Naomi Booth
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Feeling too much
The swoon and the (in)sensible woman
in Swoon
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A plethora of passing out coincides with historic moments during which emotional demonstrativeness is highly valued: there is therefore a flourish of swooning in eighteenth-century novels under the rubric of sensibility. This chapter argues that the literary swoon has a crucial status in the discourse of sensibility: it is the most dramatic in a long list of textual somatic signs of sensitivity – sighs, blushes, tremblings, flinchings, agitations, palpitations, tears, fevers. But, paradoxically, the swoon pushes high sensibility over into insensibility. In sentimental literature, the swoon becomes a test of the aspirations to produce a communicable, socially useful version of interior feeling through a new rhetoric of the body. It is also an important component of evolving performances of gender: sentimental scenes of swooning fall back on the pleasures of regarding the inert female form, and a complex scenography is created around ‘fallen women’ (which might pertain to other sentimental depictions of suffering, such as the conditions of slavery). Focusing on feminine swooning in two novels separated by forty years – Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) – this chapter analyses their treatment of the swoon as symptomatic of differing attitudes towards the female body in relation to sensibility. As anxieties about sensibility and its representation in ‘feminine’ novels deepen towards the end of the eighteenth century, a morbid excessiveness of feminine feeling is linked to different types of falling: to the disastrous tumble of the ‘fallen woman’; to ‘falling ill’; to ‘falling into hysterics’.

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A poetics of passing out


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