The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in 18th-century Britain 
by G.J. Barker-Benfield.
Chicago, 520 pp., £39.95, October 1992, 0 226 03713 4
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Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context 
by Ann Jessie van Sant.
Cambridge, 143 pp., £27.95, January 1993, 0 521 40226 3
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Drunks, Whores and Idle Apprentices: Criminal Biographies of the 18th Century 
by Philip Rawlings.
Routledge, 222 pp., £40, October 1992, 0 415 05056 1
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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, 0 85449 188 0
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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.

The construction of sensibility marks a decided development in the idea of consciousness. Unconsciousness is referred to as ‘insensibility’; someone who faints, who experiences a lacuna in consciousness, is often described as dropping ‘insensible’. But insensibility means also a refusal to avail oneself of full human consciousness, perhaps a congenital hardness that precludes appropriate vibration; villains and vulgarians are alike ‘insensible’. If you are insensible you cannot be ‘sentimental’; to be ‘sentimental’ means that one is on the productive end of sensibility, producing the audible music of consciousness, which is the sum of vibrations. An analogy like Cheyne’s reveals how the apparent passivity of Locke’s system can be alleviated. Locke said we are educated (in effect, made) by the two great sources, sensation and reflection. If we are simply the victims of the sensations we receive, the conditions put upon us, then the mind becomes, as Coleridge complained, ‘a lazy looker-on’. But Cheyne’s analogy, as Barker-Benfield points out, is ‘an extension of the idea that hearing was “perform’d”.’ We perform our hearing and seeing; we are the musicians who play our own sensations. And as sentimental beings we are able to represent or even to articulate – to ourselves and to others – the nature and effects of both sensation and reflection. To be ‘sentimental’ is to be ‘every thing clever and agreeable’, for both cleverness of mind and sweetness of temper come from the well-tuned clavichord of the corporeal-psychic system, emerging in articulate consciousness.

As Barker-Benfield argues in his second chapter, ‘The Reformation of Male Manners’, the new sensitive articulate human being thus set up is ideally suited to the newly-emerging capitalist and urban society. Barriers between domestic and public spheres were in some senses broken down by consumerism, and the domestic sphere was widened. The ‘manners’ which made the new world of the counting house, the shop, the small factory possible were not the old ways. Men were supposed to become polite, to acquire the polish that formerly had been associated only with the life of royal courts. Fisticuffs, bear-baiting, getting falling-down drunk, assaulting unknown passers-by in vicious pranks – these anti-capitalist and anti-urban modes of behaviour were to be got rid of, in the middle class and even in the working classes.

The working classes were experiencing large social changes, including the breakdown of the old apprenticeship system and the uncertain life of circulating labour. As Philip Rawlings points out, in introducing the criminal biographies that make up Drunks, Whores and Idle Apprentices, a poor apprentice (like Jack Shepherd, the apprentice-turned-criminal whose case he considers) was tied into a situation with no future. For Rawlings, the biographies of 18th-century criminals fulfilled important functions of explanation and negotiation; they acted as a warning to the poor and, at the same time, offered their lives some chance of expression.

Rawlings sees these biographies as a reaction against the complexities of individualism and the mobility of labour – the apprentice must be blamed for not obeying his master and keeping to a subordination which was vanishing, yet had to be believed in. But as the system of apprenticeship and mastery could not itself be attacked, in accounts of criminals’ lives, ‘the immediate cause of the breakdown is ascribed to another cause, namely a woman.’ The women, the ‘whores’ who inveigle the men into a life of crime, are – by virtue of their power over men – themselves guilty of breaking the codes of proper subordination. The female friend of a male highwayman or thief, whatever her connection to him, and whether or not she takes money for sex, is sure to be called a whore. A female criminal such as a thief is likewise necessarily a ‘whore’ and a source of corruption by virtue of her ‘independent state’ which ‘releases the tendency for corruption inherited by women from Eve’.

Eighteenth-century criminal biographies, however, are rarely quite as stringent a form of cultural discipline as Rawlings makes out – perhaps because there is a tendency towards heteroglossia in any long narrative dealing with human beings in action. The thieves seem unprofessional, unspecialised, frequently casual in their thievery and largely devoid of prudence. Shepherd, for instance was a great escape artist, but went and hung around his old hangouts after breaking out of jail.

There is a downrightness and a tang to the 18th-century narratives that commands attention, and the sympathy we find ourselves feeling for the unfortunate human beings caught in the spotlight of Tyburn and history cannot have been altogether foreign to 18th-century readers. For the most part, these criminals amaze us by their tact and good spirits, as well as by a general lack of brutality that may make us feel wistful. They had no rage to kill. Yet these were the scum and dregs that societies of improvers were anxious to purge from the body politic. The publicity given them in a new age of communication (which was also an aspect of the development of sentiment) was one reason they could not be erased from the picture of the world; but they could be presented as examples of the uncivic and uncivilised behaviour which the modern age hoped to eradicate.

