The Reading Room

Jane Austen’s Smackdown of the Cult of Sensibility

In Jane Austen's "Love and Freindship [sic]," a young man declares that he will not marry the lady his father has chosen: "No never exclaimed I. Lady Dorothea is lovely and Engaging; I prefer no woman to her; but know Sir, that I scorn to marry her in compliance with your Wishes. No! Never shall it be said that I obliged my Father."
"Where, Edward in the name of Wonder," replies his father, "did you pick up this unmeaning Gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect."
Specifically, Edward has been reading novels of sensibility, a concept both celebrated and denigrated in Austen's time. In its best uses, "sensibility" referred to moral and aesthetic refinement: a willingness to sympathize with others, to alleviate distress, to resist injustice. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith praises playwrights and novelists for their depiction of sensibility rather than Stoical apathy in domestic matters:  
The poets and romance writers, who best paint the refinements and delicacies of love and friendship, and of all other private and domestic affections, Racine and Voltaire; Richardson, Maurivaux, and Riccoboni; are, in such cases, much better instructors than Zeno, Chrysippus, or Epictetus.
Yet in its later extremes, "sensibility" became a cult: a mindset in which one's exalted feelings justified self-absorption. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for instance, Mary Wollstonecraft criticizes the cultivation of "exquisite sensibility" in place of mental and physical strength. She describes one woman of "fashion":
I have seen this weak sophisticated being neglect all the duties of life, yet recline with self-complacency on a sofa, and boast of her want of appetite as a proof of delicacy that extended to, or, perhaps, arose from, her exquisite sensibility: for it is difficult to render intelligible such ridiculous jargon.  
In "Love and Freindship," the teenage Austen satirizes this distortion of sensibility. She exposes how people adopt popular narratives of oppression and substitute feelings for reason, all to justify their greed. Tracing the characters' journey illuminates how movements to achieve good can be corrupted with devastating effects.
In the first part, the characters rehearse novelistic clichés of oppression, including arranged marriages, destitution, and imprisonment. Edward flees his tyrannical father for his aunt's house in Bedfordshire. Unfortunately, his supposed moral compass is no substitute for a magnetic one, and many hours later he finds himself at a cottage in Wales. There the future baronet shares his "cruel Destiny" with strangers, who agree that the reward for his "painful sufferings" should be immediate marriage to their daughter, Laura.   
Although poor, the couple's superior moral fiber entitles them to everything they can beg or steal. They move into the home of Edward's aunt and then, when his father arrives, appropriate his father's carriage to travel to the home of Edward's newly married friend, Augustus. The latter finances the quartet's lifestyle with money "gracefully purloined" from his own father's desk. 
Funds exhausted, Edward and Augustus then defy their creditors: "They would have blushed at the idea of paying their Debts," Laura explains.  
Meanwhile, Laura and Augustus's wife, Sophia, learn there will be an execution on the house: "Ah, what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the Sofa." When Edward follows his friend to prison, they give an encore: "we could not support it—we could only faint."
The narrative of oppression and sensibility demands such performances. To leap into action, trying to accommodate the creditors, would overturn their sense of victimhood. As Matthew Legge explains, however, psychologists have shown that feeling like a victim not only establishes a sense of moral superiority but "is associated with dwelling on negative feelings for longer; feeling more self-absorbed and less open to other people's experiences; being less ready to assume responsibility for harms you cause; and being quicker to seek revenge."  
In "Love and Freindship," Laura reveals that self-absorption when she pauses to explain why she and Sophia did not go to her own parents in Wales: "To account for this seeming forgetfulness, I must inform you of a trifling Circumstance concerning them which I have as yet never mentioned—The death of my Parents." 
Nearly destitute, Laura and Sophia head to Scotland for aid from the latter's cousin, Macdonald.  He invites them into his home, where they discover he has prevailed upon his daughter, Janetta, to accept an offer of marriage from a "Sensible" and "Agreeable" gentleman. "We did not pretend to Judge of such trifles," scoffs Laura. They persuade Janetta she is oppressed and "it was her Duty to disobey her Father" by eloping with a fortune hunter. Meanwhile, Laura and Sophia pocket banknotes from Macdonald's desk, defiant when he "insolently" catches them. 
For Laura and her friends, the cult of sensibility establishes their entitlement to admiration and wealth. Instead of creating anything or helping anyone, they recruit more "victims." Legge notes that psychologists refer to these as "chosen traumas. Media, elites, and others in the population choose which traumas and grievances to raise and hold onto. . . . The result can be huge groups of people feeling like morally superior victims, whether or not this is justified."  
The result of this mindset is evident when the 55-year old Laura reflects on her youth: 
a sensibility too tremblingly alive to every affliction of my Friends, my Acquaintance, and particularly to every affliction of my own, was my only fault. . . Alas! how altered now! Tho' indeed my own Misfortunes do not make less impression on me, than they ever did, yet now I never feel for those of an other. 
Through exposing this self-absorption, Austen delivers the ultimate smackdown to the cult of sensibility. More importantly, she presents a timeless warning about how we use the narratives we consume.