The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain.
Such questions are, at one level, meaningless, since the human animal has forever been remaking himself after his own imagination. Yet they must be posed. For, as emphasized in the studies of Peter Gay and Peter Stearns, epochal shifts have indisputably taken place in structures of emotion and perceptions of identity; and there is much to be said in favour of the contention of the English-born historian, G. J. Barker-Benfield, that it was the eighteenth century that brought the decisive leap into modernity.
A mood shift set in soon after 1700 akin to the Edwardian rejection of Victorianism or to the 1960s youth revolt. Traditional moral cements were eroded and old character ideals traded in. Intellectual and social fashion-setters - for instance Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, the inventors of the Spectator were no longer prepared to acquiesce in old ways, and declined to be passively obedient to fearsome father figures, especially to that terrifying patriarch, the Calvinist Lord. Elites fired with Enlightenment ideologies wanted to make the value-world afresh. Rejecting generations of bloody conflict, sensitive males repudiated traditional macho images of the nobleman. Drawcansir rakes and Tunbelly Clumseys alike become, to progressive eyes, inadmissible relics of a barbaric past. And ladies, for their part, were no longer prepared to sit in silent submission under their masters' thumb. The Age of Reason required the forging of more sympathetic role models, more enlightened ways of scripting the self. And the intellectual and cultural building-blocks for personality-change, Barker-Benfield perceives, were ready to hand.
For one thing, profound shifts in material culture and in the media - the mushrooming of newspapers, plays and novels - were creating new worlds of objects and their representation. Affluence meant that a growing portion of society was able to lavish surplus wealth and emotional energy on fashionable consumer goods and services, on clocks and chinaware, teasets, telescopes and toys. Mediated through mirrors and magazines, consumerism heightened emotional investment in hearth and home, in that 'private life' which historians have been closely scrutinizing, begetting a new domesticity and the psychological intensification of the family circle. Like so many other so-called Victorian values, 'Home, Sweet Home' was in truth a Georgian sentiment.
And in remoulding its sense of self through what might be called Winnicottian 'transitional objects', Georgian society could draw upon and elaborate new psychophysiological models. Upstaging the ancestral Christian soul, the science of Newton and the philosophy of Locke floated the idea that consciousness was just a bundle of sensations, transmitted between the five senses and the brain though the nervous system. In the judgment of Enlightenment neuro-science, the human animal was, after all, neither a Platonic homo rationalis nor a Christian original sinner: rather men and women were vibrant with impressions, emotions and sympathy. New characters were born: the man and woman of feeling.
The fact that sensibility become all the rage after 1750 has often before been charted, but no historian has undertaken this with the thoroughness, or sensitivity to its basis in material culture, of Barker-Benfield. He shows the growth in esteem for 'fine folks' with superfine feelings, tremblingly exquisite, delicately refined. Amongst the smart set, and in the belles lettres that moulded their minds and reflected their self-image, morality itself acquired an aesthetic slant, becoming more subjective, a matter of refined taste. Righteousness was no longer graven on tablets of stone but was what felt right, the spontaneous outpourings of the virtuous heart, melting in the face of distress. Truth was internalized and rendered private, intimate. Descartes's cogito ergo sum yielded to Rousseau's je sens, donc je suis. Romanticism was just around the corner, Freud on the horizon.
Sensibility was thus intimately associated with the rise of consumerism. Novel-reading extended horizons and provided channels for the expression of feelings. But there was a growing body of criticism - from radicals and reactionaries alike - that women in particular were being corrupted by reading meretricious novels and by the moral vacuousness of a public culture a la mode. Sensibility permitted the outpouring of female feelings, but only at a cost of trivialization.
The crux of Barker-Benfield's case is that sensibility spelt a sexual revolution. In the eyes of the Church, sex had ever been a sin, yet also functional, as the means of reproduction. Now eros became expressive, the supreme secret of the self. In real life, and as endlessly mirrored in romantic novels, the 'truth' of the soul was now one's intimate sensuality, an erotic core that would not be denied, be it the wanton womanizing of a Lovelace, the tender yearnings of a Clarissa, or the sentimental promiscuity of a Casanova. All was sexualized, eros became the lingua franca of modem gentlemen and ladies.
The new (and newly sexualized) sensibility revolutionized elite experience. It made the propertied polite, civilizing them for sophisticated city life and an intensely emotional domesticity. It heightened family feelings, softening relations between husbands and wives, parents and children. It was the forerunner of what the late Christopher Lasch dubbed modern narcissism. The radicalism of these changes shows in the resistance they aroused. Pillars of traditional values denounced the epidemic of self-indulgent luxury, predicting catastrophic enfeeblement consequent upon epidemics of diseases of civilization, hysteria and the like. Male chauvinists lamented the power conferred upon 'new women' by sexual emancipation. Above all, a chorus of protest decried the 'effeminacy' of the modem man of feeling who had forsaken the age-old men-only culture of hunting, drinking and whoring.
It is one of the strengths of The Culture of Sensibility that Barker-Benfield is alert to the ambivalent implications of these developments, above all for women. For if (as in the 1960s) personal emancipation was authentic, it was attained at the cost of a restyling, that tended to glamorize the fair sex into sexual objects, seductively fragile, tearful victims of delicious passionate impulses. The idealization of motherhood that sensibility also encouraged likewise sowed the seeds for the domestic doll's house atmosphere that stifled the Victorian angel in the house. In part the culmination of this, and in part the reaction against it, was the moralizing assertion of separate spheres in the early nineteenth century, as has been emphasized by Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in their Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (London, 1987).
The implications for men were also complex. New anxiety arose about 'effeminacy'. Delicate sensibility was valued, but it should not be permitted to threaten masculine decisiveness. Sensibility was desirable, but it fueled that growing dread of what was later to be known as homosexuality, which Rictor Norton's Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 (London, 1992) has shown became so conspicuous in Georgian England.
Aspects of these transformations have, of course, been pointed out before. Norbert Elias has analyzed the 'civilizing process', Lawrence Stone has studied the affective family, and Sir John Plumb has pointed to a consumer revolution featuring psychic no less than material expenditure. And it could be argued that this book fails to be sufficiently rigorous in examining some of its own premises. The relations between reality and fiction remain unresolved. Sometimes fictional texts are treated as unmediated information about social practices, at other points they are viewed as prescriptive stereotypes. Barker-Benfield's thesis therefore needs more solid historical evidence on the one hand, and more sophisticated techniques of reading fictional texts on the other.
Criticisms aside, however, the special achievement of Barker-Benfield's cultural history of the psyche lies in exploring the interplay between material progress and the restructuring of feelings, the dialectic of life, literature, and lubricity. His book also succeeds in showing the tensions and paradoxes generated by the new sensibility, at once emancipatory and yet imprisoning. By identifying the sexualization of the self, The Cult of Sensibility opens windows that shed light onto the origins of the way we live now.
Roy Porter Wellcome Institute
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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