Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.

Harrington’s Last Shudder

5. Harrington’s Last Shudder

Maria Edgeworth and the Popular Fear of the Nervous Body

The circumstance that gave rise to Harrington (1817) is one of the more well-known facts about one of Maria Edgeworth’s least-known tales.[1] In a “Note to the Reader” prefacing the story, her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, explains that it “was occasioned by an extremely well-written letter, which Miss Edgeworth received from America, from a Jewish lady, complaining of the illiberality with which the Jewish nation had been treated in some of Miss Edgeworth’s works” (TN, 9:iii).[2] In response, Edgeworth composed a tale about prejudice against Jews that features an idealized Jewish gentleman, Mr. Montenero, and a narrator who must overcome his childhood anti-Semitism.

The tale is also a nervous narrative. Harrington tells the story of “the strange nervous fits I had when a boy” (TN, 9:197) and their repercussions in his adult body. His nervous fits are specifically anti-Semitic. They originate in the misguided actions of his childhood nurse, Fowler, who instills in him such a pronounced fear of an old-clothes seller, Simon the Jew, that as an adult he retains an unfortunate and uncontrollable tendency to faint at the recollection of Simon’s stereotyped Jewish face. And so he refers to his own narrative as a study of “the affair with my nerves and the Jews” (TN, 9:7–8).

This is an affair that he necessarily overcomes. His last fit occurs, fittingly, in the last scene of the tale. The acutely perceptive Montenero intentionally provokes it by uttering the magic word, “Fowler!” (TN, 9:207). The name of the maid who threatened to give him to Simon the Jew causes a predictable, outwardly visible reflexive action in Harrington’s body: “I shuddered and started back” (TN, 9:207). This shudder is one in a long series of such shudders in the adult Harrington. When he earlier encounters a face reminiscent of Simon the Jew’s, he reacts similarly: “[A] nervous tremor seized me in every limb. I let the purse, which I had in my hand, fall upon the ground” (TN, 9:132). At another moment, he is made speechless in mid-sentence by an “involuntary shudder” at the sight of a face identical to Fowler’s (TN, 9:182).[3] In these incidents, although he says he does “my utmost to suppress my feelings” (TN, 9:131), he finds that he cannot.

The last shudder matters because it is the last shudder—that is, his final nervous response. Montenero provokes it to make a point, using the shudder to insist that Harrington take the final step in exerting the “power over yourself” that has progressively cured him of the residual effects of his childhood nervous fits (TN, 9:208). “[Y]ou have given proofs that your matured reason and your humanity have been able to control and master your imagination and your antipathies,” Montenero points out (TN, 9:208). It is because of these proofs that Montenero has finally welcomed a marriage between Harrington and his only daughter, Berenice. Told to master this last somatic response, Harrington determines, “I will conquer myself.” (TN, 9:208). And so he does, not just in learning to forgive the maid Fowler but in becoming the self-controlled, authoritative voice that narrates his own nervous past from the subject-position of a detached natural historian. His shudder at the mention of Fowler is the dying gasp of a nervous inscription that he completely erases. Harrington’s is thus the nervous body that is now no longer nervous.

Because Harrington tells the story of how he gradually overcomes his disorder rather than dwelling on its sequential creation, his narrative departs significantly from the pattern of the nervous narrative. Both Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Hays’s Emma Courtney utilize an abject narrator, one who continues to be defined by the nervous condition he or she describes. Harrington is told through a wholly authoritative narrator who has escaped from the condition and so has no need to appeal to the reader’s sympathy. Instead, he presents “this history of the mental and corporeal ills of my childhood” (TN, 9:8) for their scientific value, as “experiments” (TN, 9:9) that can illuminate the hidden mechanisms of the mind. The stance is comparable to De Quincey’s opening narrative strategy, but Harrington is more consistent in its construction of a subject-position identified with narrative objectivity, one that has no need for the kind of subsequent renegotiations that characterize De Quincey’s Confessions. Harrington is an unambivalent representation of escape from the constitutive nervous effects of early experiences. As a direct result, the nervous body is redefined as more resilient than had been previously thought. The tale describes the same nervous mechanism with remarkable precision, using the same physiological psychology found in Thomas Trotter’s work.[4] This body remains highly susceptible to being written on, but it is now capable of being unwritten, too. Freed of his somaticized past, this narrator not only theorizes Caleb Williams’s “manly tale,” he also tells it.

Maria Edgeworth originally wrote a different passage for Montenero in the episode of the last shudder. In the 1817 edition, the fo-cus is not on Harrington’s capacity for self-control but on the unforgivable nature of Fowler’s interference in the course of true love between Harrington and Berenice, Montenero’s daughter. “Conspiring against more than my life—my love,” Harrington cries.[5] In removing such references, Edgeworth shifts the emphasis away from the sanctity of romantic love to the overriding importance of rational self-control, which becomes the subject of Montenero’s new speech. Edgeworth’s late effort to buttress the tale’s emphasis on self-mastery—that is, on Harrington’s capacity for being cured—suggests a perceived need to clarify her representation of Harrington’s escape from his nervous body. Her revisions imply an awareness of and an anxiety about how internal inconsistencies—such as the final, conventional speech elevating the passion of love above life itself—might weaken the clarity of Harrington’s escape from a body ruled by its passions.

Nonetheless, in the revised tale, reinforced and more consistent in its valorization of reason than the first edition, there remains a trend that works against the tale’s claims for Harrington’s escape and that Edgeworth does not eliminate. That trend flows from the precision with which Harrington defines the nervous body and the redefinition that body undergoes late in the narrative in order to produce the narrator’s cure. By considering that disorder, we can see that the cure has two contradictory effects: It produces the narrator’s rationality, but only by sacrificing the foundation on which the tale’s concept of rationality is based. Harrington’s narrative objectivity, though apparently more stable than that of the other nervous narrators discussed here, is ultimately the least stable of them all.

Harrington describes the origin of his disorder in the first chap-ter, using the language of physiological psychology.[6] In the tale’s opening scene, he is six years old, an age of delicacy and impressionability because of the small size of nervous fibers in the child’s body. It is 1761, the end of his first day in London, and he observes that his “senses had been excited, and almost exhausted, by the vast variety of objects that were new to me” (TN, 9:1); his body has overaccumulated stimulating impressions. In such a state, it requires a strong new stimulus to arrest his attention, and this is provided by the inexplicable appearance of “star after star of light” approaching. When he finally perceives the nearing lamplighter, he reacts as a child-scientist, experiencing “as much delight as philosopher ever enjoyed in discovering the cause of a new and general phenomenon” (TN, 9:1). His attention is then arrested by an even stronger novelty when the lamplighter’s torch “flared on the face and figure of an old man with a long white beard and a dark visage, who, holding a great bag slung over one shoulder, walked slowly on, repeating in a low, abrupt, mysterious tone, the cry of ‘Old clothes! Old clothes! Old clothes!’ ” (TN, 9:1–2). When the peddler, Simon the Jew, looks back at Harrington, the narrator receives the impression that becomes the focal point of his hysteria.

That face, initially perceived by Harrington as “good-natured,” is redefined by the maid Fowler as a threat in order to compel the child’s obedience.[7] “If you don’t come quietly this minute…I’ll call Simon the Jew there…and he shall come up and carry you away in his great bag” (TN, 9:2). This redefinition produces instant obedience, but the terror it causes in the enervated and vulnerable child’s body has long-term consequences. Beginning that night, he suffers the pains of excessive sensibility as the face of “Simon the Jew and his bag, who had come to carry me away in the height of my joys” (TN, 9:2), appears and reappears to him. In the following weeks, Fowler repeats the threat, having discovered its efficacy. However, in the standard pattern of excess sensibility, the stimulus needs to be continually escalated in order to have the same effect. When “by frequent repetition this threat had lost somewhat of its power” (TN, 9:2), she adds increasingly gruesome details to the story of Simon and his bag, until it is fully revealed as a variant of the ancient anti-Semitic blood libel.[8]

Above all others, there was one story—horrible! most horrible!—which she used to tell at midnight, about a Jew who lived in Paris in a dark alley, and who professed to sell pork pies; but it was found out at last that the pies were not pork—they were made of the flesh of little children. His wife used to stand at the door of her den to watch for little children, and, as they were passing, would tempt them in with cakes and sweetmeats. There was a trap-door in the cellar, and the children were dragged down; and—Oh! how my blood ran cold when we came to the terrible trap-door. Were there, I asked, such things in London now?

Oh, yes! In dark narrow lanes there were Jews now living, and watching always for such little children as me.

This escalation writes a mechanical response into Harrington’s young body that causes him to suffer an “evening attack of nerves” (TN, 9:10) each time he hears the peddler’s nightly cry.

