Markley, "Sentimentality as Performance: Shaftesbury, Sterne, and the Theatrics of Virtue," in The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York, 1987), pp. 210-30. (2) See Henry Mackenzie, The Lounger, 20 (18 June 1785), rpt. in Novel and Romance, 1700-1800: A Documentary Record, ed. Ioan Williams (New York, 1970), pp. 328-31. (3) Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London, 1986), p. 110. (4) See Cheryl Turner, Living by the Pen: Women Writers in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1992), pp. 10-11. (5) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), ed. Carol H. Poston (New York, 1975), p. 61; hereafter cited in text. (6) Frances Sheridan, The Discovery (1763), in The Plays of Frances Sheridan, ed. Robert Hogan and Jerry C. Beasley (Newark, 1984), p. 41; hereafter cited in text. (7) See Frances Sheridan, Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph (1767; rpt. London, 1987). (8) G. J. Barker-Benfield, Jr., The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 1992), p. 222. (9) Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel. The Senses in Social Context (Cambridge, 1993), p. 115. (10) Frances Brooke, The History of Lady Julia Mandeville (1763), 4th ed. (London, 1782), II, 161; hereafter cited in text. (11) See Henry Fielding, Amelia (1751), ed. Martin C. Battestin (Middletown, Conn., 1983). (12) Frances Burney, Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress (1782; rpt. New York, 1986), p. 736. (13) Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (1791), ed. J.M.S. Tompkins (New York, 1988),pp. 201-2; hereafter cited in text. (14) See Charlotte Lennox, The Female, Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella (1752), ed. Margaret Dalziel (Oxford, 1989).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||25th Anniversary Issue|
|Author:||Spacks, Patricia Meyer|
|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1994|
|Next Article:||House arrest: the domestication of English poetry in the 1820s.|