Csengei, Ildiko (2008) 'She Fell Senseless on His Corpse': The Woman of Feeling and the Sentimental Swoon in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. Romantic Circles Praxis Series. ISSN 1528-8129

This essay deals with typical signs of female sentimental emotional response in eighteenth-century novels, including Sarah Fieldings The History of Ophelia (1760), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), and Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story (1791). The female sentimental repertoire of psychosomatic fainting, silences, sighs, palpitations and states of mental distraction is frequently taken for granted, but rarely thoroughly explored by scholarship dealing with the culture of sensibility. This article reads these typically feminine manifestations of sensibility in terms of the discontents of eighteenth-century female psycho-sexual existence and self-expression. It argues that these often pathological manifestations—sometimes called the vocabulary of sensibility—figure limitations on the possibilities of feminine utterance, as these psychosomatic symptoms are rooted in a complex network of affective, social and sexual factors. The essay mainly, but not exclusively, focuses on moments of loss of consciousness, speech and sensation—perhaps the least understood and most neglected symptoms of sensibility. Many eighteenth-century novels use this repertoire to reflect covertly on the pathology of social repression by exposing sensibility itself, in the form of the woman of feeling as its symptom. The essay analyses literary depictions of the female psyche in moments of excitement and usually of sexual intensity, and it approaches psychologically induced states of consciousness and unconsciousness by means of a theoretical framework that connects eighteenth-century medical explanations with psychoanalytic ideas of negativity.


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