Dress, distress and desire : clothing and sentimental literature
This study explores representations of the adorned female body in sentimental literature. In particular, it addresses the intersection of the discourses of dress, fashion and sensibility and the political anxieties such intersections expose. These concerns are located within current critical debate upon the implications of the feminine sentimental ideal for women readers and writers. Building upon recent scholarship, the introduction argues that sensibility was predicated upon a concept of the body as an index of feeling. This argument is subsequently complicated, through a reading of More's `Sensibility' (1782), which points to the potential of dress to function as both an extension of the corporeal index and metaphor for sensibility's propensity to lapse into affectation. Dress, as More implies, not only exposed but embodied the paradox status of sensibility as a symbol of selfhood externally expressed, and possibly affected mode of display. The opening chapters explore, in greater depth, the perceived antagonism between dress and the sentimental body. Chapter One centres on Pamela (1740) and the heroine's contentious appearance in her homespun gown and petticoat. Chapter Two explores textual representations of dressmakers and milliners, whose damning association with fashion ensured that they became personifications of and further justifications for critiques of dress as a form of social and moral encryption. Subsequent chapters on ladies' magazines and Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1765) discuss how writers, across various genres, responded to this antagonism by suggesting ways in which the adorned female body might become a synecdoche of sentimental virtue. Such texts, however, reveal the fault line upon which they and, by extension, sensibility rest. In analogising appearance and worth, writers had to uncomfortably acknowledge that, once outlined in print, such ideals became accessible to readers, potentially rendering virtue as easy to put on as a gown or petticoat. The final chapter addresses the escalating synonymy of fashion and sentiment in the 1790s, as critics argued that the distinction between genuine feeling and its performance had blurred to obscurity. Edgeworth's Belinda (1801) is read, in this context, as a counter-sentimental novel, which attempts to divorce the two through the rehabilitation of the woman of fashion as a woman of `true' sensibility: a wife and mother.