Christopher Nagle’s Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era reminds us of the tidiness of our literary histories and the steep costs of such tidiness. He argues that “Romanticism is built on the ground of Sensibility and is so thoroughly invested in its rhetorical and stylistic tropes—and thus, in its ideological investments as well—that what is most distinctive about the literature we call Romantic might be the uses to which it puts Sensibility” (3). He defines “Sensibility” as working “to connect others through its stimulating effects” (4), noting that its discursive features include excess, mixture, and mobility. His central contribution is to at once queer Sterne and then call attention to the manifold ways in which Romantic writers like Shelley, Austen, and Wordsworth erect their poetry on the foundation of sensibility and its relentless, even perverse, pleasures. By “perverse,” Nagle means the ways in which the Romantics draw on “the modern sense of sexually specific deviance, another legacy of Sensibility” (11).
One provocative refrain sounded throughout Nagle’s book is the idea that Romantic writers etherealize the perverse pleasures of Sensibility into the control of Romantic desire. The assumption here is that pleasure is far more diffuse and therefore more difficult to discipline. Chapter One thus reminds us of the importance of Percy Shelley’s debts to Sterne in “On Love”: in particular, to Sterne’s strategy of bringing “Heaven down to earth” (20). Yet once Sterne authorizes Shelley’s project of sympathy, Shelley extends that sympathetic connection to include both animate and inanimate objects (22) and to consider the “ability of human beings to escape from the spatial (and perhaps to a lesser degree, temporal) confines of their individual bodies and minds” (25).
In his second chapter, Nagle reminds us that Wordsworth in the early reviews was connected with Sternean excess. He then exploits this connection to resituate Wordsworth’s sonnet writing in the context of women sonnet writers like Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, and Mary Robinson, writers who school Wordsworth in Sensibility. Nagle’s attention to eroticism here complements Stephen Behrendt’s recent chapter on women sonneteers (British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community). The sharpest insights in this chapter occur in Nagle’s readings of Wordsworth’s actual revisions to Smith and his gloss on Williams. “Epistemologies of the Romantic Closet,” Chapter Three, shows the ways in which Romanticism closets Sensibility’s deviant pleasures. Romanticism is when Shakespeare’s editors acknowledged the homoeroticism behind the sonnets, and this meant that Wordsworth would struggle to disentangle genius from deviance. Most suggestive is the idea that Wordsworth “individualizes” Sensibility and normalizes the poet into a “heterosexually reproductive cultural spokesman” (94).
Nagle then shrewdly reminds readers of Austen’s indebtedness to Sensibility, only to use that indebtedness to think about why she does not quite have a clear slot in literary history. Further, by reminding us of the eroticism of Sensibility, Nagle can then join Jillian Heydt-Stevenson in thinking about Austen’s recognition of the “promiscuity of feeling” (115), thus continuing the undermining of Austen’s propriety. In his final chapter, Nagle rereads Frankenstein, taking seriously its debts to sensibility, and this enables him to see it as imagining “a broader spectrum of Beings among which a multitude of conventionally human as well as nonhuman…forms could become visible” (140). Included in such a spectrum is male-male eroticism, what George Haggerty has named Sensibility’s “open secret” (132) and a mode of relation based not on reproduction, but on production (141). Nagle’s brief coda demonstrates how LEL exhausted Sensibility by not only undercutting the courtly love tradition, but also undermining the very foundations of Sensibility.
I admire the courage and reach of this book, one that troubles the ground of Romanticism on numerous fronts. We will have to continue to re-imagine its chronology, its protagonists, along with the queerness of its central tropes. Such courage is all the more to be applauded in a first book. Revising Romanticism in light of Sterne (a project echoed by Clark Lawlor) offers new vistas and queer potentialities. Wordsworth’s textual relations with Shakespeare, Gray, and Coleridge, run the risk of becoming sexual relations (Nagle invokes Koestenbaum (86) to consider how receiving influence is unmanly) and Wordsworth’s turn to feminine nature therefore can be read as a form of panic against sodomitical potential. I find most helpful his reframing of Romantic transcendence as a discursive strategy, “one that relies on an investment in the poetics of Sensibility even as it attempts to hide this indebtedness behind a ‘natural’ mask” (94). He is also spot on when he claims that “Romanticism’s investment in a universalized cultural pedagogy uniting ethics and aesthetics through feeling is born out of sensibility” (66).
But there are some missteps along the way. Nagle opens his study by relying upon Barthes’s claim that pleasure lacks epistemic dignity. But this is to ignore how philosophers from Locke through Burke to Kant and Bentham (especially in his Table of the Springs of Action, 1817) were precisely attempting to give pleasure such dignity during the Romantic era. While I find persuasive Nagle’s call to see the literature of sensibility as the groundwork of Romanticism, I question the extent to which Romanticism amounts to a controlled desire. Can Romantic “retrospection, tranquility, and contemplation” (81) be reduced to “control mechanisms”? In a larger view, I am skeptical that pleasure offers more resistance than desire and that desire is something so easily managed. And yet if this book demands that we rethink the connections between Sensibility and Romanticism, I wondered about how Nagle’s revision obscures another groundwork: a medicalized body now subsumed by a culture of nerves. Indeed, his repeated invocation of Jane Austen’s female “sensorium” acknowledges such a ground. Sometimes Nagle assembles all the ingredients for a significant challenge to what critics think we know, only to leave them as ingredients. For instance, the first chapter is missing an explicit treatment of what a queer Sterne does to Shelley’s essay. The absence of Ray Stephanson, one of Sterne’s best critics, is also a loss. For that matter, what of Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium? I would also have liked a more detailed treatment of how Sensibility contributes “to the foundations of modern sexualities” (95). For all these flaws, Nagle’s study offers a timely and thoughtful intervention in Romantic literary studies, one that perhaps provokes more questions than it answers.