Harrington’s symptoms respond to the content of this blood-libel narrative. Every night for the next year and a half, he explains, “I lay in an indescribable agony of terror; my head under the bed-clothes, my knees drawn up, in a cold perspiration. I saw faces around me grinning, glaring, receding, advancing, all turning at last into the same face of the Jew with the long beard and the terrible eyes: and that bag, in which I fancied were mangled limbs of children—it opened to receive me, or fell upon my bed, and lay heavy on my breast, so that I could neither stir nor scream” (TN, 9:3–4). The dark maw of the trapdoor, in Fowler’s narrative, and Simon’s bag, in Harrington’s imagination, become synonymous, both functioning as great orifices in which the body of the child is contained and transformed. He imagines this bag as a weight pressing on his breast, a symptom that reproduces the “globus” associated with hysteria, and the effect of this weight is a bodily paralysis and an inability to speak. What Harrington experiences, in his hysterical moments, then, is his own containment within the bag, a sensation that manifests itself in his adult fits as a sense of suffocation, speechlessness, and immobility. His body responds as if it were literally confined, and thus his symptoms are consistent with the content of his fear.

Once written into his body, however, this hysterical condition persists long after its rational basis is removed. Fowler, who soon tires of tending to the hysteric she has invented, tries to undo the damage by confessing her fabrication to Harrington, explaining that the bag contained only clothes. But “to undo her work was beyond her power” (TN, 9:4). As an empirical proof, she brings Simon into the house to open his bag, but Harrington’s “imagination was by this time proof against ocular demonstration” (TN, 9:5). Instead of curing his disorder, the meeting produces a new instance of it. This gulf between rational understanding and hysterical response grows during the narrative, as he retains traces of this response even as he acquires an adult sympathy for Jewish characters. He develops a friendship with Jacob, the son of Simon the peddler, and is introduced by him to a group of highly educated Jews, including a scholar he studies with at Cambridge, the art collector Montenero, and his daughter, Berenice, with whom Harrington falls in love. Yet whenever he encounters an image reminiscent of Simon the Jew, he grows faint.

Edgeworth is positing a particular theory of hysteria, one that is characterized by a slippage between signifier and signified of the sign “Jew.” Initially, the content associated with this sign is threatening, and it produces a response in the body that is linked to this content. As Harrington matures, the content of the sign “Jew” changes from foe to friend, but his body continues to respond to the signifier as if it possessed the earlier meaning. Harrington’s body is thus a hostage to the letter, as the signifier persists in its mechanical effects long after the signified that initially accounted for those effects has disappeared. The conflict is between Harrington’s autonomy, as a rational subject, and his body’s unwilled and uncontainable response to the sign “Jew.”

Because the tale treats anti-Semitism as a social phenomenon, Harrington’s disorder is one example of a generalized problem, a collective disorder that is represented as endemic to British social life. In the tale’s thematization of group behaviors, which she calls “party spirit,” Edgeworth articulates the mechanism by which disorders such as Harrington’s are communicated and even come to dominate entire societies.[9] Edgeworth wrote about “party spirit” before the modern concept of a mass psychology had been formulated. Contemporary ideas about crowd behavior developed in the later nineteenth century and were most fully articulated by the French natural historian Gustave LeBon, who developed a theory in which political leaders could control populations through a form of mass hypnotism.[10] Edgeworth’s ideas about crowds belong to an earlier paradigm of crowd behavior, one that has roots in Renaissance ideas about sympathetic imagination and its communication between individuals. Harrington names those sources in the opening of the tale following his description of the origin of his Jewish “antipathy,” when he connects his own “history of the mental and corporeal ills of my childhood” (TN, 9:8) with the natural histories of Francis Bacon and the lesser-known Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth-century natural philosopher and gentleman scientist who wrote on the powers of sympathy and antipathy. Harrington defines his “experiments” as a continuation of studies begun by Bacon (who was “successfully followed” by Digby), studies that are “equally necessary to the science of morals and of medicine” (TN, 9:8). He adopts the anachronistic language of Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum; or, A Natural History when he defines his narrative as “my experiments, solitary and in concert, touching fear and of and concerning sympathies and antipathies” (TN, 9:9).[11] “Solitary and in concert” is an adaptation of Bacon’s two most frequent phrases in Sylva Sylvarum, “experiment solitary” and “experiments in consort,” used to differentiate singular from multiple observations on a stated topic.[12] And he returns to the language of Bacon to state the fundamental topic of his narration as “ ‘the history of the power and influence of the imagination, not only upon the mind and body of the imaginant, but upon those of other people’ ” (TN, 9:8–9).[13] His narrative, then, is not only about his individual experience but also about the communication of “imaginary” objects between minds and the consequences that follow.

Kenelm Digby calls this process of communication the “unpleasing contagion of the imagination,” and he explains it through the mechanism of sympathetic imitation.[14] Discussed in the works of both Bacon and Digby, the concept was still in circulation in the late eighteenth century. In 1779 it appeared, for example, in the first sustained entry on sympathy in the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Sympathy, too, is often an imitative faculty, sometimes involuntary, frequently without consciousness: thus we yawn when we see others yawn, and are made to laugh by the laughing of another.

This imitative act is based on the idea of an exchange, but one that operates without any rational activity, occurring instead as a purely mechanistic imitation. According to Digby’s early description of contagious laughter, in Two Treatises (1644), the laughing of one man will set another laughing, “though he know not the cause why the first man laugheth.”[15] Digby draws a clear distinction between the first man, who knows the joke, and the second, whose laughter is a mechanical imitation of the first, distinct in that it is devoid of any ideational content. The second man’s laughter is more reflexive than reflective. Digby illustrates this same mechanical imitation in reporting the case of a hapless roofer, which is today cited as the first known description of “echopraxia,” the disease of compulsive imitation:[16] “I have heard of a man…that when he saw any man make a certain motion with his hand, could not choose but he must make the same: so that, being a tyler by his trade, and having one hand imployed with holding his tooles, whiles he held himself with the other upon the eaves of a house he was mending, a man standing below on the ground, made that signe or motion to him; whereupon he quited his holdfast to imitate that motion, and fell downe, in danger of breaking his necke” (Two Treatises, 335).

Digby’s report expands the concept of sympathetic imitation from the commonplace to the pathological. In this example, it overwhelms any willful attempt at self-restraint, despite the immediate danger involved. This action takes place independently of the reason or will of the subject. An example of the power of sympathy, from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, illustrates the complete disjunction between this category of bodily response and the subject, as it records evidence of sympathetic reaction in a corpse: “It is an usual observation, that if the body of one murthered be brought before the murtherer, the wounds will bleed afresh. Some do affirm, that the dead body, upon the presence of the murtherer, hath opened the eyes.”[17]

Digby explains the psychophysiology in living bodies of this extrarational mechanism as follows: “All these effects, do proceed out of the action of the seen object upon the fantasy of the looker on: which making the picture or likenesse of its owne action in the others fantasy, maketh his spirits runne to the same parts; and consequently, move the same members, that is, do the same actions (And hence it is that…whatsoever a good oratour delivereth well, (that is, with a semblance of passion agreeable to his wordes) rayseth of its own natur like affection in the hearers” (Two Treatises, 335). In both cases, the key element is the effect the “fantasy” has on the body of “the looker on” or “the hearers.” What appears in the imagination, whether seen or orally represented, has a mimetic consequence in the body.

These consequences can be permanent, as is graphically illustrated in the 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Encyclopaedia appeals to sympathetic imitation as the explanatory principle for the presence of human bodily deformity in the world.[18] In its description of the process by which “monsters”—defined as people with bizarre or deformed limbs—come into being, the Encyclopaedia uses an incident from Paris, originally described in Malebranche, to illustrate how sympathetic imitation in the body of a pregnant woman can produce monstrosity in the child (3d ed., s.v. “monster”). Observing that “the view of a wound…wounds the person who views it,” Britannica differentiates between the effects of viewing a public execution on “vigorous men” with firm fibers and on the more “weak and delicate” fibers of women. Britannica extends the scale of vulnerability to “children still in their mother’s womb,” whose fibers are “incomparably finer than those in women.” Thus, the child’s body becomes the most sensitive register of effects that are present in varying degrees in all bodies. In the specific example cited, a pregnant French woman views a criminal’s limbs being individually broken, and “every stroke given to the poor man, struck forcibly the imagination of the woman…. [T]he violent course of the animal spirits was directed forcibly from the brain to all those parts of the body corresponding to the suffering parts of the criminal.” Through the same echopraxic mechanism described by Digby, the woman’s body mimics the scene before it. Whereas “the bones of the mother were strong enough” to sustain the impression, the child’s body is more vulnerable. The “spirits” follow the identical course in the fetal body, whose fragile bones and nervous system are both destroyed. Its limbs are snapped by the contractions, and its brain is “quite ruined” by the “shock of those spirits…enough to deprive him of reason all his lifetime.” The child is born “a fool, and with all its legs and arms broke in the same manner as those of criminals.” And thus, concludes the Encyclopaedia, can “the phenomena of monsters be easily accounted for.”

