The craze for Gothic romance went hand in hand with the decades-long craze for sensibility—a deep response to emotion, whether in oneself or in one’s environment. Sensibility bore a strong resemblance to what we now term drama—or the tendency to overreact to or overdramatize anything and everything. Hence Marianne Dashwood’s poetic reaction to fallen leaves in Sense and Sensibility, and Lenora Breckinridge’s fascination with dramatic heroism in Romance of the Ruin.
Romances such as those penned by Mrs. Radcliffe were filled with sensibility: in Udolfo, the book that captivates Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the heroine is constantly swooning from deep emotion, and pages upon pages are dedicated to sweeping descriptions of the Italian countryside entirely calculated to stimulate the emotions. The key here is extremes: think a 1930’s black and white silent movie. All emotion is intense, whether it be fear or courage or love or greed. It is no wonder that Catherine Morland’s imagination, steeped in such ideas, should succumb to the terrible conclusions it did when she reached the Abbey.
But sensibility was not restricted to Gothic romances. The Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, etc.—employed verse that either spoke to the sensibilities of their readers or emanated from their own sensibility, and the Romantic painters sought to evoke intense emotion in their works.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.Ode on Intimations of Immortality, William Wordsworth
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.When We Two Parted, George Gordon, Lord Byron
The romantic force for sensibility in the Regency period was extremely strong, yet there were some who were not entirely swept away by it. Jane Austen was influenced by the Romantic poets and read all of Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, but she managed to keep her head, much like her character Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. That book in itself may be called proof of Austen’s attitude toward the prevailing rage, at least as it affected people in real life. Northanger Abbey is another reaction to sensibility, but is more satirical, and aimed toward the sensibility engendered by Gothic romance.
Overall, an understanding of sensibility should help readers of Regency fiction—both contemporary and modern—to understand why there was so much swooning and palpitations and generally intense emotion, and to appreciate that there has always been drama, in one form or other, in the world of romance.