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  • The End of Sensibility:The Nervous Body in the Early Nineteenth Century
  • Erin Wilson (bio)

It was often said in the eighteenth century that a good and decent young lady ought to possess a degree of sensibility.1 The delicacy of one's body and its ability to fall prey to the senses was a marker of gentility and grace, as we see the noblest of eighteenth-century heroines growing pale or faint at the slightest distresses or dying from greater shocks.2 The quality of sensibility, or "the capacity for living intensely that is demonstrated in a heightened sensitivity to one's environment," as Stephen Ahern writes, was the pervasive preoccupation of young ladies from the middle of the eighteenth century to the beginnings of Romanticism.3 In the age of revolution, in the turn from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century, "sensibility," as a supposed virtue of refined young ladies, and a few men, underwent a fairly dramatic renovation. One's ability to be greatly affected by surrounding stimuli became cause for concern for medical professionals like Thomas Trotter and William Buchan and writers invested in challenging gender roles, most notably Mary Wollstonecraft. Theorists of sensibility have largely attributed the changes in the discourse to both the rise of the middle class and the influence of medical knowledge.4 I would like to suggest that the shifting discourse on sensibility, or what I would call sensibility's pathological turn, is also connected to a growing proto-feminist discourse interested in challenging the notion that the destiny of women is determined by a weak and frail anatomy. In this article, I argue that the body of work on "nerves" in the years preceding the Victorian era is indicative of the medicalization of sensibility, and that the concern for sensibility as a medical malady permeates the literary world. To do this, I turn primarily to Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility as a fictional illustration of the changing paradigm, putting Austen in conversation with medical treatises on nervousness, as the [End Page 276] deterioration and rejuvenation of Marianne Dashwood parallels the pathological track outlined by Buchan and Trotter.

While either sex could potentially suffer from either sensibility or nerves, it was commonly acknowledged that women were the primary bearers of this trait. This dominance was attributed, as has been widely discussed, to the perceived weakness of the female frame and the consequent fragility of women's psyches.5 Thomas Trotter, author of the most comprehensive study on nerves in this time period, A View of the Nervous Temperament (1808), asserts that a propensity towards nervousness is exacerbated by environmental factors, but stems from biological destiny: "The female constitution, therefore, furnished by nature with peculiar delicacy and feeling, soft in its muscle fibre, and easily acted upon by stimuli, has all its native tenderness increased by artificial refinements. Hence the diseases of which we now treat, are in a manner the inheritance of the fair sex."6 Not only does Trotter give us an almost precise definition of sensibility in his assessment of nerves, he essentially argues that this affliction is, at its very core, female. While Dr. Buchan is more gender-neutral in his Domestic Medicine,7 the chapter "Diseases of Women" implicitly engages with sensibility when he claims that women are more influenced by the passions than any belonging to "the animal economy."8 He also acknowledges that women are more likely to suffer from "the whole train of nervous disorders," although he connects this propensity for nerves to confinement rather than a natural delicacy.9

As nerves have a tendency to favor women, the causes of these maladies also vary greatly between the genders. Trotter reports that nervous men suffer shocks, most often because of what he terms "disappointments in public life, mostly financial and business."10 On the other hand, women, as he discusses at length, inevitably suffer from nerves because of romantic disappointments or tragedies. We can see this variance at work in much of the literature and art of the nineteenth century, as we see both men and women contracting fevers following an emotional shock, but with the descriptions and underlying causes being disparate between...


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