The Script of Sensibility

NOV 8, 2018

We tend to remember the eighteenth century in Britain as an age of Reason. But the culture that shaped Jane Austen was also one that had strong feelings about strong feelings. During this century, commentators promoted an account of human nature that centered on individuals’ capacity for emotional responsiveness. The term sensibility came into vogue as a label for this sensitivity and susceptibility.

In this era, in new ways, to be a self was first and foremost to feel and to express one’s feelings outwardly. The physicians, philosophers, and novelists of the mid-eighteenth century all took an interest in the repertory of blushes, tears, tremors, sighs, swoons, and palpitations through which a human body could do that expressing—and took an interest in how it did this in spite of the mind.

When in 1789 George Romney painted the beautiful and notorious Emma Hart (at right) as the personification of Sensibility, he too registered the central role his contemporaries’ descriptions of human nature had given to the body’s involuntary nervous responses. Facing Emma, Romney places a specimen of mimosa. The leaves of this botanical curiosity contract at the slightest touch, as though the plant were inching from injury. This sensitive plant and the sensitive lady who seems to address it are portrayed as soul-mates. As one poet put it in a caption affixed to another contemporary double-portrait of woman and mimosa, “her tender breast with pity seems to pant / And shrinks at every shrinking of the plant.”

To declare oneself a person of sensibility was to announce one’s vulnerability, mental and physiological. Tender-hearted Britons put themselves on the record in this era lamenting the emotional upheavals to which they were subject, lamenting, too, how prone they were to feeling others’ distresses (even a plant’s) as though they were their own. On the other hand, to lay claim to sensibility was also to testify to one’s refinement and delicate taste, to assert one’s moral superiority over duller souls less ready to sympathize or rhapsodize.

The cult of sensibility thus had a certain democratic potential. It proposed a meritocracy of feeling and taste in place of an aristocracy based on birth and wealth. Not everyone shares Marianne Dashwood’s passion for dead leaves, as her elder sister reminds her, wittily and deflatingly, in an early chapter of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility. But for Marianne the raptures she feels in the autumnal landscape are the sign of how special she is—notwithstanding her disinheritance and dismal prospects in her culture’s marriage market.

In the era of the French Revolution—as anxieties about that democratic potential mounted among conservatives in Britain—the privileges that men and women of sensibility had claimed came under attack. Female novel readers especially— who had paid many tributes of tears to fictions like Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther (1774)—were with increasing sternness counselled to turn instead to more improving and sober-minded works of fiction like The Illusions of Sentiment (1788), Arubia: The Victim of Sensibility (1790), or Errors of Sensibility (1793).

Jane Austen was never keen on sermons that disguised themselves as novels; it is hard to imagine her enjoying books with rebarbative titles like those. But at the start of her writing career Austen did participate in the growing campaign against sensibility. She looked at the emotional extravagance indulged in by sensibility’s adherents and found that it presented her with the perfect target for her talents for ridicule.

One of her earliest works of fiction, Love and Freindship (the misspelling is Austen’s own), written in 1796 when Austen was a precocious fourteen-year-old, takes shape as a rollicking burlesque of the novel of sensibility. It portrays two pairs of adolescent lovers—Sophia and Augustus, Laura and Edward—on the lam from their homes, swooning in graceful attitudes, and also with equal grace, or so they say, purloining bank notes from their unworthy elders to nance their escapades. When “the beautifull Augustus” is arrested, Sophia, his young wife, insists that her tender heart obliges her to abandon him to his fate in Newgate prison: “my feelings are sufficiently shocked by the recital of his distress, but to behold it will overpower my sensibility”: “Never shall I be able so far to conquer my tender sensibility as to enquire after him.” With lines like those the budding satirist gleefully skewers the claim to sensibility, revealing it as a cover for self-absorption and selfishness.

To some extent, the impulse to skewer also shapes Sense & Sensibility, the first novel Austen saw into print. Austen does expect us to snicker a bit at Marianne Dashwood. One irony in particular in Marianne’s characterization shouldn’t evade us: this self-declared free spirit, who stands up for authenticity and refuses to be penned in by convention as she believes her sister to be, ends up doing sensibility by the book. It can seem as though while she looks out for what is pathetic and sublime, Marianne follows a check list. Romantic poetry—Check. Piano sonatas—Check. Dead leaves—Check.

“Where do you pick up those phrases?” Elinor asks her sister drily in Kate Hamill’s adaptation, at a moment of meta-theatricality early in the play. At this point Marianne has started sounding as though a novel of sensibility had given her her script.

But by 1811, Austen elicits her readers’ snickers less frequently than in 1796; her understanding of sensibility has deepened and become more complex because her understanding of women’s narrow options has changed. To be sure, her commitment to feeling and to self-expression doesn’t bring Marianne happiness; it leads her instead to the brink of disaster. But in the unjust world that Austen evokes in Sense & Sensibility and which Kate Hamill captures in her dramatic adaptation, the contrasting ethos of self-command that Elinor promotes and models will not serve that Dashwood sister all that well either.

Deidre Lynch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University.