“In some the feelings, perceptions, and passions, are naturally dull, slow, and difficult to be roused; in others, they are very quick and very easily excited, on account of a greater delicacy and sensibility of brain and nerves.”
– Robert Whytt, Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cures of those Disorders which are commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric, To which are prefixed some Remarks on the Sympathy of the Nerves.
Some have often wondered about the excessive use of the word “sensibilities” or “sensibility”. A sensible reader would know that “sensibility” does not mean what today’s context would have it to be. Rather, it is very much the opposite of what today’s definition demands.
Rather, it refers to the “acuteness of feeling, both emotional and physical..”. The words may bamboozle you there so I shall refer to the example of Mrs. Bennet (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) falling into constant fits. Or perhaps Madame Duval’s (Frances Burney’s Evelina) tendency to exaggerate her illnesses to be much worse that it is (hypochondria). Of course, I don’t pretend to be smart and know everything about sensibilities. Austen’s revamp of Sense and Sensibility could also give you a clearer idea of what sensibilities are. Also, Wikipedia may also give you a short-handed version of sensibility.
Many 18th Century novels are devoted to the ‘study’ of sensibilities that perhaps mock the aristocratic and upper classes. The caricatur-ic faints and excessive dramatics can be attributed to their high sensibilities. Today, drama is reserved only for theatre and film (Not so much today due to the emphasis on modern realism). However, perhaps it is also because we have become less in touch with our sensibilities and senses. Passion is deemed a dangerous thing. Not to mention that fainting from a man’s touch is considered abnormal and a method of drawing unnecessary attention to one’s self, which also may be something that Fielding mocks in Richardson’s Pamela and makes the subject of his novels.