Sensibility and Revolution: A Case Study

In seminar this week, we started to talk about the discourse of sensibility. Sensibility was particularly prominent in Mary Ashburn Miller’s article, in which she linked sensibility to authenticity. Miller writes, “The more passionate an individual during the phase of the Terror, the more authentic his actions were interpreted to be” (372). Sensibility was linked to authenticity, certainly; it was also linked to morality, both to an individual’s moral judgment and to the effect of that judgment on the broader community. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith calls sympathy one of “the original passions of human nature” (2). Though the discourse of sensibility was appropriated for the rhetoric of politics and revolution (as noted by Miller and numerous others), its insistence on authenticity and morality, and in those things being evidenced by the body, presents an important tension. In seminar, Tom King asked the question: how revolutionary is the discourse of sensibility? He suggested the possibility of decidedly non-revolutionary violence, latent in a strong rhetoric of sensibility.

However, I would like to take this important question in a different direction in this blog post. Because sensibility relies on the body and physicality to demonstrate its own authenticity, it may not be read as political or revolutionary in itself; the context of the particular body or group of bodies is important. This is especially important to consider for bodies of those not in authority: women, racial, ethnic, and religious “others,” the socioeconomically underprivileged, etc. Sensibility was an important discourse that manifested not only in print but also in the public sphere, on the body, in moments of action—what was it for a body operating within the discourse of sensibility to not be recognized as politically minded or “revolutionary,” and what are the consequences of such a failure of recognition?

I am particularly interested in considering the convergence of sensibility with the political in sentimental novels of the 1790s. Notably, though sensibility was not an inevitably gendered discourse, even in novels (see Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, 1771), the sentimental novel, known for its excessive emotionality, was very much associated with women. The work of radical authors like Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith is particularly useful when looking at this intersection of sensibility with revolution, as they often parody the extremes of the genre and/or offer critiques of the representation of women as irrational creatures overcome by physical sensation (the sort of sentimentality Wollstonecraft criticizes in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman).

To this end, I would like to briefly look at an example of a particularly virulent scene of sensibility in Charlotte Smith’s 1792 novel Desmond, widely considered to be her most radical work. Desmond, Smith’s only epistolary novel, was written explicitly in reaction to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Borrowing from Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise, Smith crafts an unorthodox sentimental narrative in which the young, idealistic, and wealthy Desmond (a revolutionary who nonetheless embodies Burke’s chivalric ideal) pines after Geraldine Verney, a married mother of three who suffers under the rule of her despotic husband; the novel’s climax comes when her husband tries to prostitute her to a French duke to pay off his debts. Desmond is not alone in his plight to save Geraldine from her husband’s plot: he is aided by Bethel, his Burkean mentor, and Fanny, Geraldine’s sister. Anne Mellor says, “Insofar as there is a feminist voice in the novel, it occurs in the letters that Fanny writes to her sister and Bethel” (118). Fanny is intensely critical of her brother-in-law’s despotism as well as her mother’s failure to defend Geraldine from harm. Though Fanny doesn’t connect her sister’s situation to the oppression of British (let alone French) women on a systemic level, her criticisms are still potent. Fanny’s critiques operate in two registers: satire (the verbal, e.g. wordplay) and sensibility (the physical, e.g. tears). Patricia Meyer Spacks’ assertion that eighteenth-century satire and sensibility both “proceed by and depend on exaggeration” is exemplified in Fanny, as she often swings from one to the other within one scene (131). However, satire proves a far more useful protest than sensibility, because sensibility is constantly misread as conventional sentimentality by other characters.

Indeed, Fanny’s sensibility is not recognized as political even in her most powerful scene, when Geraldine is about to leave for France, ostensibly to be prostituted. At this point, Geraldine is mentally and emotionally exhausted, as evidenced by her claims that she would rather die in the course of duty than be prostituted by her husband and cruelly treated by her mother—she sees herself as a martyr to virtue (303). Fanny and Bethel are responsible for seeing Geraldine off, and Fanny is physically overcome: she sobs violently, incapable of speech. This is Fanny’s last scene in the novel, and this overflow of emotion towards her sister can be seen as the culmination of her protests, which have been heard but not heeded. Fanny’s powerful show of sensibility affronts Geraldine’s near-parodic pursuit of duty and actually incites a response, suggesting the possibility that sensibility may function as a form of political protest.

However, Fanny’s sensibility is misread by Geraldine and Bethel, who see it not only as a sign of conventional (irrational) femininity, but also as being fear-driven and anti-Jacobin. For Desmond, this is decidedly anti-revolutionary. Geraldine appeals to Bethel, stating:

This dear girl is so unfortunately full of sensibility and affection, that it is impossible to pacify her. She fancies I go to meet anarchy and murder in France; and on seeing me packing… she has relapsed into the wildest expressions of sorrow. I wish you would try… to reason her out of these groundless apprehensions. (303)

Curiously, Geraldine suggests that Fanny’s reaction is inspired not by the injustice of her situation but rather by “groundless apprehensions” about the dangers in France, implicitly aligning Fanny with Burkean conservatism. Fanny’s sensibility, interpreted by Geraldine as anti-Jacobin, is thus repudiated. The sudden association of Fanny’s sensibility with Burkean conservatism and public fear is further solidified by the fact that Bethel, Burke’s fictional counterpart, agrees with Fanny’s purported “apprehensions,” further undermining any revolutionary reading of Fanny’s sensibility.