Within this example, when the mother’s body mimics the body of the criminal, it responds to the image of pain as if it were its own. The material effects of this sympathetic mimesis are dramatized in the body of the child, who is born a copy of the broken body of the criminal. The larger danger represented by the ontological novelty of the monster’s body, however, is not that it reproduces the body of the criminal but rather that it embodies—it literally gives a body to—the mother’s imagined experience. The monster is the realization, in material fact, of the “fantasy of the looker on,” not of the viewed execution. Any occasion that were to present this image forcefully enough to her mind would produce the same consequence. The “looker on” does not have to be witnessing an external event. Similar effects can follow from a later recollection of the execution, reading an account of an execution, or even fantasizing such an execution, as long as the idea of the execution is vividly present. Within such a scheme, any distinction between realities and representations is lost, as representations have the ability to cross over into the status of realities.[19]

In Alexander Crichton’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Mental Derangement (1798), the central assumption of the physician’s study of the physiology of delirium is that the body does not distinguish between impressions from actual objects and impressions from imaginary ones.[20] He claims that the “sensorial impressions” of fictional representations “pervade our frame in the same manner as the impressions of the objects themselves, had they been real, would have done; the only difference being in degree” (Inquiry, 2:149). He illustrates this claim by asserting that “Homer’s description of the girdle of Venus, and of the Elysian fields; Milton’s description of Eve; Spenser’s description of the residence of Acrasy…gratify the senses” as if the reader experienced the fictional objects as fact (2:149). Such ideas tend to produce the same physiological actions in the body as the things they represent. Thus, “if an absent person imagines himself engaged in controversy, his lips move as if in conversation; if his subject of thought be an object of any passions, as anger, jealousy, envy, hatred, or love, his countenance and gestures betray the emotions natural to these passions” (2:6). Crichton explains this phenomenon in a manner similar to Digby, asserting that mental impressions are “conveyed to the extremities of those nerves of external sense by which the object, had it been a real one, would have been naturally received” (2:37–38). In this way internal impressions reproduce, in their physiology, the effects of external impressions. This physiology provides an explanatory underpinning for the belief that the physical effect of an idea is identical in kind to the physical effect of the thing for which it substitutes. This long-standing belief contributes to the climate of fear about the effects of fictional representations, such as those in novels, on younger, impressionable readers.[21]

Whereas ideas have “corporeal effects…that are exactly similar in kind to what the real object would have,” these effects are normally “weaker in degree” (2:112). However, under certain circumstances this difference in degree disappears, and ideas can have a corporeal effect even greater than that of objects. Chief among these circumstances is repetition. “Representations of the mind,” Crichton claims, “when frequently renewed by acts of the imagination, at last acquire a degree of vividness which surpasses those derived from external objects” (2:65). Brooding over an idea—as Harrington does late in the tale, when he fears he will lose Berenice and secludes himself “[t]o feed upon my thoughts in solitude” (TN, 9:178)—threatens the subject’s health, because mental impressions grow in strength through repetition. Lingering repeatedly over the memorized images of a novel or romance poses a real danger, because the visitor to an immaterial adventure may return with a very material disorder. As Crichton observes, in pleading for a more compassionate attitude toward suicides, “Once an idea, by its being often presented to the mind, has gained such a degree of force and vividness as to command belief, it is of no consequence as to its effects, whether it originated in a real or an imaginary cause” (TN, 2:197).[22]

Edgeworth represents this transition from imaginary to real in the character of Mrs. Harrington. In her youth, we learn, she affected a belief in “presentiments and presages, omens and dreams” as a fashionable snare “to interest her admirers” (TN, 9:37). Repeating the ruse for years, she eventually became in earnest the nervous victim in earnest of the excess sensibility she had imitated, “so that what in the beginning might have been affectation, was in the end reality” (TN, 9:37). Harrington’s own disorder makes the identical transition. As his childhood fits in response to Simon the Jew become more pronounced, he becomes an object of popular curiosity, and there is public debate over whether or not his fits prove the existence in the Christian body of a natural racial “antipathy” to Jews.[23] As he explains in retrospect, this popular interest exacerbates his condition: “Between the effects of real fear, and the exaggerated expression of it to which I had been encouraged, I was now seriously ill. It is well known that persons have brought on fits by pretending to have them; and by yielding to feelings, at first slight and perfectly within the command of the will, have at last acquired habits beyond the power of their reason, or of their most strenuous voluntary exertion to control. Such was my pitiable case” (TN, 9:8). In both Harrington and his mother, the illness has finally been inscribed on the body and now exists outside the reach of “reason” and “voluntary exertion”—that is, beyond any possibility of self-mastery.

Sympathetic imitation was further used to explain why individuals exhibited behaviors in large groups that they would never exhibit singly. The leading lecturer on crowd phenomena was the Scottish empirical philosopher Dugald Stewart, a professor at the University of Edinburgh, and Edgeworth was in an excellent position to become familiar with his ideas. Stewart was a family friend of the Edgeworths and the tutor of two of Maria’s brothers.[24] Even before meeting him, she sketched Stewart as Dr. Campbell, the tutor for the protagonist, in Forester, a novella-length story Edgeworth published as part of her Moral Tales (1801). She stayed with the Stewarts during her visit to Edinburgh in 1803. Afterward, she wrote of him, “I never conversed with any one with whom I was more at ease,” and she expressed an interest in his ideas when she complained about not being allowed to hear his lectures because of her sex.[25] She corresponded for many years with Mrs. Stewart and last visited the family in 1823, when Dugald Stewart was quite elderly.

Stewart uses the “contagion of sympathetic imitation” to explain the unique behavior of crowds (Works, 3:147).[26] He specifies, in introducing the concept, that he is not interested in “any instinctive or mysterious process”(Works, 3:108), nor in the kind of willful imitation that occurs when one author forms his taste in writing by imitating another. “The Imitation of which I am here to treat, and which I have distinguished by the title of Sympathetic, is that chiefly which depends on the mimical powers connected with our bodily frame; and which, in certain combinations of circumstances, seems to result, with little intervention of our will, from a sympathy between the bodily organizations of different individuals” (Works, 3:108–9). He argues that emotions are spread from one person to another through the same “irresistible tendency to imitation” as yawns or laughter (Works, 3:136). As an example, he hypothesizes someone who imitates exactly the external stance, gestures, and expression of someone else in an extreme emotional state. The mimic, he claims, will internally reproduce the same feelings exhibited by the original. Because of the natural tendency to imitation, everyone is like this mimic to varying degrees, and so “something of the same kind happens to every man, more or less, when he sees any passion strongly marked in the countenance of another” (Works, 3:136). When a group of like-minded people come together for a common purpose—he gives the example of attendees at either a carnival or funeral—their sense of shared purpose creates a special social environment in which individuals express their emotions more freely than when alone. These strongly marked external displays combine with the bodily tendency to sympathetic imitation, resulting in a rapid escalation of emotionality: “[T]he effect is likely to be incalculably great; the mind at once acting on the body, and the body re-acting on the mind, while the influence of each is manifested by the inexplicable contagion of sympathetic imitation” (Works, 3:147). An individual’s feeling of grief is increased by a reflexive imitation of the signs of grief in another, and this produces stronger grief in others of the crowd, so that the group produces a unique and “greatly augmented” emotionality (Works, 3:147), which is felt by each member as his or her own but which cannot exist apart from the membership in the crowd. Stewart thus provides an explanation for a specifically crowd psychology—that is, for a new kind of psychological state that is qualitatively different than the sum of its individual parts. The group emotion is felt by all, “even among characters whom the event in question would, in their solitary hours, have scarcely affected with any emotion whatsoever” (Works, 3:147). Thus, individual subjectivity becomes subordinated to the new crowd subjectivity, which pushes it aside and occupies the space of the subject in each member.

In Harrington, Edgeworth’s exploration of party spirit uses assumptions similar to those of Stewart, in particular the assumption of a direct relationship between crowd formation and a contagious imitation that overwhelms the rational autonomy of the subject. Numerous incidents in the tale—the dinner party organized by Harrington’s father, the schoolboy dispute, the riot of soldiers at Gibraltar, the later Gordon riots—are thematically related as explorations of the mechanism of party spirit. The first incident defines the basic terms that the rest will utilize. Harrington’s father, a Member of Parliament, hosts a dinner party to lobby the local gentry against the pending Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753.[27] Harrington notes that his father attempts “to convince them, that they were, or ought to be, of my father’s opinion, and that they had better all join him in the toast of ‘The Jews are down, and keep ’em down’ ” (TN, 9:15). The room divides into opposite parties. Because “[t]he feeling of party spirit…is caught by children as quickly as it is revealed by men” (TN, 9:15), young Harrington takes a side, but he is “incapable of comprehending their arguments” on the topic (TN, 9:15). His response is specifically divorced from a rational engagement with the issue, a fact made explicit when his interest, unusual for a child, is questioned by the adults.

