A Revolution of Feeling traces the history of human emotion

Rachel Hewitt's book is fuelled by vim and vigour.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

How are you feeling? It’s a standard enough question and these days only a doctor would expect a considered response. But were you to be asked this in the 1790s, your answer would take on imponderable ethical, political, and poetic dimensions. The young chemist Humphry Davy, for example, described himself in 1799 as feeling “like the sound of a harp”. When, five years earlier, his friend Coleridge was first introduced to fellow poet Robert Southey, the topic of discussion was the way in which feelings “resemble an assemblage of waters destructive if they run wildly over the country, but the source of abundance if properly guided”. Since 1789, feelings in France had run wild enough to cause a revolution, while in England the last decade of the century saw a revolution in our understanding of feelings.

Everyone in the 1790s talked about feelings, because talking about feelings was a way of talking about everything. A Revolution of Feeling describes how, during a decade of gagging orders, treason trials, and drug experimentation, the emotional health of the populace became part of a national debate about free speech, the education of children, the subjugation of women, and the ownership of private property.

Emotions, Rachel Hewitt argues, have a history. “Every society in every age,” she writes, “feels differently,” and every society in every age has different feelings about how it feels. For the Victorians, feelings were regarded as a medical pathology, but today we see them as a personal privilege and rate them at a premium. Ours is the age of emojis and trigger warnings: our feelings define who we are.

In the 18th century, feelings described social rather than subjective states. They occurred not within but between people, and “fellow feeling” – experiencing virtuous and benevolent emotions such as pity and compassion – was part of the civilising process. The “Man of Feeling”, like the hero of Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766) who trusts his emotional responses and is proved wrong at every turn, was a stock comic character.

Hewitt grounds her narrative in the lives of five giant figures whose thinking paved the way for our contemporary attitudes towards the purpose and management of emotions: Coleridge, the philosopher William Godwin, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the physician Thomas Beddoes – who established the Pneumatic Institution to research the eradication of pain – and Tom Wedgwood, who devised a Rousseauistic “Nursery of Genius” to bring about “a general revolution of sentiment”.

There are dozens of walk-on roles as well: Rousseau himself, who saw human beings as innately virtuous and governments as corrupt; Wordsworth, whose epic Prelude (1805) tracked the growth of his own mind; and Southey, with whom Coleridge planned to form a pantisocracy in Pennsylvania. Coleridge’s goal was to attain “human perfectability” by regenerating a society without “all the little deteriorating passions: injustice, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking”. We also see a good deal of Davy, whose experiments with nitrous oxide – the inhalation of which explains his harp-sound sensations – led to a momentous discovery: emotions need not serve a moral purpose, or any purpose at all. Herein lies the pleasure, and social danger, of recreational drugs.

The book opens with an exchange in 1804 between Anna Beddoes, the wife of Thomas Beddoes, and the man she loves, a friend of her husband called Davies Giddy. They are discussing feelings: not those they have for one another, of course, but feelings in the abstract. He, in a fit of gloom, is contemplating suicide and she, for whom feeling is a “purifying and educational experience”, wonders how he could possibly want to feel nothing at all. The couple represent, says Hewitt, two sides of the cultural divide: Anna is a woman of feeling and Davies a man of reason.

It is a pity that Hewitt does not mention Diana, Princess of Wales, because the revolution of feeling following her death in 1997 – which Coleridge might have compared to “an assemblage of waters running wildly over the country” – is a good yardstick against which to measure the revolution of feeling during the 1790s.

Diana, who wanted to be known as “the queen of people’s hearts”, was also a woman of feeling. She empathised with the pain of others and was stunned when her fiancé, asked whether he was “in love”, responded with “whatever love means”. Prince Charles’s philosophical uncertainty recalls that of the young Godwin who, before he met Wollstonecraft, saw feelings as an obstruction to “understanding”. Diana, like Wollstonecraft, reacted against emotional “propriety” and refused to let her “feelings take an orderly course”. But unlike Wollstonecraft, Diana’s emotional outpouring was welcomed by the nation.

Wollstonecraft, who described her attempted suicide as “one of the calmest acts of reason”, closely monitored her changing thoughts about emotion. As Godwin learned to feel more, Wollstonecraft tried to feel less. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she attacked the assumption that “man was made to reason, women to feel”. If women behave more emotionally than men, she argued, it is because culture cements femininity to feeling and indulges what it believes to be woman’s instinctively passionate nature. Denied education, women are deprived of the opportunity to cultivate reason and thus regulate their “passions”. Wollstonecraft’s brilliant analysis of sexual stereotypes was overturned exactly 200 years later by John Gray’s bestselling nonsense, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Amongst other myths, Gray endorses the view that sexual frustration makes a woman “sad” and a man “explode”.

A Revolution of Feeling has a good deal to say about the gendering of emotion and also about the relationship between politics and passion. Political change, Hewett shows, is inseparable from changes in our attitudes to feeling. Discussions of the French Revolution were dominated by analysis of the characters of the radicals and loyalists. Pitched against Edmund Burke’s description, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), of a “swinish multitude” was the view of the populace as men breaking free from their chains. Citizens, as Thomas Beddoes put it, would “know by feeling rather than reason” that “the possessors of power are ever on the watch to encroach”.

Hewitt draws an analogy between the language employed in the 1790s and that of the recent EU referendum. “The logic of Remain must triumph over the emotion of Leave,” wrote one journalist. While the “Leave” campaign exploited the fears of Burke’s “great unwashed”, the “Remainers” represented “reason”.

What propels Hewitt’s mighty project and pulls it all together is the “hydraulic” model of emotion, the most persistent of the decade’s metaphors and the one that remains intact today. The imagery of emotional and sexual health as liquids following hydraulic laws – we talk about keeping things bottled up, letting off steam, stemming the tide of emotion – can be found in the 18th-century medical treatise Elementa Medicinae (1788), in which feelings are defined as “fluids issuing from the brain as water from a spring”, as well as in Freud (“the libido operates like a stream whose main bed has become blocked”). The self-help website Calm Down Mind argues that “life is energy in play and the more freely flowing the energy… the more vibrant you feel”. Hewitt, who says too little about the literature of the period – there is no mention of Sense and Sensibility (1811), written and set in the 1790s, and concerned with precisely this subject – overlooks Wordsworth’s hydraulic account of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.

An accumulation of repressed feelings, Hewitt argues, can justify rape as well as revolutions and the endurance of hydraulic theory is, she writes, “due to its defence of the irresistable force of male desire”. Today, she concludes with unrestrained anger, “the mainstream political application of hydraulic theory is to bolster claims that male desire warrants far greater attention and entitlement than female desire.”

For Hewitt’s emotional explorers, the 1790s turned out to be a decade of disappointment. Coleridge’s vision of a pantisocracy fizzled away, and so too did the Nursery of Genius. Thomas Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution wound down, and Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, after which Godwin remarried and was forgotten. As for the revolutionary hopes that had fired them all: “Without a continual supply of fuel,” said Godwin, the fervour did “speedily cool”. Shelley, who married the daughter of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, looked back on the age in “a trance of grief”.

This is a passionate if, at times, overburdened book, fuelled by vim and vigour, and one that will change the way we think about feeling. 

A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind
Rachel Hewitt
Granta, 560pp, £25

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled