Dec 112007

GJ Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, 1996 University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226037142

I finally got through The Culture of Sensibility, which focuses on the transformation of post-Restoration England and how that affected class and gender.

New wealth flooded into England, creating a solid middle class and a market for consumer goods, the “nation of shopkeepers.” When men met for business, they had to convince each other they were not thugs who would rob each other. Thus, they created manners and rituals to regulate interactions. The irony is that the wealth that made all this “civilizing” possible came from the Atlantic slave trade.

At the same time, natural philosophers like Isaac Newton and John Locke presented a new, secular model of human nature, that of sensibility. Human beings were born as blank slates and created through their experiences, which affected their nerves. Nerves were how people felt and experienced things, and if a person’s nerves would do the right things, they would feel appropriately in response to stimulus. To observe a suffering person would induce feelings of sympathy (not empathy) in the observer and naturally create a desire to help that person. Indeed, an observer of greater sensibility might feel more distress than the person who is actually suffering.

There were degrees of sensibility, which were mapped on to both class and gender. Sensibility was supposed to indicate development and refinement, so prestigious people should have more of it from their upbringing, yet women were thought by some to have higher degrees of sensibility, with more delicate nerves that could be damaged by the wrong kind of stimulus. Too little sensibility and you were a boring drudge who couldn’t appreciate the finer things in life; too much and you were a flake on the edge of madness and effeminacy who couldn’t take care of business.

Women had greater license to develop their sensibility and the language of feelings, which were a major topic of women writers and the new medium, the novel, which was seen as a sexually corrupting influence on vulnerable young women.

That brings us to the old “virtue in distress” theme. Women had just begun to enter the public, commercial, heterosocial space of baths, resorts, shopping arcades, dance halls, masquerades and so on. Mating and marriage could be more than a business transaction between families. However, there was a pervasive fear of violent rakes and tyrannical husbands, unreformed men of the old school, and later on a more nuanced fear of the new predator, a man with the appearance of respectable manners but who had the instincts and appetites of a rake. Lovelace, Clarissa’s seducer and betrayer, is the new rake.

However, the alternative model of masculinity to the rake, the “man of feeling”, was dangerously close to effeminacy and therefore unappealing to men and women. Both sexes were stuck between the old warrior/farmer model of man, which could easily slip into brutality, and the new mercantile man, who could be boring and ineffectual.

To women writers and readers, the rake was an ambivalent, liminal figure, representing both a social and physical threat but also the possibility of experiencing a larger world beyond the home. The stories were about resolving this conflict in various ways. Would the rake ruin his victim? Or would the victim reform her rake, awaken the latent sensibility within him? Richardson received many requests from women readers that he make Clarissa reform Lovelace and give them a happy ending.

Virtue in distress plays and novels were about the interaction of the new ideal of sensibility versus the power-driven ways of “the world”, mapped onto the gendered dyad of the victim and the rake. Writers as diverse as Samuel Richardson, Hugh Walpole, Jane Austen and the Marquis de Sade wrote about the clash of these two worlds, with very different angles. For example, when Richardson’s Clarissa dies, it’s a Buddha-like perfected being transcending a fallen world. When Sade’s Justine dies, it’s a snowball finally melting in Hell.

The virtue in distress theme with the victim-rake dyad is the prototype of the maledom-femsub pairing. And what of the femdom-malesub pairing? There was a certain passive dominance in the sensibility informed fantasies of men kneeling before their loves, but that was a result of the man’s awakened sensibility. The edge of acceptable behaviour for women was marked by the figure of the Amazon, the masculinised woman, who doesn’t appear to have the same liminal ambivalence or sex appeal as the rake. It appears you have to wait until the 19th century to get a real femme fatale. There were, however, women riders on Rotten Row in Hyde Park even back then, suggesting the prototype of the equestrian woman.

The theory of sensibility was ultimately too conflicted and too confusing, as represented in the figure of Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman who soundly critiqued the gendered view of sensibility but whose own personal life was a tale of emotion overpowering judgement. People settled on a compromise: men would be reasoning creatures of the world, women would be feeling creatures of the home. Men adopted simple dress and austere stoicism, while women became increasingly decorated and expressive. This was the ideal that informed gender roles for the next two centuries and more.

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