“And what reasons did you hear?” said a gentleman in company.

“Reasons!” interrupted my father; “oh! sir, to call upon the boy for all the reasons he has heard—But you’ll not pose him: speak up, speak up, Harrington, my boy!”

“I’ve nothing to say about reasons, sir.”

“No! that was not a fair question,” said my father; “but, my boy, you know on which side you are, don’t you?”

“To be sure—on your side, father.”

“That’s right—bravo! To know on which side one is, is one great point in life.”

“And I can tell on which side every one here is.” Then going round the table, I touched the shoulder of each of the company, saying, “A Jew!—No Jew!” and bursts of applause ensued.

Because he does not comprehend the pros and cons of the naturalization bill, taking a side, regardless of content, is the only issue. His attention is solely focused on the signifier, “A Jew!—No Jew!” apart from its signified. Harrington’s act of labeling the guests is applauded because it so perfectly embodies the essence of party spirit: a perfect lack of comprehension of the signified combined with a perfect loyalty to the signifier.

Harrington’s father, the principal exemplar of party spirit in the tale, further illustrates this principle:[28] “My father was a great stickler for parliamentary consistency, and moreover he was of an obstinate temper. Ten years could make no change in his opinions, as he was proud to declare” (TN, 9:14). In this inflexibility, Mr. Harrington offers a related example of action divorced from reason. He suspends autonomous judgment in favor of a rote “consistency,” and thus his definitive feature is an “adhesion to a preconceived notion or purpose” that reduces his actions to blind repetitions of earlier judgments (TN, 9:35). Such is the pattern for his most singular characteristic: “Now it was well known in our house, that a sentence of my father’s beginning and ending ‘by Jupiter Ammon’ admitted of no reply from any mortal—it was the stamp of fate; no hope of any reversion of the decree: it seemed to bind even him who uttered the oath beyond his own power of revocation” (TN, 9:17). His trademark oath transforms him into a prisoner of his own once-rational decisions, so that what begins as purposeful ends up as mindless repetition. The leading example is his oath that his son shall be disinherited if he marries a Jew. By the narrative’s end Mr. Harrington’s attitude toward Montenero and his daughter Berenice is completely altered, yet he finds himself unable to release himself from his prior decision.

Mr. Harrington’s oath operates in the same manner as the son’s nervous shudder. In their first use, the words “by Jupiter Ammon” refer to an explicit meaning; the signifier has a strong relationship to its signified. But subsequently that relationship becomes secondary in importance to the speaker’s consistency. One whose oaths bind him “beyond his own power of revocation” is one who is bound by a signifier that has been divorced from its signified, so that the power of the letter takes precedence over the thing for which it stands. Ultimately, the juvenile Harrington perfectly embodies party spirit precisely because he has “nothing to say about reasons.” This absence of reason raises the question of why Harrington, or anybody, chooses one party over another. At the dinner party, it appears his choice is an expression of loyalty to his father. But filial loyalty does not account for his basic fascination with the discussion itself, a fascination so unusual it attracts the notice of the adults (particularly after his boyhood friend, Lord Mowbray, grows fidgety and leaves). As he explains, “[a] subject apparently less liable to interest a child of my age could hardly be imagined; but from my peculiar associations it did attract my attention” (TN, 9:14). His fascination stems from that prior anti-Semitic condition whose social origin Edgeworth has carefully defined. The debate touches a chord in him; it moves him because of his disorder. He catches the spirit—whereas Mowbray does not—because he is predisposed to catch it. Within the mechanism of party spirit, then, the tale questions whether the choice of sides is freely made. In this opening example, Harrington’s choice is no more rational or autonomous a judgment than his nervous shudders because it is predicated on an extrarational, embodied response, one that resembles nothing so much as the man noted by Digby who, without knowing the joke, nonetheless feels moved to laugh.

The subsequent incident of the Gibraltar riot works in an identical fashion.[29] The story is told to Harrington by Jacob, the son of Simon the Jew, who is employed by a Jewish merchant supplying provisions to the garrison during the siege. Jacob’s description of the initially peaceful and profitable enterprise is part of a pattern in the tale in which Jewish characters describe scenes of unprejudiced societies where Jews and Christians live in harmony. The most notable example of this utopian vision is Montenero and Berenice’s America, but this harmonious utopia is not limited to place, appearing as well in repeated references to the liberal-minded English upper class. The Gibraltar peace is destroyed by Lord Mowbray, who is posted to the garrison as an army officer and raises a party against Jacob and his employers. Just as Harrington “caught” party spirit, Mowbray’s subordinates catch his anti-Semitic labels for Jacob: “ ‘Lord Mowbray’s servants heard, and caught their lord’s witticism: the serjeants and soldiers repeated the colonel’s words, and the nicknames spread through the regiment, and through the garrison; wherever I turned, I heard them echoed: poor Jacob was called young Shylock by some, and by others the Wandering Jew. It was a bitter jest, and soon became bitter earnest’ ” (TN, 9:76). Jacob is already known to this community, and yet the repetition of these words, as they echo through the garrison, have the power to remake him, in their eyes, as rational social relations are transformed into extraordinary fear: “ ‘The common people felt a superstitious dread of me: the mothers charged their children to keep out of my way; and if I met them in the streets, they ran away and hid themselves’ ” (TN, 9:76). These mothers, in assuming that Jacob threatens their Christian children, are reenacting the same blood libel narrative with which the tale opens. Jacob is thus placed in the same position as his father, Simon, with his bag. This connection to the archetypal opening scene is an important part of the Gibraltar episode’s rhetorical force. Because Jacob is the one telling the story, structurally it is as if the tale returned to the archetypal scene and allowed Simon to speak about the injustice of it. The “common people” of the garrison similarly substitute for the young Harrington; his individual history is simply generalized to society as a body. Every body has previously been written on by the narrative of blood libel, and they respond with the same kind of extra-rational reflex as young Harrington at the dinner party.

Edgeworth’s most extreme representation of party spirit in action is the Gordon riots. They begin in a manner resembling Mowbray’s manipulation of the crowd at Gibraltar or Mr. Harrington’s lobbying efforts at the dinner party, but they make a qualitative leap to raise the spectre of a party spirit that has escaped the control of its leader. It begins, like the other incidents, with a group of loyal partisans ready to accept anything that fits within their prior assumptions, no matter how irrational: “[T]hey were ready to believe any thing against the ministry, and some who, for party purposes, desired to influence the minds of the people, circulated the most ridiculous reports, and excited the most absurd terrors” (TN, 9:148). The riot begins with an incident of anti-Catholicism rather than anti-Semitism, one taken directly from an example in Bacon:[30] “It was confidently affirmed that the Pope would soon be in London, he having been seen in disguise in a gold-flowered nightgown on St. James’s parade at Bath. A poor gentleman, who appeared at his door in his nightgown, had been actually taken by the Bath mob for the Pope; and they had pursued him with shouts, and hunted him, till he was forced to scramble over a wall to escape from his pursuers” (TN, 9:148).

It is along equally implausible lines that Edgeworth builds a bridge between the historically anti-Catholic Gordon riots and the anti-Semitism of her tale. Thomas Holcroft’s widely read account of the riots, written at the time, includes only a single mention of Jews in London, but there is no crowd sentiment against Jews. Instead, Holcroft reports that Jewish families, along with all the other Londoners, were so terrified of the rioters that they wrote “this house is a true Protestant” on their shutters so that their homes would not be thought to belong to Catholics.[31] Edgeworth, normally attentive to exactly this kind of historical detail, is unusually inventive in this case: “[W]ithout any conceivable reason, suddenly a cry was raised against the Jews: unfortunately, Jews rhymed to shoes: these words were hitched into a rhyme, and the cry was, ‘No Jews, no wooden shoes!’ Thus, without any natural, civil, religious, moral, or political connexion, the poor Jews came in remainder to the ancient anti-Gallican antipathy felt by English feet and English fancies against the French wooden shoes” (TN, 9:149). Edgeworth’s episode is remarkable in that, for all the detail provided on how and why the anti-Catholic cry could become anti-Semitic, the antagonism to Jews and the slogan itself serve no plot function in the narrative. The mob that descends on Montenero’s house is not after him because he is Jewish. In fact, they are not after him at all; they are pursuing Mowbray’s relations, Lady de Brantefield and Anne, whom they mistakenly identify as Catholics in the company of an imaginary priest. Thus, the entire assault on Montenero’s home leaves the question of his Jewishness and the crowd’s anti-Semitism beside the point. We are left to wonder why Edgeworth bothered to incorporate such an apparently unnecessary, convoluted, and implausible rationale into the narrative.