One potential political commentary that emerges from this scene is the inefficacy of sensibility as protest for women, which also makes a broader statement about the options women in crisis had during this era. When Geraldine departs, Fanny is once again “sobbing bitterly,” and Bethel is moved by the scene but says that he has no time to “[indulge] useless sympathy” (307). Rather, Bethel has used his resources in order to offer Geraldine some provision for both finances and her physical safety. Bethel possesses agency and access to resources to assist Geraldine on her journey; Fanny has only tears, which are construed as almost harmful, as when Geraldine says, “Do not destroy me… by your affection, which is now almost cruelty” (307). Compared with men’s economic agency, Fanny’s sensibility is presented as an ineffective recourse.

While Smith hints at the possibility of sensibility as protest, the potential for misinterpretation is high. Insistent misreading of female sensibility further marginalizes non-privileged bodies by reinscribing them as apolitical. The refusal to recognize sensibility on behalf of political and revolutionary causes in women, for example, is not only a refusal of political agency on the public level, e.g. political representation in the National Assembly, but—perhaps even more dangerously—privately, in that it denies female agency: the authenticity of a woman’s own experience that is engaged with politics and/or revolution. In thinking about what constitutes the revolutionary in this course, I increasingly question how much the revolutionary requires recognition by others: can the revolutionary exist in the individual, or must there be recognition and exchange? In Desmond, sensibility is too easily misread on a woman’s body to register as revolutionary.

Mellor, Anne. Mothers of the Nation: Women’s Political Writing in England, 1780-1830.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002. Print.
Miller, Mary Ashburn. “Mountain, Become a Volcano: The Image of the Volcano in the
Rhetoric of the French Revolution.” French Historical Studies 32.4 (2009): 555-
585. Print.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: G. Bell & Sons, 1892. Print.
Smith, Charlotte. Desmond. Eds. Antje Blank and Janet Todd. New York: Broadview
Press, 2001. Print.
Spacks, Patricia Meyer. Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English
Fiction
. New York: Yale University Press, 2006. Print.

About Jeanna Kadlec

Jeanna Kadlec is a doctoral student in the Department of English at Brandeis University.
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4 Responses to Sensibility and Revolution: A Case Study

  1. Haram Lee says:

    Jeanna, I find it very interesting how you discuss the politics of sensibility in relation to representation of gender. I am particularly intrigued by the ways in which the signs of sensibility are employed in the novel to represent the woman (Fanny) as an apolitical subject and I would like to continue to think about, more generally, the rhetorical strategies of representing the people as apolitical subjects, and, more specifically, the use of natural imagery for that rhetorical purpose. For it seems that natural images are used to suggest non-humanity and, by implication, the absence of political agency, for example, in representing colored people, as Ashli White briefly mentions the rhetorical effect of the metaphor of ‘contagion’ in the chapter we read for the last session. So I wonder if the novel presents any other ways of denouncing women’s political agency than associating them with irrational sensibility and if those strategies have anything to do with natural images—if there are any.

  2. Jane Kamensky says:

    Thanks for this meaty blog post, Jeanna–really a mini-essay. I’m intrigued by the ways that discourses of sympathy and sensibility affect the gendering *of men* in the age of revolution, placing a heightened value not only on authenticity/ transparency (in the face of Chesterfield’s Letters, say), but also on passion alongside and sometimes over and above reason. For provocative arguments about that shift in the American context, see Sarah Knott, Sensibility and the American Revolution; and Nicole Eustace, Passion is the Gale. I think you’d find both quite provocative, mostly working on genres other than novels. –jk

  3. Cassandra Berman says:

    Jeanna, this is really fascinating. The gendered rhetoric of sensibility in fiction of the 1790s immediately brings to mind another Fanny, this one an American – Fanny Apthorp, the real-life model for the character Ophelia in William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), considered the first American novel. While the political undertones of this work are nowhere near as overt as they seem to be in Desmond, it presents a rather interesting take on the blurred line between actual (sexual) seduction and metaphorical (political) seduction. Given that Brown’s work was very much inspired by a real tale of family seduction in the earliest days of the republic, and given that the family in question (that of Perez Morton) was indeed a political one, it might present an interesting comparison to the novels concerning sensibility, seduction, and revolution in France.

    For one interesting perspective on the intersection of politics and the seduction novel in America just after the Revolution, see Hugh McIntosh’s Early American Literature article, “Constituting the End of Feeling: Interiority in the Seduction Fiction of the Ratification Era.” His analysis of the seduction and the public sphere provides a new perspective on some of the issues we’ve been grappling with in our seminar.

  4. g271187 says:

    Jeanna, your fascinating post raises the following question: what is the “political”? I was very interested, and intrigued, by Cassandra’s and your reflection on the relationship between women and the political. Yet, I find myself wondering what you mean by “political”.

    What constitutes the political, and how do we account for the multiplicity of forms that the political can take? For instance, I am tempted to argue that the political entails participation in the public sphere. Yet, as Cassandra shows, American women could be political from home. Or do we need to redefine the public sphere itself? Can we conceive of the public sphere as something that takes place at home?

    Subsuming the political into one definition, which is a male definition, thus seems problematic, especially since both your posts demonstrate that the political, in that period, was in fact gendered. Moreover, I would be interested in knowing what the word “political” meant for the historical actors themselves during this period since political participation and the meaning of politics had changed in the course of revolutionary events.

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