Apr 182009

Todd, Janet. Sensibility: an Introduction Methuen, 1986

The cult of sensibility only lasted a few decades, starting in the early 1700s, peaking around 1750 and pretty much discredited and ridiculed by the 1790s, no longer a part of politics or serious novels, but consigned to the lower, often feminized strata of literature and society. Sensibility decayed into mere sentimentalism, generally an insult, but an underlying them in Victorian melodrama, and for our purposes in works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as when Little Eva dies in classic sentimental style.

Some early theorists of sensibility thought that sexuality could be part of the emotional system that led to benevolence, at least in men, but this proved untenable, and later works saw sexual desire as the enemy of sensibility (personified in Richardson’s Lovelace and Clarissa).

Another characteristic of sensibility was fantasies of hierarchical yet loving extended families, in which servants are unflaggingly loyal towards their masters. Sterne’s and Anne Radcliffe’s fiction include scenes of servants proclaiming their love for their masters as intensely as lovers. This was the way the lower orders demonstrated their sensibility.

Going further down the social hierarchy, slaves were also a source for expressions of sensibility. The poet Richard Cumberland said slaves were “fair game” for poets, a “mine of sentiment.”

This is also when theatre changed. Instead of satirical, sardonic Restoration plays, there were didactic sentimental dramas, with center stage taken by suffering heroines instead of active heroes. Theatre and other media had a moral agenda to improve people’s conduct by playing on their emotions.

Samuel Richardson had a very strong didactic agenda in his novels, and kept revising his works and adding instructive notes, particularly when his readers kept wanting to change the outcome. They found Lovelace seductive and worthy of redemption by Clarissa, rather than an unmitigated evil man. Others had their own interpretations and rewritings. Henry Fielding rewrote Pamela as Shamela, with the heroine a depraved seductress who plays the game of sensibility to entrap. Another critic saw Pamela as a way of corrupting youth. Young men would try out Mr B’s methods of seduction, and young women would imagine themselves being seduced and turn masturbation or sex.

There’s a definite sadomasochistic undertone, when Pamela is forced to serve Mr B and Mrs Jewkes at table, who humiliate and display her.

“See, said he, and took the glass with one hand, and turned me round with the other, what a shape! what a neck! what a hand! and what a bloom on that lovely face!”

The suffering body is displayed in order to spur the viewer to moral action, but the display and the suffering become their own justification. The pornographic element is latent within it. This happened with the injustices of the patriarchal family in Clarissa, and it happened again with the injustices of Atlantic slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You can jack up a person’s emotional state with images, but you can’t always control the particular emotions or actions that result.

We still have this issue today. While Law & Order remains a generally cool-headed police and legal procedural, its disreputable spin-off Law & Order: SVU constantly and relentlessly plays on the viewer’s emotions, serving up 21st century Clarissas and Little Evas every week. I have to wonder if there is some person out there forming their own fantasies out of L&O:SVU‘s weekly parade of “faithless Men and ruin’d Maids”.

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