This anti-Jewish cry arises “without any conceivable reason,” a consistent element in the party spirit mechanism. But in the earlier incidents of party spirit, the crowd is always influenced by a named leader, who introduces ideas for his own purposes. Young Harrington follows his father; the soldiers follow Mowbray. Even the initial fears of the Gordon mob about the Pope are instigated by specific leaders who have something to gain. This new cry against Jews is qualitatively different. It comes into being “without any natural, civil, religious, moral, or political” rationale, independently of any leader. The distinction between this cry and the earlier ones is that, rather than being an echo of a leader, as at Gibraltar, it arises from within the crowd as a direct manifestation of the crowd’s enthusiasm, and in this the crowd takes on the quality of an independent mind.[32] The cry, “No Jews, no wooden shoes,” signifies the point at which the crowd assumes a life of its own, with its own voice, its own rules, and its own slogans. This slogan, though marked by an absence of any association at the level of its content, works through the association at the level of its sound, by rhyming “Jews” with “shoes.” Thus, the defining characteristic of this crowd mind is that it generates its own truths through the materiality of language. For Edgeworth, the problem posed by the crowd mind is that, like Harrington’s shudder, it operates entirely through this logic of the signifier rather than the signified.

To the person within the crowd, however, such associations appear perfectly reasonable. Harrington, in recollecting his subjective experience of party spirit, explains that he was “carried away in the tide of popular enthusiasm” (TN, 9:20). Though in retrospect he wonders how he “could be so inhuman,” then he had no doubts:“ [A]t the time it all appeared to me quite natural and proper; a just and necessary war” (TN, 9:20). There is thus no clear dividing line for the subject between participation in the crowd and the stance outside of it. Although each member of the crowd, by definition, has surrendered the ability to exercise an independent judgment, the crowd’s members believe themselves to be freely engaged in making precisely those judgments. Harrington’s participation is predicated on his extra-rational antipathy to the sign “Jew,” but his experience of participation is accompanied by a sense of rationality, in which his actions are “proper,” “just,” and “necessary.” Although he responds to the signifier, he believes himself to be evaluating the signified. One final and inescapable element of party spirit thus is a collective delusion of rationality, one Harrington once participated in but has since overcome.

Edgeworth’s crowd psychology is not limited to scenes of party politics and violent riots. These are the most clearly labeled moments in a phenomenon that extends to all instances of group behavior. Lady Anne’s devotion to fashion and to the tastes of the fashionable crowd represent an enslavement to signifiers, as her paean to the virtues of the French “pouf” illustrates (TN, 9:46). Fashionability itself is a type of party spirit, in which Lady Anne takes the opinions of the group for her own autonomous judgments. Similarly, Lady de Brantefield’s rigid adherence to a family past is a counterpart to Mr. Harrington’s adherence to his own past doctrines. The tale reserves its most systematic exploration of party spirit, however, for the variety it locates in the relationship between art and its audience. In a series of scenes including a painting exhibition, an art auction, and a performance of The Merchant of Venice, the tale explores the reactions of spectators to the manipulation of artists in terms that evoke the relationship between a party and its leader.

The parallel treatment of crowds and audiences can be seen by comparing two related incidents: a school yard assembly, in which Mowbray raises an anti-Semitic party, and the staging of Shakespeare’s play. In the grammar school incident, Mowbray is the leader of a party raised against the Jewish vendor Jacob. As leader, his job is to create the crowd as a crowd, rather than a group of individuals. Edgeworth represents this process as a theatrical one. Mowbray asks the boys to assemble and promises to “show them some good sport,” so the crowd is immediately defined as the audience to an organized spectacle (TN, 9:23). The schoolboys form a ring, and there is an upper gallery of boys looking on, reproducing the physical space of a theatre: “[T]hey had by this time gathered in a circle at the outside of that which we had made round Jacob, and many had brought benches, and were mounted upon them, looking over our heads to see what was going on” (TN, 9:25). On the stage created by this circle, Mowbray represents Jacob as an outsider against whom the schoolboys can identify as a group. He insists that, as a Jew, Jacob cannot possibly possess the feelings of love for his Jewish father that the Christian schoolboys feel for their fathers, and the boys cohere into a group, insulted by the comparison.[33] Mowbray’s job, as author of the crowd, is to identify the outsider that constitutes the crowd through its difference, and Edgeworth represents this process as a performative staging of the Other. In this particular instance, Mowbray’s staging is amateurish. He displays a juvenile cruelty that transforms Jacob into a sentimental icon of the victimized Man of Feeling, making him someone to be sympathetically identified with rather than antipathetically rejected.[34] But Mowbray’s technique improves with experience, and by the time of his posting to Gibraltar, he is clearly more adept at managing his audience through the same anti-Semitic performance.

The result of a more skillful staging of the Jew as Other, in the presentation of The Merchant of Venice before an adult audience, is less equivocal. In the central role of the Jewish Other is Charles Macklin, the eighteenth-century actor who rose to fame through his performance of Shylock. Prior to the performance, the audience is atomized and chaotic; Harrington’s aristocratic companions are irritated by the middle-class vulgarians in the next box, so that the theatre is initially a setting for the reinforcement of social distinctions. But by the end of the first act, this conflicted crowd is transformed into a fascinated body with a unified voice that breaks out in sudden “thunders of applause” (TN, 9:59).

Harrington is a representative member of the audience, and his reaction explains this transformation. After the curtain lifts, he explains, “the Jew fixed and kept possession of my attention…. I forgot it was Macklin, I thought only of Shylock. In my enthusiasm I stood up, I pressed forward, I leaned far over towards the stage, that I might not lose a word” (TN, 9:59). His initial “enthusiasm” raises a question because it directly contradicts his character development. He has already learned to sympathize with Jewish characters, yet his reaction embraces the stereotype of Jewish villainy. The incident is structured as a contest between two extremes. The quintessential art object—the performance unites the greatest writer’s drama with the world’s greatest actor—competes with the matured reason of Harrington, now enlightened and apparently rid of his childhood antipathy. In the contest, his shudder resurfaces as enthusiasm, and he becomes fascinated precisely as he was fascinated at his father’s dinner party, temporarily unable to recognize the anti-Semitic content of the stereotype on stage.

The mechanism by which this art object moves Harrington and, by extension, the rest of the audience follows the same logic as Harrington’s nervous shudder. In a subsequent discussion of the play between Harrington and Montenero, Harrington argues that Shakespeare did not realize what he was doing; he gives a “general apology for Shakspeare’s severity, by adverting to the time when he wrote, and the prejudices which then prevailed” (TN, 9:66).[35] But Montenero disagrees. “[A]s a dramatic poet, it was his business…to take advantage of the popular prejudice as a power—as a means of dramatic pathos and effect” (TN, 9:66). Montenero’s Shakespeare is a more self-conscious artist than Harrington’s. Far from being controlled by the prejudice of his day, his artistic “business” is manipulating the prior beliefs of his audience, and it is on this manipulation that aesthetic effect depends. To Montenero, the critic, Shakespeare is “the greatest poet that ever wrote,” but he draws a clear distinction between “power” and “truth” (TN, 9:65). Shakespeare, he argues, reversed the characters in the original story, where a Christian demanded his pound of flesh from a Jew. Montenero notes that “we Jews must feel it peculiarly hard, that the truth of the story…should have been completely sacrificed to fiction” (TN, 9:66). Nonetheless, he concludes that “Shakspeare was right, as a dramatic poet, in reversing the characters” (TN, 9:66). Montenero, then, judges the play in two distinct ways: in terms of purely rhetorical artistic criteria, in which case the play is “right,” and in terms of factual content, in which case it is wrong. This distinction is a consistent part of Montenero’s critical commentaries on art; it recurs in his discussion of the Spanish paintings, which he collects, and again in evaluating the crude painting of torture, “The Dentition of the Jew,” which he destroys. It is exactly this distinction between aesthetic effect and content that is lacking in the popular response to the play, as well as in the other moments of crowd behavior. This implication is present within Montenero’s comment that “we poor Jews have felt your Shakspeare’s power to our cost” (TN, 9:66). The sense of “power” in this phrase is distinct from the “dramatic pathos and effect” of the play. It refers to the way Jews become defined in social life as Shylocks through the fictional representation on the stage, as the riot at Gibraltar illustrated. Whereas Montenero differentiates dramatic “power” from factual “truth,” society in general does not. When moved by dramatic power, society elevates representation to the status of truth.

This aesthetic theory operates through a conservative logic, for if art works through its appeal to prior beliefs, it reinforces ideas to which the spectator already subscribes. Rather than convincing the audience of a new idea, it brings out what is already present, convincing spectators of the justness of what they already feel. Art that appeals to emotions activates previously inscribed social attitudes, rather than natural or universal feelings, and so perpetuates the “prejudice” of party spirit.

