- Adventures of a Female Werther: Jane Austen’s Revision of Sensibility
We were convinced he had no soul, that he had never read the Sorrows of Werter . . ., we were certain that Janetta could feel no affection for him—“Love and Friendship”
Marianne was silent; it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell—Sense and Sensibility
Out of the mid eighteenth-century movement called the “cult of sensibility,” including the philosophic, linguistic, and aesthetic thought on which it is founded, emerges a new character. Shaftesbury’s gentleman of taste, Hume and Smith’s man of sympathy or moral sentiments, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot’s noble savage, Mackenzie’s man of feeling, Sterne’s sentimental traveler, and Goethe’s Werther, all share certain essential attributes of the hero of sensibility: namely, unspoiled natural virtue, an unusually keen perception, and a deep capacity to feel. The entry for “Sensibilité (morale)” from Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1755) 1 illustrates well what was comprised in this new ideal: [End Page 110]
Tender and delicate disposition of the soul which renders it easy to be moved and touched. Sensibility of soul, which is rightly described as the source of morality, gives one a kind of wisdom concerning matters of virtue and is far more penetrating than the intellect alone. . . . Men of sensibility live more fully than others. . . . Reflection can produce a man of probity: but sensibility is the mother of humanity, of generosity; it is at the service of merit, lends its support to the intellect, and is the moving spirit which animates belief.
Sensibility’s ideal, “far more penetrating than the intellect alone,” portrays the dramatic fall of unaided or “disengaged” reason; reflection no longer has direct contact with the will, and the passions and nerves carry more potent (eventually even more accurate) information than reasoning. Mary Wollstonecraft describes sensibility as “the result of acute senses, finely-fashioned nerves, which vibrate at the slightest touch, and convey such clear intelligence to the brain, that it does not require to be arranged by the judgment.” 2 Those who could feel most deeply, who showed the greatest sensitivity to external behavior and sights, were thought also to be those most capable of sympathy for human suffering, and therefore capable of a kind of intimacy and soul-sharing unaccessible to the vast majority of humanity.
Frances Brooke, in her sentimental novel Emily Montague (1769), 3 displays the intimate connection between sensibility’s psychology and its ethics: her characters do not achieve religion and virtue through “principles found on reason and argument,” for example, but instead through “elegance of mind, delicacy of moral taste, and a certain quick perception of the beautiful and becoming in everything.” As this passage suggests, there was some ambivalence within sensibility about whether it was profoundly “natural”—that is, defined in opposition to the corrupted, “artificial,” cold ways of society—or whether it was a product of great aesthetic refinement. On the one hand it emphasizes quotidian virtues, accessible to all, such as seeing, feeling, and sympathizing, and on the other, rarity and heroism enter because people of sensibility are defined as being at odds with “men of the world” (Encyclopédie above). Therefore, as the passions and nerves grew reasonable and even moral, the need arose, within the cult of sensibility, to cultivate them rather than suppress them. On the one hand sensibility is a reaction against civilization, its unnatural hierarchies, and artificial aristocracy; on the other, it establishes a new, elaborate, exclusive aristocracy of its own. [End Page 111]
Although it took different forms and pitches, sensibility’s moral aesthetic carried definite implications for the speech of its ideal heroes and heroines as well. Fictional heroes and heroines from Diderot to Goethe tend also to share a great difficulty in expressing their deep, naturally virtuous feelings in the conventional language of society. In fact, their difficulty speaking becomes a measure of their sensibility. The “man of feeling” or the “woman of sensibility” has feelings so keen and delicate, that words inevitably fail to do them...