The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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9780226037134: The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain

G. J. Barker-Benfield documents the emergence of the culture of sensibility that transformed British society of the eighteenth century. His account focuses on the rise of new moral and spiritual values and the struggle to redefine the group identities of men and women. Drawing on the full spectrum of eighteenth-century thought from Adam Smith to John Locke, from the Earl of Shaftesberry to Dr. George Cheyne, and especially Mary Wollstonecraft, Barker-Benfield offers an innovative and compelling way to understand how Britain entered the modern age.

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During the eighteenth century, "sensibility", which once denoted merely the receptivity of the senses, came to mean a particular kind of acute and well-developed consciousness invested with spiritual and moral values and largely identified with women. How this change occurred and what it meant for society is the subject of G.J. Barker-Benfield's argument in favor of a "culture" of sensibility, in addition to the more familiar "cult". Barker-Benfield's expansive account traces the development of sensibility as a defining concept in literature, religion, politics, economics, education, domestic life, and the social world. He demonstrates that the "cult of sensibility" was at the heart of the culture of middle-class women that emerged in eighteenth-century Britain. The essence of this culture, Barker-Benfield reveals, was its articulation of women's consciousness in a world being transformed by the rise of consumerism that preceded the industrial revolution. The new commercial capitalism, while fostering the development of sensibility in men, helped many women to assert their own wishes for more power in the home and for pleasure in "the world" beyond. Barker-Benfield documents the emergence of the culture of sensibility from struggles over self-definition within individuals and, above all, between men and women as increasingly self-conscious groups. He discusses many writers, from Rochester through Hannah More, but pays particular attention to Mary Wollstonecraft as the century's most articulate analyst of the feminized culture of sensibility. Barker-Benfield's book shows how the cultivation of sensibility, while laying foundations for humanitarian reforms generally had as its primaryconcern the improvement of men's treatment of women. In the eighteenth-century identification of women with "virtue in distress" the author finds the roots of feminism, to the extent that it has expressed women's common sense of their victimization by men. Drawing on literature, philosophical psychology, social and economic thought, and a richly developed cultural background, The Culture of Sensibility offers an innovative and compelling way to understand the transformation of British culture in the eighteenth century.

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