Romantic Psyche and Psychoanalysis
"She Fell Senseless on His Corpse": The Woman of Feeling and the Sentimental Swoon in Eighteenth-Century Fiction
Ildiko Csengei, Cambridge University
3. Todd discusses the character type of the "woman of feeling" in Sensibility. The significance of the blush in nineteenth-century literature is explored by O'Farrell's Telling Complexions. For the meanings of tears in sentimental fiction see Csengei, "I Will Not Weep."
4. According to Janet Todd, tears, sighs, and fainting fits constitute a "vocabulary" of sensibility in the "language of the heart." See Todd, esp. 77-81, 65-128. On female nerves and fainting see also Barker-Benfield 23-36. This, of course, is not to say that swooning is an exclusively female characteristic in the eighteenth-century novel. The focus of the present essay, however, will be the female sentimental swoon only. The quote "nerves, spirits and fibres" is from G. S. Rousseau's eponymous essay.
6. See, for instance, Cheyne 14-16. Cheyne considers loss of sensation, loss of voluntary motion, as well as hysteric and epileptic fits, and even yawning and stretching as different grades of nervous disorders. Loss of sensation accompanies his first category of nervous disorders, which includes melancholy, apoplexy, and fainting fits.
7. See also Blanchard's short, seventeenth-century definition: "a sudden Prostration or Swooning with a very weak or no Pulse, and a Depravation of Sense and Motion." His dictionary was re-edited in the 1720s.
8. Lipothymy is characterized by a "Paleness of the Face, Lips, and Cheeks, and a Stupor of all the Senses", followed by a dimness of sight, falling to the ground, and the patient's being "Insensible to what is done to him" (James, "syncope"). For the distinction between syncope and lipothymy see also Motherby, A New Medical Dictionary. According to Motherby, in a state of lipothymy the patient perceives and understands but loses the power of speech. In syncope, the patient loses feeling and understanding.
9. Johnson gives the following meanings of syncope: to contract, to abbreviate by omission of part of a word, and to divide a note in music. See also the entries "contraction," "elision," and "syncope" in Cuddon 178, 255, 890.
10. In Godwin's Deloraine (1833) Margaret, Deloraine's second wife literally wastes away during her constant efforts to please her father and to deny the desires of her heart. A victim of relentless obedience, she falls into a fit of asphyxia and dies when she suddenly finds out that William, her long-lost and long-mourned lover is alive.
11. Throughout the eighteenth century, syncope remains interpreted as a heart condition. Robert Hooper's Compendious Medical Dictionary, Hooper's more substantial Medical Dictionary (which had several re-editions in the early nineteenth century) and Robert Morris and James Kendrick's The Edinburgh Medical Dictionary place syncope in the class of "neuroses". The respiration and the action of the heart either cease or become much weaker. All these dictionaries distinguish ordinary fainting from "syncope cardiaca," which is an organic, irremediable affection of the heart.
12. See medical treatises by William Battie, William Rowley, Robert James, William Perfect, Robert Whytt, and John Haslam. For a detailed discussion of the close relationship between sensibility and hysteria see Mullan 201-40.
13. As Moira Dearnley points out, following the poor performance of Welsh troops in the Civil War, satires of the Welsh began to proliferate in the popular presses in the 1640s, reinforcing stereotypes which remained influential throughout the eighteenth century. Besides the negative, abject image of the ridiculous, cowardly Welshman, another view also existed that idealized Wales as a place of uncorrupted nature and virtue distant from the life of English high society. Like Fielding's Ophelia, Jane Austen's Love and Friendship (1790) presents a similar encounter of the hero with an innocent Welsh girl. By the time of Austen's novel the theme of the retreat into Wales as a way of seclusion from "civilization," and a contrast between simple rustic life and London society, had already become a well-established motif. See Dearney xiii-xxi. While The History of Ophelia is generally considered to be Sarah Fielding's most conventional novel, some of her critics have pointed out its subversive, feminist intentions masked in a linear, seemingly less experimental form. For the subversive narrative techniques of the novel see Down-Miers, Bree 135 ff, and Skinner 57-58.
14. Bree (140-41) notes the balance between Ophelia's sentimental capacities for tears and illnesses, combined with an unusual toughness. However, I would like to maintain that while Ophelia comes out of difficult situations composed (and sometimes even entertained), she responds with weakness, fainting and illness to immediate stress, which force her into inaction.
15. In Lord Dorchester's country house, she is led into an apartment that abounds in rich dresses and ornaments. She cannot wait to try on her new clothes and jewels, but "immediately threw away the stiff Stays, which seemed to [her] invented in perverse Opposition to Nature..." (Fielding 61).
19. For the importance of gestures and non-verbal expressions in the novel see also Nachumi and Spencer, introduction. As Spencer writes, "Under the influence of her unmentionable passion for Dorriforth, the verbally aggressive Miss Milner is forced into communicating, like a sentimental heroine, through blushes and other body-language. The irony is that the bodily signs which usually, in the literature of sensibility, speak more truly than words, are radically ambiguous in Inchbald's world." Inchbald, she claims, exploits the cultural ambiguities behind such gestures, as they may indicate not just innocence, but guilt and sexual consciousness at the same time. See Spencer, introduction xvi.
21. After the death of Lord Elmwood, Dorriforth, as the nearest relation, inherits the title. In order to preserve the aristocratic lineage, Dorriforth, the new Lord Elmwood, is given absolution from his vow of celibacy and marries Miss Milner.
22. "Matilda's person, shape, and complection were so extremely like what her mother's once were, that at the first glance she appeared to have a still greater resemblance of her, than of her father—but her mind and manners were all Lord Elmwood's; softened by the delicacy of her sex, the extreme tenderness of her heart, and the melancholy of her situation" (Inchbald 220). Even Rushbrook, Lord Elmwood's nephew, falls in love with her phantom before even meeting her (Inchbald 317). Patricia Meyer Spacks comments on Lord Elmwood's identification of Matilda with her mother in Desire and Truth 200.
23. In Playing and Reality, Winnicott mentions the importance of the "negative side of relationships." The traumatic experience of waiting for the mother's longed-for response when that response is never forthcoming leads the child to a state where only what is negative is felt to be real. Such experiences result in a psychic structure where even the object's presence cannot modify the negative model that has become characteristic of the subject's experience. For this patient, Winnicott writes, the only real thing is the gap. As Green puts it, "The negative has imposed itself as an organized object relationship quite independent of the object's presence or absence" (Green, Work 5). See also Winnicott 20-25 and Green PM 274. Another, related pathology is what Green calls "dead mother complex," caused by a depressed, ill or otherwise preoccupied though present mother. The baby conceives such mother as dead and as someone who needs to be brought back to life. See Green, PM 142-73.
24. In Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman (1798) Wollstonecraft, subverting the sentimental tradition, experiments with a more outspoken heroine. While Maria often faints, her swoons and illnesses are the direct result of exhaustion from relentless persecution by her abusive husband, George Venables. Here tears and fainting fits are the physical manifestation of oppression rather than the psychosomatic symptoms of a silenced woman of feeling.