Dr Johnson’s dictionary defined feminine as the sex that produces young, female, soft tender, delicate and effeminate which is emasculated and wanting in manliness. Effeminate in turn was regarded as having the qualities of a woman, soft to an unworthy degree, voluptuous, tender, luxurious and resembling the practice of a woman. In the eighteenth century feminine and effeminate became interchangeable and were characterised by tears, extreme passion and hysteria. A character was more likely to be passive rather than active, helpless, a victim of people and circumstances, silent or deprived of a voice, foreign usually from France or Italy, and foppish with extreme attention to dress and appearance.
Enlightenment philosophy taught that reason was paramount and should govern emotion. Although Hume famously stated that reason was not the slave of passion, as reason does not motivate action. Reason and the public sphere were attributed to men and emotion and domesticity to women. Therefore, sensibility was largely defined by literature from 1740 to 1770. The 1740s and 50s praised a generous heart and linked to philosophers like Hutcheson who advocated benevolence. From 1760 onwards the emphasis was on refined feeling and eliciting the reader’s tears with the idea that a heightened sense of virtue through pity for another would be morally improving. Heightened emotion was seen as a demonstration of heightened sensibility, refined feelings and compassion for suffering. Too much would be considered unhealthy as it would paralyse and prevent the performance of public duty. Overindulgence was seen as voluptuous and excessive, this applied both to drink and sexual passion. For women, sensibility was assumed to imply chastity. Katherine Rogers argues feminine heroes possessed the characteristics valued by women – they married for love, appreciated women’s moral and intellectual worth, not just their physical attributes, considered their feelings, promoted their self-esteem and acknowledged their self-control and morality.
Janet Todd defined sensibility as the appeal of virtue in a bad world as demonstrated by virtue in distress. This involved a central chaste female heroine who was subject to distressing circumstances but was rewarded by marriage or elevated by death at the end of the novel. Sidney is originally engaged to be married to Orlando Faulkland, but due to an indiscretion on his part and an anonymous letter which falls into the hands of her mother, the engagement is called off and she is obliged to marry Mr Arnold. In one incident, Sidney’s desires and her voice are silenced, as she cannot marry the man she loves, nor can she object to her parent’s choice. She becomes passive in the arrangements by submitting to her family’s demands and being obedient as a virtuous daughter. Sidney takes that virtue one step further by wanting to ensure Mr Faulkland marries the lady he has made pregnant. Unfortunately, Sidney’s distress does not end in marriage as her husband has an affair and when his mistress convinces him that Sidney still has feelings for Mr Arnold he banishes her from the house. Rescue comes in the form of her wealthy cousin Warner who saves her from destitution, but she is not destined to marry Faulkland and is only elevated in death.
Faulkland appears to have been lured into an impetuous indiscretion with Miss Burchill by her aunt Mrs Garrarde. His quickness of temper results in him dismissing a drunken servant who takes his revenge by passing a letter onto Sidney thus making the indiscretion known. Lady Bilduph will not hear his reasons, even though he is not entirely to blame, effectively silencing him. His excess of emotion through his lapse in sexual control and quickness of temper make him the victim of his own actions. He actively seeks a mock elopement with Mrs Gerrarde to try and save Sidney’s marriage but is forced into accepting a marriage to Miss Burchill. He still loves Sidney right up to the end of the novel but they never marry.
The names of the main characters are designed to communicate the differences between them to an eighteenth-century audience. Orlando is associated with Italy and France and we are told litle about his childhood; when we meet him, he has already spent five years abroad with another four in exile. His passionate impulsive nature align him with feminine emotionalism. The name Sidney, although usually used as a family name, is associated with Sir Phillip Sidney sixteenth-century poet. This gives her a name a British heritage at a time when English Nationalism was prominent. She demonstrates emotional control, a virtuous character and attention to duty, all considered noble British traits.
Sensibility differs in male and female authors with Sterne and Mackenzie using male protagonists to indulge in the pleasure of sympathy while relying on male readers to exercise rationality. The male hero of sensibility allows himself to feel but the female heroine cannot help herself. This viewpoint caused Wollstonecraft to denounce sensibility as a form of female self-expression and claim it limited intellectual development, as it brought social pressure on women to feel rather than think. Female authors also emphasise the situation of the afflicted rather than the person responding to the affliction. This is because women have little control over their circumstances and it is their response that is important. Women reveal their true virtue by accepting whatever providence dictates and only see their trials as an opportunity for goodness.
The Memoires of Sidney Bildulph allows both hero and heroine to indulge their emotion in tragic circumstances drawing the reader in through pity and sympathy for their plight. After 1770 sensibility will start to fade as an indulgent display of emotion and beyond propriety.