This conservative model of art also appears in Ormond, the tale Edgeworth published together with Harrington, but there it is illustrated with the novel reader rather than the playgoer. Like Harrington, Ormond experiences the dramatic power of art first as an arrested attention.[36] A good-hearted young Irishman but lacking a formal education, Ormond idly opens a copy of Tom Jones. Though not much of a reader, he finds he “could not shut it,” and “he read on, standing for a quarter of an hour, fixed in the same position” (TN, 9:286). His experience of reading, and that of his friend Corny, is called an “enthusiasm,” in which the power of art overcomes the reader’s ability to differentiate between representation and factuality (TN, 9:295). Ormond “believed the story to be true, for it was constructed with unparalleled ingenuity, and developed with consummate art” (TN, 9:287). When he next takes up Sir Charles Grandison, the same thing happens: “Indeed, to him it appeared no fiction, while he was reading it” (TN, 9:294). Corny’s experience as a reader is similar: “Fictions, if they touched him at all, struck him with all the force of reality; and he never spoke of the characters as in a book, but as if they had lived and acted” (TN, 9:295).

To be “touched” and “struck” in this manner is literally to experience art through the body, and it is this somatic experience that generates an intellectual belief in its truth as a representation. Ormond believes “the story to be true” and Corny that the characters “lived” for the same reason that Harrington forgets Macklin is an actor. Harrington’s momentary enthusiasm is explained by a susceptibility within his body, and a similar explanation is given for the novel readers in Ormond. Though the young Ormond attributes his experience to qualities in the art object—“ingenuity” and “consummate art”—the narrator uses the incident to illustrate a kind of readerly naïveté and points instead to qualities within the reader that produce this susceptibility. Ormond identifies with the two different protagonists because, like him, each has a basically “generous” nature, and the narrator explains that “young readers readily assimilate and identify themselves with any character, the leading points of which resemble their own, and in whose general feelings they sympathize” (TN, 9:287). The difference between Ormond’s experience and Harrington’s is the difference between sympathy and antipathy, two closely related variants on the same bodily phenomenon. As Montenero connects dramatic power with the exploitation of a preexisting antipathy, the narrator of Ormond connects it with a preexisting sympathy. The underlying mechanism is the same. Ormond and Corny’s convictions of the truth of art place them in the same position as the audience at the Merchant of Venice, and so their enthusiasm can be seen as a version of Harrington’s nervous shudder. Like him, they become convinced of the justness of their own extra-rational beliefs.

This body-based model of art is one of two competing aesthetic models in The other, represented by Montenero, is a critical model that exists outside the dynamics of party spirit. Montenero’s ability to differentiate “dramatic pathos” from “truth,” or experience from fact, allows him to evaluate art without becoming subservient to its dramatic power, and so Montenero is the only character in the tale entirely outside the rule of the letter. Called a man of “calm and proud independence” (TN, 9:81), he controls his acute sensibility with philosophy, and so he stands for a detached, analytical consciousness. “[C]alm had become the unvarying temper of his mind” (TN, 9:82), and thus he is able to interpret representations as personally repellent as The Merchant of Venice and The Dentition of the Jew with an unimpaired judgment. “[M]orbid sensibility…incapacitates…the exercise of independent virtue” (TN, 9:83), he lectures Berenice, complaining of her sensitivity to expressions of anti-Semitism. He himself has no such morbidity. He is the most idealized character in the tale, and his idealization lies in the way he eludes the paradox of sensibility. He is represented as capable of great sensitivity; small slights, such as the polite refusal of Mrs. Harrington to enter his house, “hurt his feelings much” (TN, 9:81). The detail is significant because it is represented as commonplace in the life of a Jew, being to Montenero one more in a long series of slights. Yet, unlike Godwin’s characters in Caleb Williams, he becomes neither inured to the slight nor constituted by it. He retains his vulnerability to the world without being written upon by it, and so he escapes the pattern of prejudice and enthusiasm that leads to the larger crowd’s immersion in party spirit. Though the crowd believes itself to be judging for itself, it is always imprisoned within the prejudice written on its body by prior representations; the crowd is always the prisoner of representation rather than its critic. Montenero’s critical ability is what sets him apart from the crowd; his judgment is “independent.” He represents the same subject-position that Harrington occupies after his last shudder, when he begins to tell the story of his emergence out of the crowd and into the space of the independent critic, able at last to narrate his body’s past without becoming implicated in it.

This independence also characterizes the implied audience of Harrington. The narrator addresses an enlightened reader who, like him, is wholly free of prejudice and enthusiasm. “We all know,” he tells the reader (TN, 9:148). His narrative presumes a wise, rather than a naive, reader, one distinctly different from the kind of reader illustrated by Corny and the young Ormond. “In our enlightened days,” Harrington apostrophizes, it “may appear incredible” that a child could be taken in by a story like Fowler’s (TN, 9:3). Though he speaks only of his own childhood, a period twenty years previous to the narrating present, he describes those unenlightened days as part of an earlier developmental stage in English social life, when it was still ruled by stories like Fowler’s: “I am speaking of what happened many years ago: nursery-maids and children, I believe, are very different now from what they were then; and in further proof of the progress of human knowledge and reason, we may recollect that many of these very stories of the Jews, which we now hold too preposterous for the infant and the nursery-maid to credit, were some centuries ago universally believed by the English nation, and had furnished more than one of our kings with pretexts for extortion and massacres” (TN, 9:3).

Like the infant Harrington, the social body of this early era was “[c]harmed by the effect” of anti-Semitic narratives (TN, 9:3), and leaders took advantage of the public prejudice. Being “charmed” in this context suggests the experience of being placed under a spell rather than merely being entertained. Harrington defines “the effect” of these narratives on him as a deprivation of agency, claiming that Fowler repeats her story “to reduce me to passive obedience” (TN, 9:2). In the same manner, this charming effect was used by “kings” in the past to control the nation. Harrington’s individual development is thus paralleled by a progressive social development that moves through these same stages from readerly naïveté to critical distance. Harrington describes a past era in which all of society functioned through party spirit, as an all-encompassing crowd, deprived of agency yet “universally” believing in the justness of its irrational beliefs. But the age of the crowd is gone, and in the narrating present the new, enlightened audience belongs more to the utopian communities described by Montenero—free from all prejudice, ruled by independent merit—than to the audience shaped by The Merchant of Venice. This narrative addresses a reader who, like Harrington, has already found a way to escape the crowd and become like Montenero.

Harrington tells the story, then, of how he escaped the nervous body and its socially constructed responses to become objective. Thus, his cure—the process he follows, the regimen he adopts, the mode of getting from inside to outside the nervous body and its confinement—promises to have instructive merit. That cure is as central to the logic of Harrington as De Quincey’s cure is to his Confessions. But the claims in Harrington are far greater, for it is not only Harrington’s escape that is being narrated but the transformation of an entire society from one ruled by the nervous body of a mobbish past to an enlightened utopia ruled by objectivity. Because of the precision with which the tale defines the nervous body, Harrington’s escape has a heroic quality to it, as it is a virtually impossible act. His nervous shudder is “involuntary” (TN, 9:182). His condition is “beyond the power” of his “most strenuous voluntary exertion, to control” (TN, 9:8). Montenero himself claims the condition is “difficult, scarcely possible, completely to conquer,” and he fears throughout the tale that it “might recur” (TN, 9:81). Thus, the method that Edgeworth devises to extract Harrington from this tenacious body merits serious attention. On that method the narrator’s voice depends, as does the community of enlightened readers it presupposes.

Given what is at stake and the represented difficulty of attaining it, the cure is decidedly anticlimactic. After proposing to Berenice, Harrington receives an ultimatum from Montenero. He has discovered an unnamed “obstacle” to the union (TN, 9:142), and he insists that Harrington’s only hope is to demonstrate a thorough ability to control himself and his emotions, without knowing the nature of the obstacle. Should he prove incapable “of this necessary self-control” (TN, 9:143), he will never see Berenice again. That night, says Harrington, “I felt the nervous oppression, the dreadful weight upon my chest” (TN, 9:145), and he is visited by the figure of Simon the Jew, who has the voice of Montenero. “My early prepossessions and antipathies, my mother’s presentiments, and prophecies of evil from the connexion with the Monteneros, the prejudices which had so long, so universally prevailed against the Jews, occurred to me. I know all this was unreasonable, but still the thoughts obtruded themselves” (TN, 9:145, emphasis original). To gain control over precisely such hysterical thoughts, Harrington finally adopts a tried and true course the next morning: “to take strong bodily exercise, and totally to change the course of my daily occupations” (TN, 9:145). Through horse riding and an all-male fishing expedition to the country, he explains, “my ideas were forced into new channels” (TN, 9:147), and the old ideas are suspended. “I thus disciplined my imagination at the time when I seemed only to be disciplining an Arabian horse” (TN 9:146). In this manner, “I…medicined my mind” (TN, 9:146, emphasis original). Though he faces subsequent trials and several dangerous moments of isolation at which his hysterical thoughts recur, this incident is the turning point; by practicing a sustained antidote of bodily exercise and outward-directed activity, he grows increasingly like Montenero and less like his younger, impressionable self. Rather than an actual cure of the nervous body, this narrative redefines it. Edgeworth’s illustration of the consequences of representations for the nervous body are extreme, as we have seen. And so this cure poses a new problem. Harrington’s hysteria is initially defined as a permanent inscription on the body, one that constitutes him in the same way that Mrs. Harrington’s excess sensibility has come to constitute her. Thus, although he describes a condition that is beyond self-control, that condition ultimately proves not to be so. He masters his nervous shudder through a simple exercise of self-will and without any of the dramatics described by De Quincey. In consequence, the initial attitude toward his hysteria and its permanence is called into question. Harrington believed his twitch to be “involuntary,” but it never really was; his disorder was not, in fact, permanent.

