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ASHLY BENNETT Shame and Sensibility: Jane Austen’s Humiliated Heroines “Affected Indifference, or Momentary Shame” a Z~\UGHT SENSIBILITY TO BE CHERISHED OR REPRESSED?” THIS QUESTION, starkly framed as the title of an October 1796 Monthly Magazine ar­ ticle, reflects a widespread sense at the end of the eighteenth century that the cult ofsensibility was becoming increasingly embarrassing, even shame­ ful. “There was a time,” the unsigned article declares, “when sensibility was taken under the patronage of that powerful arbiter of manners— fashion. Then, height of breeding was measured by delicacy of feeling, and no fine lady, or gentleman, was ashamed to be seen sighing over a pathetic story, or weeping at a deep-wrought tragedy.”1 Wielding shame against an excessive “degree ofsoftness, that soon became ridiculous,” the article ech­ oes the moves of even novelists like Ann Radcliffe, who, though she might seem to have an irrepressible flair for emotional indulgence, also pits shame against sensibility.2 In a speech on the “dangers of sensibility” in The Mys­ teries of Udolpho (1794), a wise father warns his daughter, who is about to embark on sensational gothic adventures, “Sentiment is a disgrace, instead of an ornament, unless it lead us to good actions.”3 According to this cau­ tionary lecture, sensibility’s potential disgrace stems from its “dangerous quality, which is continually extracting the excess of misery, or delight, from every surrounding circumstance” so that “we become the victim of I would like to thank Ellis Hanson, Laura Brown, Harry E. Shaw, Chad Bennett, and the anonymous readers for Studies in Romanticism for their comments and advice on drafts of this essay. 1. “Question: Ought Sensibility to be Cherished or Repressed?” The Monthly Magazine 2 (October 1796): 706. For a useful contextualization of this article in relation to debates on sensibility in the popular press, novels, and other discourses, see Markman Ellis’s “Sensibility2, History and the Novel,” in The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Senti­ mental Novel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 2. “Question,” 706. 3. Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, ed. Bonamy Dobree (New York: Oxford Univer­ sity Press, 1998), 80. SiR, 54 (Fall 2015) 377 378 ASHLY BENNETT our feelings, unless we can in some degree command them.”4 Yet such a warning is significantly tempered by the equally pressing need to avoid cal­ lous overcorrection: “I would not teach you to become insensible, if I could; I would only warn you of the evils of susceptibility, and point out how you may avoid them.”5 The Monthly Magazine similarly brandishes shame against both sensibility’s “ridiculous” excesses and the “contrary ex­ treme of affected insensibility,” a “freezing air of indifference” constituting “a rude and vulgar kind of stoicism, of which Zeno would have been ashamed.”6 Affective indulgence or “affected insensibility”—either, it would seem, invariably leads to shame. Such was the general mood as Jane Austen drafted early versions of Northanger Abbey (begun in 1798, posthumously published in 1818) and other of her major works. Faced with the perilous extremes of a sensibility culturally degraded as feminized irrationality and passive susceptibility, and an insensibility cast as frigid and austere, Austen also engages shame. She invokes shame, however, not just to broach but to reframe the question of whether sensibility “[o]ught ... to be cherished or repressed.” Across her novels, Austen fashions shame as a valuable mediator between senti­ mental absorption and what she terms, in Northanger Abbey, “affected indif­ ference.”7 Rather than repress or disavow sensibility in order to avoid its shame, Austen revises the emotional intensities and investments ofsensibil­ ity through shame, and especially through innovative novelistic displays of shame. In tracing the revisionary, mediating role of shame in the frequent spectacle of Austen’s humiliated heroines, my aim is to show how shame functioned as an increasingly important alternative to sensibility in shaping the novel’s shifting cultural status and form. And although Austen con­ fronts a historically specific formulation ofrepressive shame as it comes into contact with sensibility, by reading shame’s productive role in Austen’s negotiations of sensibility I further intend to challenge a common equation of shame and repression in current critical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 377-400
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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