Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era

Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility in the British Romantic Era


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This is the first study to trace fully the influence of the notorious yet often undervalued cultural tradition of Sensibility on British Romanticism, a movement that both draws on and resists Sensibility’s excessive embodiments of non-normative pleasure.

Drawing together theoretically informed literary history and the cultural history of sexuality, friendship, and affective relations, this is the first study to trace fully the influence of this notorious yet often undervalued cultural tradition on British Romanticism, a movement that both draws on and resists Sensibility’s excessive embodiments of non-normative pleasure. Offering a broad consideration of literary genres while balancing the contributions of both canonical and non-canonical male and female writers, this bold new study insists on the need to revise the traditional boundaries of literary periods and establishes unexpected influences on both Romantic and early Victorian culture and their shared pleasures of attachment. 

Christopher C. Nagle is Assistant Professor of English at Western Michigan University, where he teaches courses in eighteenth and nineteenth-century British and Irish literature as well as critical theory and gender studies.  His previous work has appeared in English Literary History, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, and Comparative Drama.

“Lively and feisty . . . Nagle truly shines in spotting ambiguously sexualized language in his chosen texts and contexts that range from the seemingly innocent to the outright bawdy. This is the real achievement, and the meticulous attention to detail on this level of the analysis produces readings that at their best are quite simply dazzling . . . [with] brilliant readings . . . One does not have to accept the larger argument about the disciplinary tendencies of Romanticism or Wordsworth to appreciate the attention to linguistic detail here or admire the stunning results Nagle derives from it. Over and over again, his discerning eye finds heretofore undiscovered queer moments in some of the most canonical, familiar, and commented-upon works of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British literature, and he leaves us wondering how we managed not to see these things before. Nagle not only makes the tradition seem perfectly queer, he also makes it new, surprising, and exciting, and for this his book more than repays the reading.”–European Romantic Review “Theoretically informed and lucidly written, it offers an invigoratingly original reading of the covert incorporation of sensibility’s affective energies into Romantic aesthetics… Sexuality and the Culture of Sensibility is a fascinating book, which reveals how the cultural history of emotion might unsettle conventional critical periodizations and categories… Nagle’s long Age of Sensibility productively interrupts our ossified cultural chronologies. Reorganizing literary periodization in terms of the history of affect is a promising way to reconceptualize modernity. While the well-established literary periods will surely retain their tenacious grip, Nagle’s book testifies to the usefulness of attending to the continuities and incorporations that underlie cultural change.”–Eighteenth-Century Life“Expand[s] and complicate[s] our understanding of historical sexualities by taking up the case of perversity, here understood as any form of erotic experience unaffiliated with productivity—and especially reproductivity… Nagle analyzes texts that represent relationships rich in sympathetic and erotic possibilities, and in each instance he finds accompanying anxieties about incipient perversity… In a particularly persuasive chapter, Nagle finds significant resonances linking Wordsworth’s denunciation of Pope’s poetic diction with more overtly phobic expressions, notably Hazlitt’s professed disgust over effeminacy and over the restored edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets…readers will find [this work] illuminating.”–Keats-Shelley Journal“Nagle’s claims for ‘Sensibility’s’ importance in the making of modern cultural identity are both impressive and highly transferable…The Austen and Shelley chapters are the most compelling uses of the book’s premise.  Indeed, Nagle’s reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most convincing I have encountered…this is an exciting book and one that deserves to be read and taught.”— Studies in Romanticism (Elizabeth Fay, University of Massachusetts, Boston) 

“This stimulating and comprehensive book…leads to the introduction of new theoretical perspectives in contemporary literary criticism….Nagle offers quite fascinating and exciting interpretations… Taking detailed textual studies and examinations of their historical background together, the book pursues reciprocal workings of ‘content’ and ‘form’ leading to the performative impetus produced by the ‘text’ itself…Nagle’s choice of promiscuous ‘Sensibility’ is successful in the entire discussion… The book as a whole is quite suggestive, challenging, and surprisingly inclusive as well.  Nagle demonstrates innovative models for criticism…and his book should be a threshold to ‘new’ literary criticism based on queer theory.”–Studies in English Literature“The revelations of this book come through close readings which consistently show, with stunning precision, how Romanticism came to incorporate Sensibility. Nagle proves courageously willing to theorize the importance of this encounter, opening new avenues for understanding sexuality, and particularly pleasure, within British Romanticism…. Nagle’s argument is analogous [to Michael Gamer’s Romanticism and the Gothic], and deserves to effect a similar sea-change in the field: his work should give us the capacity to think differently about the source materials, and therefore the ideological and aesthetic investments, of British Romanticism.”–David Sigler, University of Idaho, British Association for Romantic Studies“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…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…Nagle’s study offers a timely and thoughtful intervention in Romantic literary studies.”–Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net 
“This is an ambitious study that argues for the continuance of Sensibility within Romanticism, ‘embedded’ within texts by writers who ostensibly rejected its excesses in favor of more directed models of psychological development, and seeking social cohesion in other modes. A strength of the study is, thus, one of range: not many studies move with equal surefootedness from Lawrence Sterne to Tennyson, and across genres from fiction to poetry.”–Peter Manning, SUNY-Stony Brook University


“This book opens the door to the Romantic closet at last. Besides dealing with issues of gender and sexuality as they have rarely been addressed, Nagle exposes romanticism’s deep debt to the culture of sensibility and all the complexity of deep personal response that culture implies.  This remarkable study deals with the major poets, women writers of both poetry and prose, and it demonstrates the ways in which Romantic writers are in active dialogue with predecessors of Sensibility. It opens the Romantic era to so much of the politics of pleasure that were seething within it all along.”–George E. Haggerty, University of California, Riverside


“This elegant study, with its creative synthesis of historicism, gender studies, and queer theory and its superlative close readings, provides exciting new analyses of classic works by Austen, Wordsworth, Shelley, and others. Arguing for a politics of pleasure that can be traced to the enduring influence of Sterne, Nagle offers a bold and stimulating assessment of the persistent role of sensibility through the Romantic period and well into the Victorian era. Nagle’s original juxtaposition of canonical and non-canonical works yields a study that convinces readers of overlooked connections and under-appreciated continuities. This book is bound to alter irrevocably our understanding of literary culture at the turn of the nineteenth century.”– Elizabeth Kowaleski Wallace, Boston College

The Pleasures of Proximity * ‘The Heart’s Best Blood’:  Sterne and the Promiscuous Life of Sensibility * From Trembling to Tranquility: Women Writers and Wordsworth’s Pleasure Principle * Epistemologies of the Romantic Closet: Shakespeare, Sexuality, and the Myth of Genius * The Social Work of Persuasion: Austen and the New Sensorium * Prometheus vs. the Man of Feeling:  Frankenstein, Sensibility, and the Uncertain Future of Romanticism (An Allegory for Literary History) * Sentimental Journeys: The Afterlife of Feeling in Landon and Tennyson

Additional information

Weight 1 oz
Dimensions 1 × 6 × 9 cm