Issues of class and gender are involved whenever people talk of manners or morals. The 18th century (or very late 17th century) was perhaps the first time in which a temporal element is so strongly involved; people were to get rid of certain forms of behaviour because they were antiquated – ‘old-fashioned’, meaning not only ‘quaint’ or ‘out of date’, but also ‘rough’ or ‘ugly’ (as in, ‘he gave me an old-fashioned look’). Anxious though these reformers were to keep going the old system of apprenticeship and subordination (or rather to keep up the fiction of its survival), they were not traditionalists. They were keen to advocate development away from the past. In 18th-century English fiction, bad-mannered characters often represent the past: they are rednecks unacceptable to the new world, like Squire Western in Tom Jones and Captain Mirvan in Evelina.

Barker-Benfield, guided by Norbert Elias, acutely notices changes in habits, manners and customs. Males were to acquire new sources of anxiety. In the new picture of the human being – which gave a high place to the sensitivity of the vibrating nerves and the fineness of particles – masculinity seemed to have been displaced by a kind of femininity. The word ‘nerve’ changed from meaning ‘tendon’ or ‘sinew’ to meaning the delicate transmitter of vibrating energies. A ‘nervous’ style in the late 17th century still meant a ‘manly’ style, vigorous and sinewy; in the mid-18th century, the word meant ‘subject to alarms’, ‘agitated’. The sex-change undergone by the word illustrates the difficulties inherent in the new concepts, which were immediately gendered. The new system seemed to give a high place to the ‘feminine’ – quickness, fineness, sensitivity were obviously to be valued. But any impression that the feminine was being elevated too high was counteracted by an insistence that women tended to have ‘relaxed nerves’. A vocabulary of reprobation – of ‘luxury’ and ‘indulgence’ – was attached to sensibility. But still, the New Man was undoubtedly himself a bundle of nerves. He was supposed to acquire some of the ‘feminine’ habits of behaviour, such as seeing whether his companions – or, more important, his customers – were pleased; he was supposed to agree on a host of new observances, from not spitting to making compliments. This social-philosophical change happened fairly rapidly and involved a considerable strain. Males in the new English society were caught between the Scylla of boorishness and the Charybdis of effeminacy. Barker-Benfield’s chapter on ‘The Question of Effeminacy’ deals very well with this.

‘Effeminacy’ is obviously an important and difficult concept, a joker in the pack that points to the difficulty of masculinity as a concept. In Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830, Rictor Norton makes us look closely at the men who broke the rules of masculinity in England in the 18th century. He has some fascinating material about what was going on in London. Molly houses – i.e. ‘public houses and alehouses or taverns where homosexual men kept their rendezvous’ – can be traced back to 1700 at least. In February 1726, a raid on a molly house kept by one Mother Clap in Holborn resulted in court trials; the trial records yield a deal of information about the habits and habitués of such places. Male homosexuality was outlawed by statute – a male sodomising another was subject to the death penalty, and a male who made overtures to another was subject to the pillory, where those exposed could be maimed or killed with the authorities’ connivance. The Societies for Reformation of Manners did not seek to improve the behaviour of British subjects (especially of the lower classes) only by doing away with uncivilised activities; they also vigorously prosecuted homosexuality – even though that is often thought of as super-civilised, a sign of corrupt refinement – in the belief that they could stamp it out. Their persecutions led to the prosecutions which Norton has followed through the Old Bailey Sessions Papers.

The information he brings us from this source draws a new geography of London and offers a vision of a social world never discussed by conventional history. The public privies or ‘bog-houses’ on the east side of New Square, Lincolns Inn (set up in 1692) rapidly became a centre for pick-ups. Norton argues that the largest number of male gays came from the respectable working classes and the middle class. The patrons of ‘molly houses’ included carpenters, blacksmiths and small shopkeepers, as well as some lawyers and parsons. Less convincingly, Norton also argues that the 18th-century mollies felt no anxiety or remorse about their activities or sexual inclination, and that it was only in the 19th century, when homosexuality was made into a disease rather than just a sin or crime, that self-reprobation became a real problem for practising homosexuals. This is the view urged on us since Foucault, but it is difficult to believe. Heterosexual men of the 17th and 18th centuries felt a good deal of anxiety and guilt about their sexuality, and they were subjected to contradictory advice and ideas about it. Why should we believe homosexual men escaped altogether, in general and in particular, the sexual anxieties of their age?

The reasons suggested by Norton for the efflorescence of a ‘Gay Subculture’ include the growth of a large city, and the rise of that urban consumer culture which is Barker-Benfield’s subject. But perhaps we should look at a humbler aspect of cultural change and consuming. If in the 18th century the population of England and Wales practically doubled (as is almost universally agreed) this in itself is an indication that the nutritional standard was higher than before. People had enough to eat so they could survive to the age of reproduction, and their progeny could in turn survive. And just having a lot of healthy young people about is going to guarantee there is lot of sex going on. As it was very likely that the import of sugar contributed to the caloric advantage of England’s growing generations, you could say that the country was on a sugar high.

