The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Overview

During the eighteenth century, "sensibility," which once denoted merely the receptivity of the senses, came to mean a particular kind of acute and well-developed consciousness invested with spiritual and moral values and largely identified with women. How this change occurred and what it meant for society is the subject of G.J. Barker-Benfield's argument in favor of a "culture" of sensibility, in addition to the more familiar "cult." Barker-Benfield's expansive account traces the development of sensibility as a ...
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Overview

During the eighteenth century, "sensibility," which once denoted merely the receptivity of the senses, came to mean a particular kind of acute and well-developed consciousness invested with spiritual and moral values and largely identified with women. How this change occurred and what it meant for society is the subject of G.J. Barker-Benfield's argument in favor of a "culture" of sensibility, in addition to the more familiar "cult." Barker-Benfield's expansive account traces the development of sensibility as a defining concept in literature, religion, politics, economics, education, domestic life, and the social world. He demonstrates that the "cult of sensibility" was at the heart of the culture of middle-class women that emerged in eighteenth-century Britain. The essence of this culture, Barker-Benfield reveals, was its articulation of women's consciousness in a world being transformed by the rise of consumerism that preceded the industrial revolution. The new commercial capitalism, while fostering the development of sensibility in men, helped many women to assert their own wishes for more power in the home and for pleasure in "the world" beyond. Barker-Benfield documents the emergence of the culture of sensibility from struggles over self-definition within individuals and, above all, between men and women as increasingly self-conscious groups. He discusses many writers, from Rochester through Hannah More, but pays particular attention to Mary Wollstonecraft as the century's most articulate analyst of the feminized culture of sensibility. Barker-Benfield's book shows how the cultivation of sensibility, while laying foundations for humanitarian reforms generally had as its primary concern the improvement of men's treatment of women. In the eighteenth-century identification of women with "virtue in distress" the author finds the roots of feminism, to the extent that it has expressed women's common sense of their victimization by men. Drawing on literature, phi
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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Barker-Benfield traces the development of sensibility as a defining concept in literature, religion, politics, economics, education, domestic life, and the social world, and demonstrates that the "cult of sensibility" was at the heart of the culture of middle-class women that emerged in 18th-century Britain. He pays particular attention to Mary Wollstonecraft as the century's most articulate analyst of the feminized culture of sensibility. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226037141
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1996
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 554
  • Sales rank: 1,087,429
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1 Sensibility and the Nervous System 1
2 The Reformation of Male Manners 37
3 The Question of Effeminacy 104
4 Women and Eighteenth-Century Consumerism 154
5 A Culture of Reform 215
6 Women and Individualism: Inner and Outer Struggles over Sensibility 287
7 Wollstonecraft and the Crisis over Sensibility in the 1790s 351
Notes 397
Index 505
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