‘Sensibility’ was the name of a faculty before it was the name of a style. On the divide of the physical and mental, it suggested a power to receive life’s pleasures and pains, and a less certain power to judge their worth. Such was the critical usage of the late 18th century, largely derived from Hume. Popular usage went further and has lasted longer. Taste in action, and on perpetual display, good taste, in fact, run riot – sensibility in this range of meaning tended to imply a misplaced connoisseurship. Its fictional heroes and heroines, who thought that ‘moral nuances’ of character could be picked out with the same equipment one used to admire the picturesque gradations of a landscape, got into their usual scrapes with society because they were easily bored. Enemies of routine, they craved what they called the unexpected.
The tragedy latent in the novel of sensibility was the wasting of a morbid ‘finer spirit’ who could discover no second self in the world. (The genre always leaned toward epistle and monologue because the reader was required to become that self.) Yet the style of feeling which had supported the ambitions and consoled the anxiety of three generations wore out imperceptibly in the Nineties and by the Regency it was dead. Indeed, in the romantic generations it becomes a mark of distinction to have fallen early under the spell of sensibility and survived with a record of how the charm was broken. Austen took a whole novel to establish her freedom, and even so, the old mood is still going strong in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet’s favourable judgment of Mr Darcy is prepared by a walk round the moral nuances of his estate, and by her approving gaze at a portrait which catches a hidden aspect of the man. Peacock, the finest and steadiest of anti-sensibilitarians, published as his second novel a romance, Melincourt, in which parody and sentimental homage are so curiously mixed as to leave no sign of the author’s likely intent. Wordsworth wrote his own, official epitaph as a man of feeling, in the early ‘Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew-Tree’. Meanwhile he was secreting in the 1805 Prelude that hothouse plant of sensibility, the Story of Vaudracour and Julia – an episode meant to illustrate both the abuse of paternal power under the old regime and an intensity of feeling that might not pass scrutiny by the revolution’s engineers of the soul.
In the run of recent commentary, Vaudracour and Julia have become a conventional subject of appalled rebuke, though it is often hard to tell which is condemned more rigorously: Wordsworth’s decision to cut the episode in his final version of the poem, or the man-centred, poet-centred, mawkish, petulant and uncertain frame of mind in which he undertook to write the story at all. On the whole, critics seem happier with the fully exposed and censurable product that can be read as a symptom of something. To suppress the symptom by revising the work is to pass from bad poetry to bad faith. Still, Wordsworth, at least, is partly to blame: he was lacking in courage at times and wanted credit for courage at all times. What is strange is to see the same double bind in force against a writer as indifferent to worldly prudence as Mary Wollstonecraft. Her vindications of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Woman, books of great originality and psychological acuteness, are as widely discussed as ever, and yet, to judge by the number of editions and reprints, they have been demoted to second place on the English syllabus beneath Mary and Maria. The political books are ahead of their time. The novels, entirely of their time and undistinguished of their kind, make a satisfying and legible symptom, and they affirm the hope that the personal may be the political.
Mary is a tissue of reshuffled data from Wollstonecraft’s life. The heroine escapes from her family to solitude and books (‘Thomson’s Seasons, Young’s Night-Thoughts and Paradise Lost’), and finds an older woman, Ann, who seems ready to become her life-companion. Ann’s health declines and Mary accompanies her to Lisbon, where she meets Henry, ‘a man of refinement’. But Ann dies, Henry, a little after, also dies, and the story closes with Mary in ‘a delicate state of health’ that ‘did not promise long life’. Brief as it is at fifty pages, this novel shares certain traits with confessional literature of all periods: simplicity, transparency, monotony. Most of all it is a story about nursing, from a nurse who has lost confidence in her own powers, and coming in 1788 it gives a clear picture of the author’s despair at the death two years earlier of Fanny Blood, the friend with whom she had founded a successful school at Newington Green.