The amount of sex going on upset the guardians of society, who tended to be less interested in abuse (cruelty to prostitutes, for instance) than in ‘impurity’. The desire to hang homosexuals seems to have arisen from superstition. At the same time, the new vision of the vibrating sensitive individual was actually as favourable to the gay male’s vibrations as to anyone else’s. In 1993, we have been hearing a lot about lifting the ban on gays in the American Armed Forces. A similar cultural paradox emerges. The US Armed Forces fight for ‘freedom’ – freedom of the individual – yet there are freedoms which their leaders feel cannot be openly permitted, even though the example of other countries (not to mention antiquity) illustrates the absurdity of any belief that homosexual men do not make successful fighting men or responsible officers. The Armed Forces are attached to a primitive belief in purity – a belief which goes deeper than most people are aware. According to a report in Time Magazine of 8 February, ‘under the US Uniform Code of Military Justice, anal and oral intercourse are prohibited anywhere, anytime, by anybody.’ Thus, not only are male homosexual acts prohibited by the US Armed Forces, but a number of ‘impure’ heterosexual activities are too. Any soldier or sailor who has had a blow job has broken the code of purity and is no longer fit to serve his country. All such persons should be drummed out. As soon as you think what that would involve – what a vast shrinking of the forces, what a drooping of the national will – you realise the absurdity of it. But the imagination of ‘purity’ seems, at certain cultural moments, overwhelmingly powerful.

Effeminacy seems itself a superstitious concept that holds up an imaginary purity of manliness as an ideal never to be perfectly attained, if constantly to be sought. If men are not to be ‘effeminate’, not ever, they must have women around to be extra feminine – all blushes, tears and imbecility – in order to assure the male that he is really being masculine, even if he uses a handkerchief. It became clear by the time of Rousseau’s Emile (1762) that women must be offered a clearly subordinate role, not only socially and financially, but emotionally. It must be proclaimed that women’s understandings are weak, that their nervous construction is not as strong as men’s. Their brains are too fine, they are too tender, they are too easily distressed. Strong mental operations, such as studying Greek or arithmetic, would unhinge these over-delicate systems. The new polite man, in order to avoid effeminacy, had to cast his women as delicate and tender creatures, always in distress.

What nobody seems able to say is that we ourselves are living in an era of sentimentalism. We belong to the Late Sentimental Period. We dwell inside the construct of ‘sensibility’ to such a degree that it is hard to understand it with any objectivity. At the same time, our own framework is changing rapidly, and here again social causes (which are not always sheerly automatic causes) and psychological ideas play a major role. In our own era, the concept of the body has undergone a change even more rapid than that of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when ‘nerves’ came in and changed everything. The endeavour to understand and alleviate Aids has accelerated and in some sense created a new image of the body. When I was a girl, nobody had an ‘immune system’. Some people had ‘resistance’. Now we talk anxiously about the immune system, about the invasion of ‘free radicals’, about the entrapment or subversion off T cells. The present change is pretty scary, too, for we are leaving a receptive picture of the body-mind complex (essentially a picture of ‘sensibility’) for a repelling image, manifesting a paranoia which approaches political police-state proportions in every individual. Each individual becomes a sovereign nation state resisting all ‘illegal aliens’, all influences from without. Lockean responsiveness and the harmony of the Muscovite at the keyboard – these must go.

The surfacing of ideas of sensibility in the 18th century was profoundly related to the new society’s need for people to be able to work with strangers. The notion that we are all sensitive, and that we each possess a consciousness that can vibrate to the same stimuli, is reassuring if one has to go among strangers (as we all do now) to get one’s bread. Sentiment is valued as the articulation of that sensibility; as an artifact of speech or expression capable of being shared with friends, companions or the outside world. A sentiment is a thought as well as a feeling – it is thought-out feeling, or felt thought. The idea that those about us are going to respond to their sentiments and tell us their own real thoughts and feelings is immensely reassuring – we will not all be bombinating in a vacuum. The deep social-philosophic movement represented loosely by the word ‘sensibility’ has its good side. The 18th century was fond of quoting the Roman dramatist’s humani nil a me alienum puto – nothing human can be alien to me. Sensibility integrates sexual feelings into the area of normal experience, cultivates friendships and encourages communication – it belongs to a very extroverted thought system.

The new thought system foreshadowed by Aids-inspired psychology is a paranoic system, not an open one. We shall each crouch by our computers, afraid to go out, afraid to get in touch, suspicious of all influences from outside that might make contact with the Aeolian harp of our souls without preliminary inspection. We can get dressed in virtual-reality bodysuits and have sex with someone in cyberspace by remote control, experiencing not through ‘sensibility’, nor even what used to be called ‘sensation’ in Locke’s sense, but through technologically controlled sensors. Afraid of all invasion from without, distrustful of communication from the hostile world, we could become so alienated that our Lockean reflection will be a dark matter undreamed of by Locke. We will understand what is now going to become the old culture of sensibility only by recognising that, however limited it was, and however often it was lent on, it offered an open idea of the human being.

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