Because of this redefinition, the problem represented by the tale is not ultimately Harrington’s nervous shudder, which is always containable. Instead, the problem lies in the popular assumptions about nerves, the ones that led Harrington and everyone around him to assume that his shudder was “involuntary” when in fact it was within his power of self-control. In retrospect, those initial assumptions are recontained as unwarranted fears, for Harrington’s body proves far more resilient that anyone believes possible. Many popular prejudices are relegated to the unenlightened past by Harrington. The most prominent is the myth of the nervous body that, once written on, is never free of its nervous inscription. Edgeworth cures the nervous body by situating the theory of nervous inscription as one of the leading examples of crowd delusion.

This redefinition of the nervous body as itself a popular delusion is the centerpiece in the tale’s hidden plot. Many apparent coincidences in the narrative turn out to have been manipulated by Lord Mowbray. He reveals, in a deathbed confession, that he has staged his most elaborate performance, and in it he has positioned Harrington as the Other. In this drama, Mowbray manufactures an extensive sequence of events designed to convince Montenero and Berenice that her young suitor still suffers from his childhood affliction. Among other stage devices, he encourages in Harrington an appearance of excess sensibility in a visit with the Monteneros to the Tower of London, and he arranges to have Fowler dress up as Simon the Jew to induce an apparent nervous fit during the visit to the synagogue. Harrington’s fits have been reactions to the sight not of actual Jews but of actors made up to appear like his image of Simon and thrown in his way at strategic points.[37] In his most convincing scene, Mowbray arranges for Montenero and Berenice to overhear a staged conversation in which Harrington’s childhood apothecary confides his knowledge of the boy’s ineradicable insanity and mentions the family’s efforts to hide it from the public. Harrington’s disorder thus constitutes the hidden obstacle to marriage raised by Montenero. It is, of course, one of two such “obstacles”; the other is Mr. Harrington’s empty objection to his son’s marrying a Jew. The resolution of these obstacles is frequently mentioned as an avoidance of the conflict rather than an engagement with it. Berenice is unmasked at the last moment as a Christian, and so the marriage can proceed.[38] The other obstacle is removed in identical fashion. As Montenero concludes, the marriage can go forward because Harrington does not have a hidden “Jewish insanity”; instead, he has only had an “apparent insanity” (TN 9:202). Harrington’s cure is therefore never itself at issue, for he is never really sick. His disorder is misconstrued by a public that is overly willing to believe in the anachronistic fiction of the nervous body.

Although this solution to the problem of Harrington’s cure solves one obstacle to his emergence into the space of objectivity, it creates a new problem. By recontaining the nervous body, Edgeworth compromises the opposite position of critical objectivity. The two positions exist in the tale as interdependent binary opposites, so that one is either a “nervous” embodiment of socially constructed subjectivity or objective and outside the reach of social constructs. This idea of the nervous subject is essential to the idea of an exterior position, because the nervous body, through its definition, brings into being the space of objectivity that it delimits as its non-nervous opposite. For example, Simon’s bag operates throughout the tale as a metaphor for the imprisonment of the socially constructed body. Harrington’s confinement in the bag is figured as both bodily antipathies and uncontrolled sympathies, and it is structured in a binary relation-ship with a position of nonconfinement, a stance outside the now delimited sphere of socially constituted perceptions. Harrington’s confinement in the bag brings into being a space outside the bag, a space of objectivity in which the subject is free from the constitutive force of representations and thus free of the crowd. Without Harrington’s clearly defined hysteria, Montenero’s objectivity is vulnerable to collapse, which is exactly what the narrator describes.

Montenero’s character as the ideal critic is based on his ability to differentiate the real from the represented, the historical fact from the rhetorical effect. His astuteness is indispensable in the criticism of art. But Montenero is also the central example in the tale of the “fear” that Harrington’s hysteria “might recur.” His astuteness fails when he confronts the enigma of Harrington’s body, and this is a failure of singular magnitude, for on this one critical evaluation rests the future of his only child.

The enigma of Harrington’s insanity—the confusion over whether it is real or staged—needs to be seen as the object of an interpretive competition between the dramatist Mowbray and the art critic Montenero, who are engaged in a fight for control over the text of Harrington’s body. In the contest, the critic discovers only after the fact that “he had been strangely imposed upon” by “Mowbray’s artifices” (TN, 9:201), as a result of which he is taken in, finally succumbing to the dramatic power of the performance. Though he is represented as the one character who stands outside the crowd, in misreading Harrington’s body he yields to the crowd’s fear of hysteria, and so his stance of objectivity is undermined at the end.[39] Indeed, his imminent departure for America with Berenice, to escape Harrington, is itself a perfect example of crowd psychology in action: an hysterical act performed by one who mistakes his own capitulation t0 popular fear for reason. By failing to see through the artifice of Mowbray’s performance and being moved instead to confuse its dramatic power with factual truth, Montenero is finally defined as one of the crowd at Mowbray’s final play, the staging of Harrington’s insanity. The ideal critic is repositioned in that schoolboy gallery or at a seat in the theatre along with the rest of the audience.

Because the tale undermines the nervous premise for objectivity, Harrington’s status as narrator needs to be reevaluated. His narrative insists on its own objectivity, even as it undermines the nervous body that defines its borders. Thus, there is no stable ground on which his narrative authority can rest. This instability surfaces in the contradiction between the narrative’s construction of his cure and his position as the narrator. As the narrative nears its close and the moment of Harrington’s formal ascendance to the throne of the narrator, he grows increasingly reticent to discuss his subjective state. “My heart did certainly beat violently; but I must not stop to describe, if I could, my various sensations” (TN, 9:200). Up to this point, his narrative has been devoted to exactly that kind of description and the minute details of the consequences of his sensations. “I must add a few lines more—not about myself” (TN, 9:207), he claims very near the end. The surest narrative sign of his cure is precisely this new attitude, and that is why his narrative is at its end. For the narrator has learned to stop talking about himself and to take other objects for his subject. But this concluding narrative stance is not the one that opens the story of Harrington’s nervous body. It is as if the narrator is emerging out of his condition even as he tells the story of that emergence, and being cured only through the act of describing his cure. The post-cure narrator hurries himself off stage, too focused on the demands of events outside himself to talk any longer about those within. Because this is the tale’s concluding sign of narrative health, the opening narrator’s interest in his own sensations, his insistence on their narrative value as scientific “experiments,” is problematic. For although he insists on his objectivity, that claim itself is also characteristic of the victims of party spirit, most notably the narrator’s mentor, Montenero. The narrator’s claim to objectivity is being recontained through the events he describes, and ultimately his narrative act can never be differentiated from the nervous shudder itself. Of course, those shudders no longer matter. Through an act of will, they can be overcome. And they are overcome—but only by Harrington’s hurrying himself off the narrative stage and calling an end to his earlier nervous narrative.


1. Edgeworth today has no novels that could be called well known, despite having been the most revered novelist of her day. In an overview of Edgeworth’s work in relation to canonicity, Mitzi Myers discusses Edgeworth’s continued marginalization in literary studies, including her absence from recent anthologies of early women’s writing, and argues persuasively that this reception stems from Edgeworth’s lack of self-effacement as a novelist and her insistence on the moral and philosophical significance of her fiction. See Mitzi Myers, “Shot from Canons; or, Maria Edgeworth and the Cultural Production and Consumption of the Late-Eighteenth-Century Woman Writer,” in The Consumption of Culture, 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer (New York: Routledge, 1995), 193–214. I am grateful to Myers for letting me see a manuscript copy of this article.

2. The writer of the letter, Rachel Mordecai, subsequently held a lifelong correspondence with Edgeworth. Rachel Mordecai to Maria Edgeworth, 7 August 1815, in Edgar E. MacDonald, ed., The Education of the Heart: The Correspondence of Rachel Mordecai Lazarus and Maria Edgeworth, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1977), 3–7.

