Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Inordinate Desire: Schooling the Senses in Elizabeth Inchbald's a Simple Story

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Inordinate Desire: Schooling the Senses in Elizabeth Inchbald's a Simple Story

Article excerpt

At mid-eighteenth century, sensibility referred to an individual's "capacity for refined emotion" and "delicate sensitiveness of taste." Considered an organic sensitivity dependent on the nervous system, sensibility revealed itself by a "readiness to feel compassion for suffering, and to be moved by the pathetic in literature or art" (OED). The novel of sensibility that flourished during this period provided ample opportunity for readers to exercise their sensibility by vicariously participating in the adventures of refined heroes and heroines. Sympathetic identification with such characters was reinforced by sensibility's association with virtue and the inevitable suffering wrought upon a highly sensitized body superior, but also vulnerable, to the forces of an unfeeling world. By the 1790s, however, the idealization of sensibility and its literature had faded for both writers and readers. The man of feeling, celebrated in Henry Mackenzie's 1771 novel of the same name and earlier in Sarah Fielding's The Adventures of David Simple (1744), was now looked on with suspicion. Like Sterne's Sentimental Traveller, who indulged his sensibility at every turn, the sensible man came to be seen as emasculated, weakened by sentiment. Female sensibility had also become suspect, increasingly viewed as a sign of self-indulgent emotionalism rather than virtue. Whereas Clarissa Harlowe's sensibility was read in 1748 as rendering her incapable of "running into ... Indiscretions or Excess of Sensual Pleasures,"(1) female sensibility now came to be identified with dangerous sensuality. Grounded in physical responsiveness, sensibility forced an acknowledgment of female sexuality, and raised a concomitant threat: because women's nervous systems were believed more pervious than men's, it followed that women were more easily aroused and less capable of controlling their sexual desires. Such arousal not only discomposed the female body, but threatened the social order as well.

Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791), while not usually read as a novel of sensibility, nevertheless reflects the problematic but promising possibilities sensibility offered late-century writers. Featuring characters both exalted and plagued by their passions and sympathies, the novel demonstrates the dangers sensibility posed for both female and male characters; at the same time, sensibility provides the occasion for Inchbald's examination of the culture it both reflected and produced.

A Simple Story relates the story of Miss Milner (whose first name we never learn) in volumes one and two, and of her daughter Matilda in volumes three and four. The sensibility Miss Milner exhibits is clearly identified with her sexuality, and her reformation is contingent upon its curtailment. Matilda, though seemingly without passion, must nevertheless be schooled in prudence and adversity to ensure that she remains passive and acquiescent to patriarchal demands. Both women struggle against-and appear to lose to-mutually exclusive paradigms of proper and improper female behavior.

The histories of Miss Milner and Matilda are fused by the presence of Dorriforth, the young Catholic priest who assumes the guardianship of Miss Milner, and who later marries her. Endowed with "a lofty mind, generous, and endued with strong sensibilities,"(2) Dorriforth is also caught up in sensibility's paradoxes. The novel's first half presents him as a man of manifest kindliness and sympathy, such as that displayed by Mackenzie's Harley and Fielding's David Simple. When Miss Milner falls passionately in love with him, however, problems arise. In Inchbald's novel, male sensibility does not so much preclude sexual desire as change its agency, as demonstrated by Miss Milner's sexual response to her guardian. Miss Milner-rather than Dorriforth-assumes the active subject position, while Dorriforth becomes the object of her desire. Such a reversal of male and female roles dramatizes the late-century concern that sensibility undermined masculine authority. …

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