Vibrations

Margaret Anne Doody

  • The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in 18th-century Britain by G.J. Barker-Benfield
    Chicago, 520 pp, £39.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 226 03713 4
  • Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context by Ann Jessie van Sant
    Cambridge, 143 pp, £27.95, January 1993, ISBN 0 521 40226 3
  • Drunks, Whores and Idle Apprentices: Criminal Biographies of the 18th Century by Philip Rawlings
    Routledge, 222 pp, £40.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 415 05056 1
  • Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 by Rictor Norton
    Gay Men’s Press, 302 pp, £12.95, September 1992, ISBN 0 85449 188 0

Pray, sir, give me leave to ask you ... what, in your opinion, is the meaning of the word sentimental, so much in vogue amongst the polite, both in town and country? In letters and common conversation, I have asked several who make use of it, and have generally received for answer, it is – it is – sentimental. Every thing clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word; but ... it is impossible every thing clever and agreeable can be so common as this word

So wrote Lady Bradshaigh to Samuel Richardson in 1749. She is not the only person to have been puzzled by the phenomenon of the sentimental, both word and thing; nor by the equally proliferating possibilities and applications of the word ‘sensibility’. A great many modern commentators have written on both sentiment and sensibility, and yet very little of what has been said has been of much value. Both sentiment and sensibility have been thought chiefly the province of literary scholars, and literary scholars have not always been best equipped to deal with the matter. It became relatively easy to turn out a quick study of sensibility in the 18th century, with the customary remarks about tears, women’s fainting, tea-drinking and sentimental novels. Jean Hagstrum in Sex and Sensibility pointed a different route, both extending the period and the artists to whom the term should be applied, and suggesting the strong relation of the concept of sensibility to concepts of sexuality. But on the whole, English (Anglo-American) scholarship on the matter has been reluctant to deal with the philosophical or physiological ramifications of the subject. Nowadays, I look in the index of books on either sensibility or sentiment, and if there is no reference to David Hartley I close the volume.

G.J. Barker-Benfield passes the test – his index lists Hartley as well as Shaftesbury, Hume, Adam Smith and, of course, Locke, for even the non-philosophical usually know that a brief reference to Locke must be included. Barker-Benfield is a historian, and comes at his subject with the interests of a historian rather than of a literary scholar or a philosopher, but he makes an admirable attempt to deal with the philosophical change which accompanies and clarifies major social change at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century. His first chapter, ‘Sensibility and the Nervous System’, fills a long-felt want in bringing together developments in physiology and changes in social structure.

The idea of sensibility can be properly understood only in the light of a change in the image of the human being, including the human body. Physiology, a branch of the natural sciences (and thus still under the cope of philosophy), developed rapidly after the acceptance of Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. What had been a steady humour became a circulating system, like money. The individual body becomes more and more minutely animated, active and responsive. Dissatisfied with the ancient answers regarding mind-body connection, theorists refined the old system of animal spirits and humours; the new era found ‘nerves’, and observed the transmission of information to the mind by ‘vibration’. The human being turns into a sensitive creature forever vibrating. The system’s sensitivity to influence, its quickness of response, the fine-tuning of the nerves and of the particles of the brain, then become responsible for quickness of thought, as well as emotion. According to the physician, Dr Cheyne, in The English Malady (1733), ‘the intelligible Principle, or Soul, resides somewhere in the Brain, where all the Nerves, or instruments of sensation, terminate like a Musician in a finely fram’d and well tim’d, Organ-Case; these Nerves are like Keys which, being struck on or touch’d, convey the Sound and Harmony to this Sentient Principle, or Musician.’ Barker-Benfield suggests that this convenient image – the soul as musician, sensibility as the strings of a keyboard instrument – contributed to the high status of music in the era, and even to the astonishing musical output of the 18th century. We sought good vibrations.

Such a concept suited other descriptions of the human being as both an independent agent and an entity bound to respond to environmental circumstances – to education in the broadest sense. As Barker-Benfield says, ‘the corollary of Locke’s assumption that human minds were born as if they were blank sheets of paper was the unleashing of the power to shape their own lives.’ You could shape the lives of others, too, particularly your children, by manipulating the influences upon the nerves and brain for good results; it was the 18th century’s belief in the sensibility, the sensitive consciousness of the human creature, that underwrote the huge education project of that century’s Enlightenment.

The huge project was not without its price. The best of these new studies, Ann Jessie Van Sant’s Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context, acutely defines the cost of the concepts of sensibility and the sentimental. Van Sant attends to the importance of watching, of observing, in various formulations of socialised physiology, or physiologised society. Theoreticians were fascinated by observation, and desired to excite and to stimulate – technical, even scientific words with a great social weight. A nerve in a frog could be stimulated; and so, too, could a conscience.

Some of Van Sant’s best arguments develop around the rules and conduct of the Magdalen Hospital, in which prostitutes were rehabilitated by controlled theatrical productions rendered observable to the appropriately sensitive. The 18th century educated itself by gazing on suffering fittingly organised. Van Sant brilliantly connects visits to the Magdalen Hospital, scientific vivisection, attendance at hangings and reading Clarissa. All these were occasions of stimulation and excitement for viewer and object.

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