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|The cult of sensibility
Written by Elizabeth K
(9/14/2009 7:12 a.m.)
“‘Sensibility’, which had originally referred to merely bodily sensitivities, began to stand for emotional responsiveness in the early eighteenth century, and came to designate a laudable delicacy in the second half of the century....In Sense and Sensibility, when Marianne Dashwood identifies Edward Ferrars’s lack of ‘sensibility’, his insufficiently animated reading of Cowper is evidence. With wonderfully foolish hyperbole, she declares that ‘it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility'....Sensibility (as More has suggested) is something you learn from books....In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft was concerned that celebrations of sensibility taught young women to be weak and ill...Austen also suggests that sensibility involves sickness. When she first appears to have been jilted by Willoughby, Marianne Dashwood weeps all night and gets up with a headache, ‘unable to talk and unwilling to take any nourishment’. ‘Her sensibility was potent enough!’ exclaims the narrator. The implication is that Marianne’s susceptibilities are manufactured – that she imposes upon herself. She vaunts her sensibility at a cost to her mother and sister: she is too busy showing how fine her nerves are that she does not notice their distress” (John Mullan, "Psychology", Jane Austen in Context, pp 382-383).
I won’t quote any more as the above quote is long enough (hope it’s not too long!) but John Mullan’s essay presents some interesting points about sensibility in JA’s books and its history.
It is interesting to note that sensibility, whilst apparently modish and fashionable amongst some young women, is associated with sickness and is therefore not an ideal state to be in. I can see why Marianne finds it so appealing; she revels in dramatic literature and Romantic poetry, almost in a Bronte-esque fashion. However, it is clear that too much sensibility in the style displayed by Marianne is not a healthy state. A balance between sense, and sensibility, is crucial unless one is to become dangerously fixated by one's own heightened emotions.
I have linked John Mullan's article on Psychology (from Jane Austen in Context) below. Unfortunately Google Books does not supply a full preview of this chapter but there are five pages from John Mullan's essay if anyone is interested in reading further about sensibility.
|Jane Austen in Context: "Psychology" by John Mullan|
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