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  • Families, Culture, and the British Atlantic
  • Madge Dresser
Sarah M. S. Pearsall , Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). Pp. 294. £27.00.
Emma Rothschild , The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth-Century History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). Pp. 483. 24.95.

Sarah Pearsall's ambitious work interrogates the epistolary conventions employed in the private correspondence of British families variously implicated in the colonizing project of the late eighteenth century. The result is a lively and at times penetrating exploration of British values in an expanding empire. Pearsall's contention is that letter writing was a crucial way of coping with the dislocations occasioned by "Atlantic distance and imperial growth" (8). It was through such correspondence that these "fractured families" (26) "created and sustained cultures of sensibility" (9) in order to reconstruct and thus maintain their relationships in the face of a rapidly changing economic and political environment.

Divided into two parts, the book first charts the long-term emergence of a shared set of ideals, which the author argues increasingly characterize the tropes and tone of the private correspondence of such fractured families. Earlier modes of expression, based on formulaic expressions of religious piety, began to be supplanted by a more personal "language of the heart" (82). This newer discourse coalesced around three increasingly dominant themes: familiarity, sensibility, and credit. A study of these themes, Pearsall contends, can tell us more about why people wrote and acted in the way they did than can, say, notions of patriarchy and paternalism. After a chapter discussing the ways in which empire helped to reconfigure the family, Pearsall examines each theme in turn.

A key ideal of the period was familiarity, defined as that "degree of easy informality beyond politeness" (59). In an increasingly wide and impersonal world, familiarity carved out "a particular social space" in which people both inside and outside the biological family could relate on an "affable, informal and free basis" (57). No wonder, then, that the "polite, familiar letter, was the genre par excellence of the eighteenth century" (73; my emphasis). But familiarity was also "a vexed and contested" area (65), used to exclude people as well as to include them. Even those admitted into its charmed circle could, it was feared, abuse their privilege. Nor did sexual intimacy with one inside the familial group guarantee access to it, especially if one were a servant or a slave.

Sensibility, the next concept Pearsall addresses, is "fundamentally about the capacity of the physical body to respond to all kinds of sensory output" (84), as conceived by the physiological theories of the day. Pearsall usefully distinguishes sensibility from its sister concept of sympathy, which focuses on the relationships between people. Emotionally expressive and individualistic, sensibility, with its "appeals to the self and its suffering" (87), could challenge traditional deference. But it could also reinforce inequalities, since some individuals or groups were deemed to lack "sensible fibres" and so be constitutionally incapable of such higher feelings. So categorized, they could be excluded from its tender concerns.

Credit, the final concept to be examined, "was about more than reputation or honor," being "about authority and power and the 'right to be believed'" (116). [End Page 143] Pearsall deftly describes how "the Atlantic movements of trade . . . served not only to increase the importance of the culture of credit" (112) but also posed dangers to it. She relates, too, how notions of credit insinuated their way into domestic discourse: "families taught epistolary values of credit" (113) to their children, and thus helped to shape notions of credit current in the wider culture. Though "both men and women deployed this language of the counting house into the realm of the affective family" as a form of social capital (127), credit was "essentially a man's prerogative" (121). "Ruin" for men meant the loss of economic creditworthiness, whereas for women "ruin" was more often associated with sexual violation.

The second part of the book presents three case studies of Atlantic families in crisis to see how and in what terms they negotiated their difficulties. The author's purpose here is to show the messy, nuanced, and...


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pp. 143-146
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