Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Shame and Sensibility: Jane Austen's Humiliated Heroines

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Shame and Sensibility: Jane Austen's Humiliated Heroines

Article excerpt

"Affected Indifference, or Momentary Shame"

"OUGHT SENSIBILITY TO BE CHERISHED OR REPRESSED?" THIS QUESTION, starkly framed as the title of an October 1796 Monthly Magazine article, reflects a widespread sense at the end of the eighteenth century that the cult of sensibility was becoming increasingly embarrassing, even shameful. "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 of softness, that soon became ridiculous," the article echoes 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 Mysteries 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 cautionary 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 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 callous 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 extreme 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 sentimental absorption and what she terms, in Northanger Abbey, "affected indifference." (7) Rather than repress or disavow sensibility in order to avoid its shame, Austen revises the emotional intensities and investments of sensibility 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 confronts a historically specific formulation of repressive 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 approaches to Austen's work. Finally, I want to suggest that Austen's use of shame to navigate past conceptions of emotional engagement can help us continue to rethink the divide, more generally, between critical detachment and emotional absorption--and, more specifically, between seemingly critical and uncritical reading practices--by providing one possible affective stance for enhanced literary interpretation that crosses and complicates that divide. …

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