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  • The Work of the Heart: Young Women and Emotion, 1780–1830
  • Lucia McMahon
The Work of the Heart: Young Women and Emotion, 1780–1830. By Martha Tomhave Blauvelt (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007. 272 pp.).

The Work of the Heart: Young Women and Emotion, 1780–1830 explores young women's experiences with and expressions of emotions in early national America. The book centers on the diary writings of eight women who came of age during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Martha Tomhave Blauvelt offers a compelling examination of how women's "work of emotion" was critical to the formation of individual, gender, and class identity.

Like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's insightful reading of Martha Ballard's diary, [End Page 800] Blauvelt revitalizes the significance of women's diary writing. Blauvelt has a particularly rich set of sources to mine. Unlike Ballard's more laconic prose, the young women in Blauvelt's study produced deeply introspective and richly expressive diaries. These young women (all white, single, middle- or upper-class) had leisure time to devote to reading, education, and sociability; and more importantly, they had time to write about their emotional experiences within their diaries.

Blauvelt is specifically interested in how young women used the experiences and expressions of emotions to negotiate "between self and society" (p. 10). Women's efforts to maintain "proper" emotional feeling and expression in turn reflected class and gender conventions of respectable and acceptable behavior. While the culture of sensibility encouraged their acts of intense self-expression, it also warned women not to feel "too much." Societal expectations demanded that women perform a tight balancing act between intense feeling and controlled tranquility. Many women found emotional tranquility to be an elusive goal, and worried that their emotions "swung" too often from one extreme to another. Blauvelt argues that the regulation and proper expression of emotions was a form of work for young women—work that "had been previously dismissed or unnoticed" (p. 5). Reminiscent of Jeanne Boydston's examination of how early national society devalued the true nature and value of women's housework, Blauvelt insists that women's emotional work has not been accorded true significance or value. Throughout her study, Blauvelt asks us to consider central questions about women's emotional work: How did the public performance of emotion differ from private feelings? Who derived the most benefit from women's emotional work? How were women compensated for their emotional labor?

To explore the contours of women's emotional work, Blauvelt organizes her study around a series of "emotional communities" that young women inhabited (p. 10). Of particular interest and insight are her chapters on female academies and on courtship and marriage. Blauvelt's chapter on "schooling the heart" underscores the emotional tasks that accompanied the rigorous intellectual curriculum at Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy. The academy's use of a credit system and public examinations rewarded students who excelled, while embarrassing those who missed the mark. This competitive academic environment encouraged rivalry and jealousy among students, challenging our notion of such academies as primarily fostering a "female world of love and ritual." As Blauvelt argues, the students at the Litchfield Female Academy "lived on a very public stage," (p. 59) as both their intellectual and emotional work were subject to the constant scrutiny of Sarah Pierce and the larger community.

Perhaps the most compelling chapter in this fine study is Blauvelt's exploration of courtship. As novels and sentimental fiction became increasingly popular, young women's personal courting dramas became inextricably linked to the larger world of print culture. In their diaries, women narrated the details of their courtship stories, and some even "referred to themselves in the third person, as if they were characters in sentimental dramas" (p. 31). Thus, Patty Rogers' 1785 diary reads like a sentimental novel, in which the heroine found herself caught up in various dramas of her own making. Unable to properly regulate her emotions, Patty Rogers could not "command" her feelings in a way that would save her public embarrassment. As Blauvelt argues, Rogers "mistook herself for [End Page 801] a sentimental heroine" and failed to develop a truly distinctive...


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