Anonymous, Review of A Simple Story in The Analytical Review (May 1791), pp. 101-102

It were to be wished, in fact, in order to insinuate a useful moral into thoughtless unprincipled minds, that the faults of the vain, giddy Miss Milner had not been softened, or rather gracefully withdrawn from notice by the glare of such splendid, yet fallacious virtues, as flow from sensibility. And to have rendered the contrast more useful still, her daughter should have possessed greater dignity of mind. Educated in adversity she should have learned (to prove that a cultivated mind is a real advantage) how to bear, nay, rise above her misfortunes, instead of suffering her health to be undermined by the trials of her patience, which ought to have strengthened her understanding. Why do all female writers, even when they display their abilities, always give a sanction to the libertine reveries of men? Why do they poison the minds of their own sex, by strengthening a male prejudice that makes women systematically weak? We alluded to the absurd fashion that prevails of making the heroine of a novel boast of a delicate constitution: and the still more ridiculous and deleterious custom of spinning the most picturesque scenes out of fevers, swoons, and tears.

This reading will start with what is perhaps (but probably not) a misreading, an act of attributing authorship of this review to Mary Wollstonecraft, critic of indulgent and conservative sensibility. Wollstonecraft was not opposed to "fine feelings" (sympathy, benevolence, modesty) if they were shared by men and women alike, but asked that they work together with reason, impregnating it with the feelings of humanity. Virtue, emotion, and the imagination should not serve as ends in themselves (one wonders what Wollstonecraft thought of Sterne's Yorick, who welcomes his tears of sympathy as a confirmation of the existence of his soul), but as a means toward the promotion of the general good. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft speaks of education for women, especially, as bound up with reading and lashes out against "a false system of education, gathered from the books written on the subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers" (79). The type of sensibility so frequently encountered in the eighteenth century constructs women as "insignificant objects of desire" (83)-- ones designed (through beautiful body and ornamental dress, captivating manners, pleasing conversation, and, lastly, fragile constitutions prone to swoons) to delight men and satisfy their expectations.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography