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Feeling the Eighteenth Century - ENG00073H

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Mary Fairclough
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

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

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

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:

Subject content

  • 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.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

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 3000-word summative essay submitted at the end of the module.

Your essay will be annotated and returned to you by your tutor within two weeks.

You will submit your summative essay via the VLE during the revision and assessment weeks at the end of the teaching semester (weeks 13-15). Feedback on your summative essay will be uploaded to e:Vision to meet the University’s marking deadlines


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your tutor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours.

For more information about the feedback you will receive for your work, see the department's Guide to Assessment.

Indicative reading

Primary texts

  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Cooper, Anthony Ashley. Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1963.
  • Cowper, William. The Task and Selected Other Poems. London: Longman, 1994.
  • Godwin, William. The Enquirer: Reflections on Education, Manners and Literature in a Series of Essays. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1965.
  • Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge and P. H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.
  • Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Mackenzie, Henry. The Man of Feeling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1982.
  • Thelwall, John. The Peripatetic, or, Sketches of the Heart, of Nature, and of Society. Edited by Judith Thompson. Detroit: Wayne State U. P., 2001.
  • Whytt, Robert. The Works of Robert Whytt, M. D Edinburgh; London: Balfour; Beckett and De Hondt, 1768.
  • Williams, Helen Maria. Poems. London and Bristol: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1996.

Secondary Texts

  • Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Barker-Benfield , G. J. The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Brennan , Teresa. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
  • Brissenden, R. F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. London: Macmillan, 1974.
  • Csengei, Ildiko. Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  • Jackson, Noel. Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Johnson, Claudia L. Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender and Sentimentality in the 1790s. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Mason, Emma, and Isobel Armstrong ed. Languages of Emotion special issue. Textual Practice. 22: 1 (2008), 1-150.
  • Mee, Jon. Romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. London: Methuen, 1986.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.