• Jennie Batchelor


Sentiment and sensibility connote various social and cultural phenomena that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, associated primarily with the privileging of feeling and the bourgeois domestic household. In recent decades, critics have sought to pin down these elusive terms through linguistic archaeology and by analysing their origins in contemporary medical discourse on the nervous system as well as in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century philosophical writings on the self and sensory perception.2 The instability of these terms concerned contemporaries as much as it has modern critics. Hannah More’s ‘Sensibility’, a poetic epistle written for Frances Boscawen following her husband’s death, attempts a definition of this abstract quality through a combination of personal examples — including those of the bluestockings Elizabeth Carter and Elizabeth Montagu, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson and Boscawen herself — and impassioned argument. Troubling More’s encomium, however, is her acute sense of the elusiveness of this most prized virtue: ‘Thy subtile essence still eludes the chains / Of Definition, and defeats her pains’ (p. 282). The term’s resistance to definition lies, in More’s reading, in its double connotations of both natural impulse (‘untaught goodness’) and active improvement (a ‘taste refin’d’). For More, sensibility’s elusiveness is a virtue in itself, attributing it with a degree of exclusiveness within a hierarchy of feeling.


Moral Legibility Poetic Language Literary Ideal Natural Impulse Tender Tone 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    See Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (London: Fontana, 1976), pp. 235–8;Google Scholar
  2. John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988);Google Scholar
  3. G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  4. and Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    The privileging of sight in sentimental discourse has been amply demonstrated by recent critics. Robert Markley has argued that sentimentality amounts to ‘an aesthetics of moral sensitivity’, while Janet Todd has referred to sentimentalism as ‘a kind of pedagogy of seeing’. Robert Markley, ‘Sentimentality as Performance: Shaftesbury, Sterne, and the Theatrics of Virtue’, in The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (London and New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 211.Google Scholar
  6. See also Janet Todd, Sensibility, An Introduction (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), p. 4.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Alexander Pope, ‘An Essay on Criticism’, reprinted in The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 143–68.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    Laura Brown, Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century Literature (London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 106.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    For a discussion of the normalising effect of Pope’s rhyming couplet, see Hugh Kenner, ‘Pope’s Reasonable Rhymes’, ELH, 41 (1974), pp. 74–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 10.
    The importance of this figure and its reworking in the sentimental novel is considered in more depth in the final chapter on Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801).Google Scholar
  11. See also Felicity A. Nussbaum, ‘The Brink of all we Hate’: English Satires on Women, 1660–1750 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984);Google Scholar
  12. and Ellen Pollak, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985).Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Prefixed to the second edition of the novel, reprinted in The Pamela Controversy: Criticisms and Adaptations of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, 1740–1750, ed. Thomas Keymer and Peter Sabor, 6 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2001), I, pp. 22–3.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    See, for example, Neil McKendrick, John Brewer and J. H. Plumb, eds, The Birth of a Consumer Society: The Commericialisation of Eighteenth-Century England (London, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland and Johnannesburg: Hutchinson: Europa, 1982).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees and Other Writings, ed. E. J. Hundert (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 1997).Google Scholar
  16. 17.
    For a useful survey of eighteenth-century debates on luxury, commerce and gender, see Maxine Berg and Elizabeth Eger, eds, Luxury in the Eighteenth Centuty: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2003), pp. 7–27.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    For an account of the growth and role of the secondhand clothing trade in pre-industrial England, see Beverly Lemire, Dress, Culture and Commerce: The English Clothing Trade Before the Factory, 1660–1800 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 24.
    Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 161.Google Scholar
  19. 25.
    Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilisation: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 55–7.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (London: Bedford Square, 1985).Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    The eighteenth-century masquerade has attracted the interest of several critics and fashion historians. Among the best of these studies, see Castle, Masquerade and Civilisation; and Aileen Ribeiro, The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730–1790 and its Relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture (London: Batsford, 1984).Google Scholar
  22. 29.
    Fred Davis, Fashion, Culture, and Identity (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992);Google Scholar
  23. and John Harvey, Men in Black (London: Reaktion, 1995).Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or Education (1762), trans. Barbara Foxley (London: J. M. Dent, 1911), p. 357.Google Scholar
  25. 35.
    For a discussion of the attempts to regulate the dress of prostitutes, see Alan Hunt, Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), pp. 242–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 36.
    Nancy Armstrong, ‘The Rise of the Domestic Woman’, The Ideology of Conduct: Essays on Literature and the History of Sexuality, ed. Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 108.Google Scholar
  27. 37.
    The question of the extent to which sumptuary law was unfairly biased towards the restriction of women as opposed to men is a contentious issue among historians. Some feminist historians, such as Diane Hughes and Harianne Mills, have argued that sumptuary laws were implicitly gendered: for men, sumptuary regulation was an issue of class or pecuniary status, for women, a question of moral regulation. See Hughes, ‘Invisible Madonnas? The Italian Historiographical Tradition and the Women of Medieval Italy’, in Women in Medieval Society, ed. Susan M. Stuard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976);Google Scholar
  28. and Mills, ‘Greek Clothing Regulations: Sacred or Profane?’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 55 (1984), 255–65. More recently, Alan Hunt has questioned these arguments by suggesting that both men and women were variously targeted by sumptuary law, as governing bodies responded to changes in fashionable dress, although he concedes that sumptuary laws ‘were a component of wider processes in which women were the targets of regulation and control’, pp. 214–54.Google Scholar
  29. 39.
    Harriet Guest, Small Change: Women, Learning and Patriotism, 1750–1810 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 76–86.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767), ed. Ian Campbell Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 59.Google Scholar
  31. 44.
    On cosmetics as sign, see Tassie Gwilliam, ‘Cosmetic Poetics: Coloring Faces in the Eighteenth Century’, in Body and Text in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Dorothea von Mücke and Veronica Kelly (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 144–59.Google Scholar
  32. The extent to which race and skin colour were seen as contingent or indelible signifiers of character see, among others, Felicity A. Nussbaum, The Limits of the Human: Fictions of Anomaly, Race, and Gender in the Long Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).Google Scholar
  33. On defect, see Helen Deutsch and Felicity A. Nussbaum, eds, ‘Defects’: Engendering the Modern Body (Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 2000);Google Scholar
  34. and on the relationship between defect, beauty and physiognomy, see Robert W. Jones, Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysis of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  35. 48.
    Jean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).Google Scholar
  36. 49.
    Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  37. 50.
    Gillian Skinner, Sensibility and Economics in the Novel, 1740–1800 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999); and Guest, Small Change, pp. 155–75.Google Scholar
  38. 52.
    Ibid. Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).Google Scholar
  39. 53.
    See Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984);Google Scholar
  40. Mitzi Myers, ‘Sensibility and the “Walk of Reason”: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Literary Reviews as Cultural Critique’, in Sensibility in Transformation: Creative Resistance to Sentiment from the Augustans to the Romantics, Essays in Honor of Jean H. Hagstrum, ed. Syndy McMillen Conger (Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990), pp. 120–44;Google Scholar
  41. Claudia L. Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. and Syndy McMillen Conger, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility (Rutherford, Madison and Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1994).Google Scholar
  43. 54.
    Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), ed. Miriam Brody (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), p. 197.Google Scholar
  44. 55.
    R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1974).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Jennie Batchelor 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennie Batchelor
    • 1
  1. 1.School of EnglishUniversity of KentUK

Personalised recommendations