Scholars who have been immersed in the eighteenth century are often imbued with a penchant for common sense and develop a rich, lucid style. Professor Spacks exemplifies these qualities admirably. In spite of the sludgy title, this is a stimulating and rewarding book. Until now my only thinking about boredom has happened while watching goldfish or cows and wondering if they were slowly perishing of boredom. Otherwise, boredom has been a gray experience accompanying committee meetings or reading insurance prose, but scarcely a matter for philosophy. Professor Spacks shows that there is much here for serious thought. She traces the history of boredom, mainly as manifested in novels. “This book’s project is to investigate boredom’s imaginative functions during the past two and a half centuries, mainly in England, where speakers first labeled the condition early in the second half of the eighteenth century” (p. 6). In this period the idea of boredom was still influenced by Christian thought. Thus, Johnson saw Boswell’s boredom in Scotland as a lapse in Christian morality, a lack of personal resources. Johnson felt the universal power of boredom; it invaded even “the Happy Valley of Rasselas,” but he insisted on the moral duty of opposing it with spirited effort. Women writers of the period are pictured as doing just that—heroically defeating a boredom imposed upon women by society through the vivacity and energy of language in their epistles and narration. Professor Spacks depicts the early nineteenth century as afflicting later decades with sensibility and didactic tedium and developing complex new aspects of boredom as a mode of aggression that could shrivel people, arts, and society. “To real aristocrats belongs the repudiation of feeling—passion and compassion—that constitutes boredom” (p. 201). In the twentieth century boredom becomes ubiquitous and has “enormous and essentially unalterable power” (p. ix). This century is like a fulfillment of Pope’s vision of universal dullness at the end of The Dunciad.
During the course of this history we become almost convinced that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women hunkered in a cotton-wrapped male-dominated world which went to great lengths to normalize female boredom. “Often tedium attends compliant virtue” (p. 78). This idea of [End Page 506] oppressed and suffering women is repeated in the text to the point of—well—boring the reader. From my reading in general and from this book I garnered the impression that eighteenth-century women were for the most part tough, alive, and intelligent masters of boredom. I can almost hear their spirits crying, “save the pity!”
Professor Spacks fulfills the older mission of criticism to promote interest and attention, and provide insight. Like literature, this mission aims to defeat boredom. We are rewarded with a brilliant discussion of Sense and Sensibility, showing us how Austen’s subtle rhetoric guides the reader’s perception of what is interesting—to learn to find seemingly dull Elinor and Edward actually interesting, to thwart our shallower driftings. In a similar vein with moral bearings Professor Spacks manages to stir interest in a discussion of Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy.” We recall how Wordsworth militated against the human inclination to depend upon gross and violent stimulants. He proposed that we ought to be interested in what is moral and thereby genuinely interesting. In “The Idiot Boy” he aimed to enlarge our moral attention span to embrace the lowly and unlikely. I began to feel much less like a moral derelict when Professor Spacks admitted that she too finds “The Idiot Boy” boring.
This is such a rewarding book that I feel uncomfortably churlish in pointing out that aspects of the book are irksome. In general, her sentences are beautiful, but in large tracts of the book we find an Emersonian discursiveness where the discussions are crumbly and anfractuous, tacking from this to that. We don’t get enough sustained driving down a clear track. She suggests in passing that Hannah More’s Coelebs is boring to the later nineteenth century when people become more concerned with inner conflicts and...