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'Feeling Others' Feelings'Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-8047-2548-9. Price: £30

  • Jacqueline M. Labbe

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  • Jacqueline M. Labbe
    University of Sheffield

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In Strange Fits of Passion, Pinch argues that feelings travel: that is, they are contagious, communicable, and that their most hospitable environment is literature and its uses. Quotation, in other words, facilitates the contagion. This book ingeniously, and sometimes unconvincingly, maintains that the eighteenth century saw a new approach to emotions, one that justified and necessitated an increasingly liberal use of other peoples' formulations of feeling in order to communicate one's own. Its strength is its intelligent and provocative thesis; its weakness lies in a tendency towards assertion and a puzzling failure to sustain the argumentative links each succeeding chapter illuminates. When I reached the end, I felt both pleasure in the new insights generated, and surprise at what were at times glaring omissions of association.

Pinch's aim in moving from Hume to Austen (and beyond) is to demonstrate that 'it is possible to talk about a long "era of sensibility" stretching from the end of the seventeenth century into the beginning of the nineteenth' (11); accordingly, she discerns a thread of emotional attachment between these periods that 'confirms' (Pinch's word, a trifle overused in the text) the paradoxically marginal centrality feelings occupied during the long eighteenth century. As she reaffirms in the book's 'Coda', 'stories of feelings' histories and origins. . .have often opened up gaps between feelings and their causes, tensions between ways of explaining them, and impasses over their etiologies' (164). People both accord an increasing amount of importance and relevance to 'their' feelings, and express them in such a way as to detach their feelings from their bodies; the private knowability of emotion is transformed into a public, agreed-upon mode of expression that simultaneously authorises and deauthenticates the feelings it describes. Freud plays a part in this study, and Pinch's methodology reflects a reliance on psychoanalytical excavation—the idea that words and expressions mask often conflicted psyches (public and private) and require revelation—but her technique is, thankfully, tempered and strengthened by an impressive historical grasp. Thus she can draw her reader from Hume to the 1820s and maintain, for the most part, a sense of historicity and perspective.

Pinch's stated aim is to explore the contagious nature of emotions and their ability to 'live as autonomous forms, stalking about as personifications, often in vexed and detached relations to the persons presumed to be feeling them' (1). She discusses David Hume, Charlotte Smith, William Wordsworth, Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and the death of Princess Charlotte, and often takes an 'exemplar' approach: Hume represents 'the eighteenth century', Smith is 'women's sentimental poetry', Radcliffe signifies 'the Gothic'. This presents some problems, as we move from Hume straight into Smith (a journey of some 45 years), with very little sense of the progress of time (she is much better in subsequent chapters, all focused on the Romantic period). In addition, treating these figures as exemplars does result in the loss of their individuality, and stands in sharp contrast to the chapters on Wordsworth and Austen, where these authors stand only for themselves. This becomes a real problem in the chapters on Smith and Radcliffe.

Pinch uses her Introduction to set up key themes and introduce her key terms: quotation, feeling, emotion, contagion, and passion. She is perceptive in her delineation of these terms, and her understanding of their changing significance for eighteenth-century 'feelers'. As she says, 'one of this book's central claims. . .is that the eighteenth century's revolution in epistemology, which both gave feelings empirical origins and declared their social benefits, had strange effects on how writers represented people's relations to their feelings' (7). The first chapter's emphasis on Hume, accordingly, explores his self-representation as a 'man of feeling' in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). His exploration of 'the social force of feelings' (8) allowed him both personal and impersonal claims to his own feelings. Pinch deftly relocates Hume back into his own text; she moves from his descriptions of the pathos of those in permanent exile to his own feelings of melancholy and inadequacy and makes the important point that Hume desires his readers to feel with him and, as it were, at him; he deliberately inserts a feeling self into the text so that the author/itative self is transformed into an affective self. Pinch notes that for his readers, Hume's pathos could all too easily become bathos. Sympathy, his philosophical goal, was often purely textual: it did not transfer from author to reader. Although Pinch is not explicit, she seems to be suggesting that, historically, readers and critics were not yet sufficiently sentimental to receive and appreciate Hume's self-positioning.

Chapter 2, on Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets , moves us swiftly to 1784 and a society more receptive to sentiment. Indeed, this presents one of the weaknesses of Pinch's structure: she does not forge the necessary links between chapters any more than she makes clear why Smith's readers couldn't get enough of her sorrows whereas Hume's readers were, mostly, unsympathetic. Her main point with Smith is that the Elegiac Sonnets convey emotion through quotation: that Smith's sensibility is a conglomeration of others' feelings, and that Smith consequently enacts the unfeelability of feeling. Pinch, having established this, is unhappy with Smith's own prefatory insistences that she did, indeed, feel her sorrows; for Pinch, this move towards the 'real' is what renders Smith's sonnets the 'hackneyed scraps of dismality' Anna Seward proclaimed them to be. This seems to weaken Pinch's own argument: it is as if her drive to see emotions as textually-based means that any authorial certificate of authenticity paradoxically invalidates the importance of the emotion. Pinch is, indeed, rather one-dimensional in her approach to Smith, a problem that is exacerbated by her presentation of Smith as an exemplar: by focusing solely on the Sonnets , by asserting that they were 'coventionalized expressions of woe' (69), by conflating the multiple Prefaces Smith wrote to her Sonnets to 'the preface', above all by failing to note that Smith wrote much else than the Sonnets , Pinch destabilises her argument. Her chapter on Smith comes to seem rather token. That she does not discuss any one poem beyond a single paragraph (Wordsworth's 'Goody Blake and Harry Gill' receives several pages) strengthens this impression.

The next chapter, on Wordsworth and 'Female Chatter', discusses Wordsworth's reliance on female figures to feel for him, and his habit of quoting himself in an effort to reify and rehabilitate his emotions. Again, in Chapter 4 Pinch discusses Radcliffe's thematic device of quotation and allusion, and in Chapter 5 she illuminates Austen's use of quotation and intertextuality in Persuasion . Each time, however, it is as if she is making a brand-new point. I wondered at times if I was being challenged to spot the links: indeed, my own feelings were a mixture of mystification, anxiety, and some irritation. The chapter on Austen crystallised this discomfort; an exceedingly interesting account of noise and human interaction in Persuasion , it yet seemed to have little to do with passion, feeling, quoting emotions (rather than others' poetry), or contagion, and yet it paradoxically worked the hardest to bring in references to other chapters and attempt the full mechanism of thematic coherence.

Strange Fits of Passion is a very good, and very odd, book: it argues an original and interesting thesis, it uses for the most part pertinent examples, it is theoretically and historically informed (in the section on the public outpouring of grief on the death of Princess Charlotte, it is historically prescient), and it is very well written. At the same time, it can be clever rather than convincing, it remakes its argument in each chapter, it tends towards tendentiousness (lots of 'confirms' and 'proves' and 'thus'), and has some striking omissions and descriptive errors. I question in particular why Joanna Baillie's Plays on the Passions and her 'Introductory Discourse' were given only two pages in the Introduction. And why is Wordsworth's use of quotation 'utterly authoritative' where Smith's showed her to be ceding author/ity over her own emotions? Why does Radcliffe define 'the Gothic' when Austen defines only herself? In the end, I felt that though she answered the questions she posed herself, Pinch tended towards the reserved.