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  • Ruled Passions: Re-Reading the Culture of Sensibility
  • Robert W. Jones
Barbara M. Benedict. Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745–1800 (New York: AMS Press, 1994). Pp. x + 261. $45.00.
Markman Ellis. The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Pp. xi + 264. $54.95.
Jerome McGann. The Poetics of Sensibility: A Revolution in Literary Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). Pp. x + 217. $35.00.
John O’Neal. The Authority of Experience: Sensationist Theory in the French Enlightenment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). Pp. xi +284. $45.00.
Adela Pinch. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996). Pp. 240. $39.50.

In recent years the study of the literature, and indeed the “culture,” of sensibility has undergone considerable expansion and, it might be added, significant change. Earlier conceptions of sensibility as a particular literary, artistic or social mode—most often described as the “cult” of sensibility—have given way to a history of the late eighteenth century that regards sensibility as the animating force for the whole period. There is undoubtedly a logic to this more inclusive attitude, for the study of sensibility brings together eighteenth-century accounts of the nervous system, appeals for a reformation of manners, philosophical inquiries, and literary tastes. In this context, G. J. Barker-Benfield’s 1992 study, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain, has a particular and perhaps contentious prominence. The importance of the Barker-Benfield study resides not in any great originality but in its powers of synthesis. Whereas previous studies had explored how the effusions of popular sentimentality, literary form, and medical technology arose simultaneously in the midcentury, thus providing the rationale for a wide variety of otherwise divergent practices, Barker-Benfield’s book arguably went [End Page 395] further, locating these debates at the heart of the period, insinuating sensibility into every conceivable debate. Throughout the book, impressive claims were made for key connections between the commercialization of the economy and the sentimentalizing of culture. However, there are considerable problems inherent in such a mode of periodization. The complaint most often leveled at Barker-Benfield’s book was that in consolidating the literature, philosophy, and moral discourses of the period he reduced its complexities to an all-embracing totality. To a large degree this was true. The Culture of Sensibility converts what was a diffuse and uneven development into a confidently and coherently worked-out ideology: although Barker-Benfield monitored the different aspects of sensibility carefully, his method ensured that the significance of any project derived from its relationship to the discourses of sensibility. Despite these adverse comments, it is appropriate to recall the ambition and the flaws of The Culture of Sensibility, as it provides an opponent, explicitly or implicitly, for the majority of the books under discussion in this review. Indeed, one way to categorize these new studies is to regard them as offering more focused and more precise definitions of sensibility, accounts that while possessing considerable explanatory power, do not represent such large-scale hypotheses.

If Barker-Benfield’s book represented an attempt to read the many manifestations of sensibility from a historicist perspective that sought to explore the connections between texts and the society from which they emerge, then Jerome McGann’s The Poetics of Sensibility takes a strikingly different approach. As such it makes for a provocative point from which to begin a review of several books all of which negotiate in some way or another with the relationship between literature, cultural discourse, and the events of late-eighteenth-century society. Whereas other studies amass a variety of texts and materials to establish a broad perspective for their discussion of literature, McGann commits himself (perhaps a little archly) to “poetry and writing” at the express detriment of “ideas and culture.” This is a bold and in some senses alarming claim with which to begin a book on relatively minor literary figures. However, McGann’s project is more cautious and more historical than this initial statement might suggest. Despite the rejection of the “culture” or “politics” of...

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