In politics, Wollstonecraft was the first modern theorist of an idea of individuality. This involved a break with any ethic of socialised dependence – a way of feeling which, when she saw it in Burke, she diagnosed as the result of ‘overstretched sensibility’. People always worrying about what others ought to feel, who try to generate proper feelings about themselves from other people’s feelings about them, will stop at extrinsic virtues like propriety and modesty and have no chance of arriving at self-respect. This was the predicament of women: but the guarded libertinism of men brought them no closer to personal liberty, and Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindications to wipe out the hovering solicitude which men and women had confused with morality. A barometer of inner weather that served as a mark of docility for those outside, sensibility for her was a parasite and a killer, and no progress would be made in human nature until it was uprooted. To accomplish this would mean, of course, to remove the grounds for the kind of novel she herself was writing.
A fantasy of mutual dependence, in a select community of equals where all codes of property and sex are overthrown, seems to have recurred in Wollstonecraft’s emotional life at intervals from the late Eighties. One can glimpse it beneath the surface relations of Ann and Mary and Henry in this first novel. It came out again in her practical proposal to join the Fuseli ménage, with herself as the intellectual, Mrs Fuseli as the physical mate: an offer which the latter cordially rebuffed. And it is back once more in veiled form in the unfinished Maria, where a similar platonic pact seems ready to start between the imprisoned heroine and her fellow inmate in the asylum, Henry Darnford. Much of the story gets told in flashbacks and it is a sign of the author’s extracurricular interest that she could project three equally plausible endings: ‘Again with child – Delighted – A discovery – A visit – A Miscarriage – Conclusion’; ‘Divorced by her husband – Her lover unfaithful – Pregnancy – Miscarriage – Suicide’; and, in a quite different tenor, ‘ “The conflict is over! I will live for my child!” ’ Wollstonecraft had, in fact, rescued her younger sister Eliza from a marriage she believed wrong, and by leaving the husband alone to care for a new-born infant helped to cause its death. In Maria, the tables are turned: it is a man who snatches the baby from the heroine, who is now a stand-in for the author herself. Her own husband, Godwin, was right to concede that there were actions of Wollstonecraft’s life in which her conduct could not be defended. He was pardonably hopeful in guessing that her novels might carry interest for readers who knew nothing about her life.
Their daughter Mary became famous as the author of Frankenstein: the story of a monster who severs all affective relations to human kind and makes for himself a creature in whom he can nourish the same defects. Victor Frankenstein doubtless resembled Godwin more in theory than in practice, but Mary was made to feel often enough that she existed mainly to prove a point, and like her mother she harboured a wish to be transplanted from her own life. This could only come by the discovery of a kindred soul – the type that makes a fleeting appearance in Frankenstein in the character of Clerval. In Matilda, written three years later and never published in Mary Shelley’s lifetime, his name is Woodville and he is a young poet and world-reformer plainly modelled on Shelley: ‘If I can influence but a hundred, but ten, but one solitary individual, so as in any way to lead him from ill to good, that will be a joy to repay me for all my sufferings.’ His hopes have no power to revive Matilda because her life was poisoned at its source by two catastrophes. Her mother died in childbirth, and her father in order to mourn in solitude left her for 16 years, only to return for a brief moment of joy and then depart for ever. When she pursues him and asks the reason, he replies: ‘I love you.’ The tone leaves no doubt that his thoughts are incestuous. Matilda, rather than become her father’s wife, elects to join her mother in death.
Mary Wollstonecraft died from the effects of giving birth to the author of Matilda, who seems here to accuse both parents of desertion. The suicides of Harriet Shelley and Fanny Imlay, the deaths of Mary’s children Clare in 1818 and William in 1819, coming so close together must have had for her the weight of a curse. This story of 1820 seems to say that in a family where only forbidden affections can thrive it is better that all life cease. Read alongside Frankenstein, it also confirms Jay Macpherson’s argument in The Spirit of Solitude: for romantic writers Narcissus and Cain are bound to be versions of each other. Appropriately, Matilda’s closing speech echoes the closing lines of ‘Alastor’: ‘I salute thee, beautiful Sun, and thou, white Earth, fair and cold! ... Your solitudes, sweet land, your trees and waters will still exist, moved by your winds, or still beneath the eye of noon, though what I have felt about ye, and all my dreams which have often strangely deformed thee, will die with me ... One of these fragile mirrors, that ever doted on thine image, is about to be broken.’ Godwin held back the publication of Matilda, thinking its mixture of fact and fiction likely to be mischievous, but Shelley in the next year borrowed an idealised version of the same plot for ‘Epipsychidion’, the poem Mary Shelley would describe as his ‘Italian Platonics’. By then, good humour, or at least familiar mockery, seems to have taken the place of despair.
