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Feminine Sensibility & Virtue

Portrait of Mary Freer John Constable's Portrait of Mary Freer (1809) captures women's struggle in the Romantic Era to modulate feeling and proper behavior.
Sensibility emerged as a concept in the Enlightenment Era but continued to be defined during the Romantic Period and beyond. The term describes people’s capacity to be affected by the world around them. It also directly correlates their emotional capabilities with their moral development. A high moral standard should result in an appropriate emotional response. What was considered “appropriate” was different for men and women, however. People thought that sensibility led men to knowledge, whereas appropriate feminine sensibility resulted in good behavior. Virtue is defined as “A particular moral excellence; a special manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct” (OED). According to some definitions, then, sensibility is the display of virtue—at least, such is the case for women in the nineteenth century.

Since concepts such as piety, modesty, and obedience defined the moral standard for women, feminine sensibility required women to display such qualities in their behavior. However, feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft, argued that true virtue could not exist without well-developed knowledge. Therefore, unless women were properly educated, they were merely mimicking good behavior with no moral backing. Furthermore, women were encouraged to use their cunning to appear well behaved in order to get what they wanted from their husbands. Rousseau, for instance, suggested that obedience only needed to be an “outward” display. Feminists saw this customary feminine sensibility as manipulative, artificial varnish, which undermined true virtue.

Debates about how to define sensibility, decide how it is evaluated, and determine what is needed to acquire it often took place in literature. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) provides the most obvious example of these negotiations. Marianne Dashwood is guided by too much passion and acts inappropriately, while her sister, Elinor, reacts with too much prudence. Eventually, both sisters are rewarded with marriage once they learn how to regulate the appropriate amount of emotional response. Since they eventually gain knowledge through experience, the critique on sensibility is considerably mild. Maria Edgeworth’s Leonora (1806), on the other hand, offers a much more scathing criticism of sensibility. In Leonora, Olivia claims to be a woman of sensibility, but other characters note that it is mere emotional exhibitionism. In other words, Olivia only appears to feel, and her feelings are not backed by elevated morals. Additionally, she seems to follow Rousseau’s proscription, using her emotional displays to garner attention from male lovers. Edgeworth takes Rousseau’s suggestions to their logical and dangerous conclusions in the character of Olivia. Virtue in display only is morally bankrupt.

Along with other Romantic feminists, Wollstonecraft proposed that all women receive an education equal to that of men. With such an education, women would be able to reasonably subject their passions to necessity. They would practice good judgment and align their behaviors with usefulness rather than “artificial grace” and false “female weakness.” Additionally, women would develop a “conscious virtue,” which would be active and aware rather than passive and “local.” Virtue should not be divided according to gender, Wollstonecraft argues, but rather should be understood as universal. Reinforcing a universal understanding of virtue, in turn, would protect it, since a relative definition suggests that it is changeable. There should be one definition of virtue, and, hence, one understanding of sensibility. Rather than superficial display, sensibility would be based on solid character and moral respectability. While Romantic feminists did not solve the problem of sensibility, they carried their argument throughout the period, until Victorian feminists took it up in the nineteenth century.

Kat Powell

Select Bibliography

Browne, Alice. The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind. Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1987. Print.

Conger, Syndy Mc Millen, Ed. Sensibility in transformation: Creative Resistance to Sentiment From the Augustans to
     the Romantics.
Rutherford: Associated University Presses, 1990. Print.

Constable, John. Portrait of Mary Freer. 1809. Oil on Canvas. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

Morse, David. The Age of Virtue: British Culture from the Restoration to Romanticism. Houndsmills: Macmillan,
     2000. Print.

“Sensibility.” The Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford English Dictionary, 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2012.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.