- Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility, 1670–1730 by Laura Linker
This study describes changes in female characters from the Restoration through the mid-eighteenth century, arguing, essentially, that the sexualized energy shown in Restoration heroines such as Melantha in Dryden’s Marriage a-la-Mode or Julia of Behn’s The Luckey Chance becomes increasingly rejected and thus separated from the types of emotional expression associated with sensibility later in the eighteenth century. In addition to Dryden and Behn, the study includes extended discussions of works by Trotter, Manley, Haywood, and Defoe.
Ms. Linker explores the complex relationship between “libertinism and sensibility, traditionally understood to be in opposition to each other.” In the late seventeenth century, the multiple versions of the Abelard and Héloise story, for instance, provided characters who possessed the “shared characteristics of libertinism and sensibilité”: “transgressive erotic desire, irreligious longings, and mental and emotional distress demonstrated through tears, those physical symbols of the sufferer’s sorrow, acute nervous attacks, fainting spells, or death from a broken heart.” Sexuality, whether criticized or celebrated, helps comprise female characters who were both “sensible” and “libertine” earlier in the period; later, sexuality was a separate emotional tributary to be channeled or dammed. These more delicate female characters of sensibility could experience physical responses and distresses of shock, joy, grief, and fear—but not of erotic attraction. Later writers like Manley who try to build female characters and their own lives on a “natural” emotional and sexual honesty face increasing disapproval; writers such as Haywood learn to discipline themselves and their works. As Ms. Linker claims about Defoe’s Roxana, “her inability to express emotion, connect with others, or alleviate grief separates her from similar libertine [End Page 264] heroines in earlier and contemporary narratives and begins the process of dividing the heroine of sensibility from her libertine roots.” This book’s most provocative contribution is its willingness to remove the barriers between these concepts to understand better both their overlap and distinctiveness.
Ms. Linker draws in contextual materials that highlight the relations between the two constructs of feeling: Lucretius’s De rerum natura, French cultural influence and sensibilité, Epicureanism, and Charles II’s mistresses, whom she views as underlying influences for many of the female libertine characters. She chooses not to follow how physiological explanations of physical responses to emotion influence character. Such an exploration might explain the lack of sensibility in these earlier libertine characters: the requirement that one be moved by the sufferings or elations of others, an absence Ms. Linker notes in Roxana. The book’s argument may need a clearer distinction of the difference between simple depiction of (even extreme) emotion and of expression of sensibility. While Isabella of The History of a Nun may be agitated by physical manifestations of her emotions—she “weeps throughout the night and into the morning. She is rendered almost speechless by the murders”—her ability to kill two husbands may obstruct our ability to see her as a “heroine of sensibility,” since she so obviously lacks empathy and is too swept away by her own feelings to notice those of others. If swoons and sighs are all that are needed for proof of sensibility, how far back does that emotional construct extend—and how useful is the definition of sensibility? Contemporary theories of bodily responses could help clarify this.
Chapters are organized around a symbolic or representative figure. The last three chapters are types of libertines, a taxonomy helpful when parsing the differences between the female characters of the period: the humane libertine, the natural libertine, and the Amazonian libertine, associated each with the work of Trotter, Manley, and Defoe. The earlier chapters (and the introduction) use designations that are a bit more problematic: Lady Libertine, Lady Lucretius, and Lady Sensibility. These usefully point to the organizing concept of the chapter; what concerns me is that Ms. Linker never quite makes clear whose terms they are, and sometimes sentences insinuate that they derive from the authors discussed. For example, “Behn...