Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey

Austen and the Cult of Feeling

Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen
By Claudia L. Johnson.
The University of Chicago Press, 1995.
xi + 239 pages.
Hardcover, $35.00.

Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen.
By Adela Pinch.
Stanford University Press, 1996. 240 pages.
Hardcover, $51.00. Paperback, $18.95.

Reviewed by Laurie Kaplan

Emotion, passion, sentiment, sensation, feeling--these are indeed serious and slippery words for philosophers and writers in the aftermath of the French Revolution. What does "a man of feeling" really feel? How should emotions be expressed in literature and in polite society? What is the relationship between people's external sentiments and their internal passions? What is the strange hold Mrs. Radcliffe's novels have on the characters in Jane Austen's fiction? If Harriet Smith favors The Romance of the Forest, and Catherine Morland revels in The Mysteries of Udolpho, what do these literary allusions tell the reader about Austen's views of society? How did Austen reinterpret the ideas of her time, transforming what Claudia Johnson describes as the "turbulent and disfiguring excess" of late eighteenth-century rhetoric and what Adela Pinch calls the "emotional extravagance" of the period's conception of personhood?

In Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gendel; and Sentimentality in the 1790ís: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen, Claudia Johnson uses Burke's assessment of the French Revolution, including his passionately "irrational" celebration of the tragedy of the French queen, to examine the ways that political crises shaped gendered literary responses. Championing the "chivalric sentimentality" of the fiction of the 1790s, Johnson argues against the traditional critique that the "failed" texts of Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Burney, and Ann Radcliffe were less literary than the realistic fiction of the mid-eighteenth century, and she advocates for these writers works the kind of close reading typically reserved for Austen's novels. Johnson is indeed perspicacious to assert that Austen's exclusions of the "ostentatious affectivity, the frantic contentiousness over suffering, and the sexual equivocality generated by male sentimentality" prove that Emma pays homage to the accomplishments of these late 18th Century women writers.

Johnson's title is double-edged, focusing her argument primarily on the transgressing female writers--the "equivocal beings"--who rejected their "exquisitely controlled, serenely apolitical, and archly unassuming" assigned places, but also on the "male sentimentalists" who populate their fiction. In her afterword, Johnson dissects one of the central gender issues of Emma, the problem of what "English manhood" means in a society that pits the gallantry of Mr. Elton against the humaneness of Mr. Knightley.

In Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen, Adela Pinch examines how ideas about the nature, origin, and social benefits of feelings changed with the times. In the transition from the 18th Century to the early 19th Century, strange fits of passion--those disorderly and turbulent feelings-infiltrated not only novels but philosophical treatises and lyric poetry as well. Pinch begins her argument by citing Hume's assessment that "the passions are so contagious, that they pass with the greatest facility from one person to another, and produce correspondent movements in all human breasts," and then she moves to an examination of Hume's philosophical essays relating to the archetypal "man of feeling." She discusses Charlotte Smith's sonnets, Wordsworth's poetry, and Radcliffe's novels before she concludes with an analysis of Austen's Persuasion and the ways other early 19th Century novels use the vocabulary of feelings to "quote" from the past and thereby to contextualize the roots of personal and social passionate expression.

Johnson notes that by the time Emma was published in 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft "had been dead for some 20 years; Ann Radcliffe was still alive, but had not published since 1797; and Frances Burney had just published the long-awaited The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814). Their careers did not survive the decade that inspired them to such magnificence." Yet, Johnson asserts, Austen was still reconfiguring some of the themes they had conventionalized. Pinch also identifies books and poetry as special source studies that reveal an index of public and private female commentary on passion and feeling. It is interesting to note that while Johnson analyzes Emma, Pinch uses Persuasion, yet both are cogent examples to support their arguments about literary expressions of sentimentality.

Johnson's Equivocal Beings and Pinch's Strange Fits of Passion were published in the mid-1990s, suggesting that the emotional extravagance of female fiction was a trendy topic five years ago in the same way that gendered sentimentality captivated critics 200 years earlier. The fiction of the 1790s and the two decades that followed--a time when the collision of sense and sensibilities led writers to extremes of expression--has, historically, suffered from charges of mediocrity and lack of literary integrity, but in astute, brilliantly detailed arguments, both Johnson and Pinch resurrect the consolations of passionate expression and the culture of emotion.

Laurie Kaplan, Professor of English and Chair of the Honors Program at Goucher College, is the Editor of Persuasions.

JASNA News v.16, no. 3, Winter 2000, p. 26

See more book reviews

Return to Home Page