This module will trace writers’ engagement with theories and representations of feeling, tracing the connections between literary texts and other forms of discourse. Eighteenth-century feeling has long been of interest to literary critics, but it is increasingly important for researchers in the medical humanities, and theorists of affect and emotion. We will engage with these new critical approaches in our seminar discussions.
In Britain in the eighteenth century ‘feeling’ was seen as key to understanding human bodies, minds, cultures and societies. Developments in medicine promoted new understandings of the body as a network of nervous communication, and philosophers argued that memories, emotions and even rational thought were the result of physical sensations. As David Hume declared in hisTreatise of Human Nature: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Novelists, dramatists and poets too made feeling the foundation of thought and action. The hero of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling is a man for whom ‘a blush, a phrase of affability to an inferior, a tear at a moving tale, were… unequalled in conferring beauty’ and Mackenzie appeals to his readers as ‘people of equal sensibility’.
We will begin with philosophical accounts of the importance of feeling at the start of the century, moving on to novelistic representations of men and women of feeling by Mackenzie, Lawrence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith and others. We’ll also address the poetry of sentiment in the work of Hannah More, Helen Maria Williams and William Cowper. But the culture of feeling is not universally celebrated during this period. Sensibility is often uncomfortably close to eroticism, and by the end of the century, it is associated with disreputable, revolutionary politics. Using the work of Edmund Burke and Mary Wollstonecraft we’ll investigate how sensibility becomes politicised and subject to critique and satire in the 1790s, and how this relates to Jane Austen’s account of feeling in her early novels.
Module will run
Autumn Term 2019-20
The aim of this module is to introduce students to the importance and the richness of the culture of feeling in the eighteenth century. Sentiment and sensibility are vital aspects of literary expression in eighteenth-century novels, poetry and drama, but are also theorised in medical, moral philosophical and political texts as well as the visual arts during the period. We will investigate the important cross currents between literary texts and other forms of discourse in the eighteenth century, in order to trace writers complex and evolving engagement with theories and representations of the emotions.
The culture of sensibility has long been an object of fascination to literary critics, but more recently it has drawn the attention of commentators and historians interested in the intersections of literary and political expression, and theorists of affect, as well as researchers in the medical humanities. We will engage with these recent critical approaches in the course of our seminar discussions. We will take a broadly chronological approach to the material under discussion in this module, beginning with moral philosophical cases for the importance of feeling, even enthusiasm, moving to novelistic representations of men and women of feeling, the poetry of sentiment of the 1770s and 1780s, and finally the way in which, during the 1790s, feeling becomes politicised and subject to radical critique and satire.
Students will develop their skills in close reading and analysis of poetry and prose, and will be encouraged to draw analytical connections between literary discourse and a broad range of other textual and visual expression.
Module learning outcomes
The aim of this module is to explore textual and visual analyses and representations of feeling across the eighteenth century. At the end of the module students will have:
A good knowledge of how eighteenth-century writers engaged with the language of feeling;
A deeper understanding of the meaning of feeling and its associated terms sensibility and sentiment at this period;
An awareness of a range of eighteenth-century genres;
A sense of how accounts of the emotions were used to address broader concerns.
Academic and graduate skills
An ability to bring together close reading skills with contextual analysis.
% of module mark
Essay/coursework Essay 3500 words
Special assessment rules
Additional assessment information
You will be given the opportunity to submit a 1000 word formative essay for the module, which can feed into the 3500 word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.
Please hand in a hard copy of your formative essay to your tutor in the seminar – arrangements will be confirmed at the start of the module. It will be annotated and given back to you by your tutor within two weeks. Feedback on the essay will be uploaded to eVision.
Your summative essay is submitted via the VLE by 12 noon on Monday of week 1 of the following term. Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to eVision no later than 4 weeks after submission.
% of module mark
Essay/coursework Essay 3500 words
Students are always welcome to use staff Open Office Hours to discuss essay feedback. Details of these can be found on the Student Home Page
For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department’s Statement of Assessment, which can be found on the Student Home Page.
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Cowper, William. The Task and Selected Other Poems. London: Longman, 1994.
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Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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Mason, Emma, and Isobel Armstrong ed. Languages of Emotion special issue. Textual Practice. 22: 1 (2008), 1-150.
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Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford University Press, 1996.
Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. London: Methuen, 1986.