Just telling the plots of Mary, Maria and Matilda suggests a fact about English sensibility, and for that matter the English Gothic mode, which sets them apart from a production like Lady Sophia Sternheim. For all these stories are noticeably underpopulated – a single suffering consciousness takes up the whole canvas, sometimes accompanied by a second, the dear and true or dear and forbidden friend. Whereas Sophie von La Roche’s novel is one long rout of balls, formal games, frank exchanges of opinion, serious and less serious viewings of the heroine of the middle rank by the members of the aristocracy into which she fervently hopes to marry. Some of the difference of climate is also a difference of period: La Roche’s acknowledged models are Rousseau and Richardson; in 1771 both could still feel intimate, and their words and devices are never far from her mind. Yet it does look as if, to a sensibility like hers, all solitude is essentially unnatural. It is the condition of being excluded from something better. ‘So feeling comes in aid/Of feeling, and diversity of strength/Attends us, if but once we have been strong.’ If Lady Sophia Sternheim ever uttered such a sentiment, she would make the emphasis fall on aid and assume that the feelings belonged to neighbourly friends in the habit of giving comfort. ‘I cannot,’ she writes, ‘prostitute the assurances of my friendship and esteem, and never can I give them when I do not feel them. No, my dear Emilia, I am above deceit, and my heart has not an equal sensibility for all.’ Her long ordeal is to be tested by the libertine Lord Derby: ‘Shall this country girl make a sighing coxcomb of me? Yes, so far as to answer to my purpose, but, by jove, she shall dearly pay for it.’ Sophia admits that ‘excessive sensibility’ has led her to ‘take a step, which, in my days of calm tranquillity, I should have beheld with terror’. She marries the wicked Derby, in the hope of redeeming him, and of ending the misunderstanding she suffers at the hands of the benign but priggish Lord Seymour. However, the ceremony turns out to have been faked by a clever bought man in costume; she falls foul of the licentious books in Derby’s library, and burns them; and ‘Oh! may the excess of a lawful passion be the only fault of my remaining life.’ She proves her merit by founding a Seminary for Domestics, finds herself abducted a second time by agents of Derby, but is eventually married to the ever-watchful Seymour.
Lady Sophia Sternheim has been credited as an incitement to Werther and one can see some local reasons why. The opening scene sketching the first meeting of Sophia’s parents is well managed. Her father observes the woman he adores in a pensive attitude, fancies this the effect of a prior passion, and is ready to despair until told she was thinking of ‘the impression made on her heart’ by certain letters he himself had written to her brother. The passion is prior, after all, but she transfers it from the letters to the man. The scene is not worked for its comedy, as it would be by Sterne. Yet it gives ingenious proof of what sensibility can do with an unlimited franchise. Two important later scenes are botched: at the dance where Sophia is felt to have received untoward favours, we never quite see how the impression was given; and when the frustrated Derby tears off her clothes, even La Roche’s appreciative patron Wieland, whose fussy-pompous notes occasionally interrupt the text, seems to have felt puzzled: ‘Why does she accuse him of tearing her heart, when all he tears is her dishabille?’
Most of La Roche’s characters are Anglophile, and they go to England when they want to be pensive, knowing that Scotland is next-door and good for a kidnapping. They could not have known how cleanly their way of life would stop a few years on, thanks to Austen, Peacock, and the others who saw that the reign of feeling had made Narcissus and Cain the best of friends. Anyway, the necessary work had already been done by Laclos in the one great novel that is close to the spirit of the Revolution. Valmont was the infernal machine he tossed into a society of reflexive feelings, to give it more of what it wanted, more of what it was being devoured by. He knew that the personal was not the political, no matter how far an anxious, prosperous and predatory class might persuade itself to believe otherwise.