3. This is Nancy Fowler, the maid’s daughter, who looks more like Harrington’s childhood maid than the older Fowler herself at this age.

4. In addition to reading widely, Edgeworth was sister-in-law to Thomas Beddoes, one of the leading writers on nervous disorders in the period and a physician trained in the same school as Thomas Trotter. See Butler, Maria Edgeworth, 109–11. On Beddoes’s career, see Porter, Doctor of Society.

5. Maria Edgeworth, Harrington, a Tale; And Ormond, a Tale, 3 vols. (London: R. Hunter, 1817), 1:520. I am grateful to the Special Collections at Emory University for permission to work with this volume.

6. For a historical medical explanation of the perceptual mechanism described in this passage, see Crichton, Inquiry, 1:254–90 and passim.

7. This evaluative comment on Simon’s face is added in the revised edition. In the first edition, Simon’s face is a “dark visage,” and his voice has a “mysterious tone.” Though both of these references remain in the revision, their suggestion of gothic terror is outweighed by the explicit comment on his “good natured countenance.” Without that comment, Harrington’s fear seems perfectly justified, and Fowler’s narrative becomes almost superfluous. The problem here is that Edgeworth is repeating, in earnest, an anti-Semitic stereotype by representing Simon as dark and mysteriously threatening even as she opens her novelistic attempt to eliminate and expose anti-Semitism. The addition responds to this problem, and it suggests that Edgeworth recognized the implication and made a second attempt to eliminate the vestiges of anti-Semitic representation that continue to litter her tale.

8. A history of narratives in England accusing Jews of murdering Christian children is included in Montagu Frank Modder, The Jew in the Literature of England to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1939; New York: Meridian Books, 1960), 1–30. A well-known version is told by the Prioress in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

9. Michael Ragussis analyzes Harrington as an exploration of the social power of representations; see “Writing English Comedy: ‘Patronizing Shylock,’ ” chapter 2 in Figures of Conversion: “The Jewish Question” and English National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 57–88.

10. Gustave LeBon, The Crowd (1879). The most reliable historical account of LeBon is by Robert A. Nye, The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave LeBon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic (London: Sage Publications, 1975). Serge Moscovici, a social psychologist, describes in detail the theory of crowd mind and the crowd leader in LeBon’s work and relates it to the theory of hypnosis; see his The Age of the Crowd: A Historical Treatise on Mass Psychology, trans. J. C. Whitehouse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). Susanna Barrows, in Distorting Mirrors: Visions of the Crowd in Late Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) offers an important response to scholars who accept LeBon’s ideas at face value by researching the nineteenth-century European writers whose theories LeBon appropriated and explaining the cultural function those ideas served. See also Vrettos’s discussion of this literature in chapter 3 of Somatic Fictions.

11. Emphasis original.

12. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “concert” and “consort” were “confounded…down to the Restoration, and often later” (2nd ed., s.v. “concert”). However, given Edgeworth’s dual thematic focus on individual and group action in the novel, the use of “concert” is slightly more appropriate than “consort.”

13. Despite the use of quotation marks, the phrase appears to be a paraphrase from memory and not a direct quote. Similar statements appear in Sylva Sylvarum, but not in this exact form.

14. A Late Discourse…Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Power of Sympathy (1658); quoted in Hunter and Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 127.

15. Kenelm Digby, Two Treatises (Paris, 1644), 335.

16. See Hunter and Macalpine, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 124.

17. The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (London: Longmans, 1870; Garrett, 1968), 2:660.

18. The explanation of monsters was a problem for the dominant creationist account of origins, which presumed a fixity of all living forms. “Monsters” by definition violated this principle.

19. Catherine Gallagher takes up this issue in “The Changeling’s Debt: Maria Edgeworth’s Productive Fictions,” chapter 2 in Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1820 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 257–327. I am grateful to her for her comments on this chapter and for allowing me to see the manuscript of her chapter on Edgeworth.

20. Dora B. Weiner has situated Crichton’s ideas in the history of psychiatric concepts and included an exceedingly useful bibliographical essay; “Mind and Body in the Clinic: Philippe Pinel, Alexander Crichton, Dominique Esquirol, and the Birth of Psychiatry,” in The Languages of Psyche: Mind and Body in Enlightenment Thought, ed. G. S. Rousseau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 331–402.

21. On the fear of novels in the eighteenth-century, see Taylor, Early Opposition to the English Novel, and Altick, The English Common Reader. On the dangers of “transport” for the female reader, see Peter de Bolla, “Of the Transport of the Reader: The Reading Subject,” chapter 8 in The Discourse of the Sublime: History, Aesthetics and the Subject (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 230–78. On Maria Edgeworth specifically and her theory of fiction in relation to these fears, see Gallagher, Nobody’s Story, 273–88.

22. Crichton is unique, at this time, in his sympathy for suicides, and he argued against the punitive treatment of their bodies.

23. Michael Ragussis has a compelling discussion of this issue and Edgeworth’s redefinition of “natural” feelings as products of representation; see chapter 2 in Figures of Conversion. Catherine Gallagher is more concerned with how Harrington “becomes a creature of representations,” as he loses any sense of difference between himself and these descriptions (Nobody’s Story, 315).

24. See Butler, Maria Edgeworth, 197–98.

25. Edgeworth to Mrs. Ruxton, Edinburgh, 30 March 1803, in Mrs. [Frances] Edgeworth, A Memoir of Maria Edgeworth with a Selection from Her Letters (London: privately printed, 1867), 1:171–73.

26. For Stewart’s theory, see his “Of the Principle or Law of Sympathetic Imitation,” part 2, chapter 2 in Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, vol. 3 (London: Murray, 1827). All quotations are from The Works of Dugald Stewart, 7 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard, 1829), vol. 3.

27. Jewish Naturalization Act, 26 Geo. 2, c. 26. The act was quickly repealed, in 27 Geo. 2, c. 1.

28. Harrington’s relationship with his father is contained in their names. The father is called William Harrington, the son William Harrington Harrington (TN, 9:193). The son’s name is a double repetition of the name of the father.

29. Edgeworth refers the reader to John Drinkwater’s A History of the Siege of Gibraltar, from which she borrowed some of her particulars. Drinkwater’s account differs from hers significantly; he blames the “mercenary conduct of the hucksters and liquor-dealers” for raising “a spirit of revenge” among the troops (A History of the Siege of Gibraltar, 1779–1783, new ed. [London: John Murray, 1905], 152). This and the later Gordon Riots scene echo the 1798 experience of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who was nearly lynched in Longford, Ireland, by an anti-Catholic crowd that was convinced he was a French sympathizer; see Butler’s account of the incident (Maria Edgeworth, 138).

30. A similar example is mentioned by Bacon as an illustration of “the force of the imagination upon other bodies,” one form of which is “as if one should imagine such a man to be in the vestments of a Pope, or to have wings” (Sylva Sylvarum, 2:653–54).

31. Thomas Holcroft’s A Plain and Succinct Narrative of the Gordon Riots, London, 1780, ed. Garland Garvey Smith (Atlanta: The Library, Emory University, 1944), 30.

32. The concept of a “crowd mind” is a vexed one. Whether or not such a phenomenon exists, and whether it were individual psychology writ large or something qualitatively different, are fundamental questions defining the disciplinary boundary lines between social psychology and sociology. Historians date the concept itself as a mid- to late-Victorian invention. For a provocative discussion of these issues, see Nye, Origins of Crowd Psychology, and Barrows, Distorting Mirrors.

33. Catherine Gallagher discusses the significance of filial love in Harrington and relates it to Maria Edgeworth’s complex literary relationship with her father; see Nobody’s Story, 310–11.

34. On the cultural conventions that make up the Man of Feeling, see Todd, Sensibility, 88–109.

35. This is the second time that Harrington adopts this position; in the first instance he apologizes for the prejudice in the works of fiction, including Edgeworth’s Moral Tales (9:13).

36. Crichton viewed arrested attention as significant because it was caused either by an extremely strong external impression, such as a sudden noise, or by a predisposition in the subject to something in the sensations, such as a sympathy or antipathy. In Ormond’s case, that prior condition is his sympathy with the character, and in Harrington’s case it is his antipathy.

37. For more on this pattern in the tale, see Ragussis’s argument that “the Jew as representation, displaces the real Jew,” so that Jewish identity exists “only in a performance” (Figures of Conversion, 59, 60).

38. Rachel Mordecai called it the one disappointment in the novel (Letter to Maria Edgeworth, 28 October 1817, Education of the Heart, 16). Ragussis views it as “a sign of Edgeworth’s submission to the ruling ideology” (Figures of Conversion, 79); his discussion of it within the context of Jewish conversion figures is sustained and insightful.

39. See Gallagher’s discussion, where she notes how Montenero’s “obsessive policing of the borderland between realities and representations” ultimately collapses the distinction between them (Nobody’s Story, 317, 320).

Harrington’s Last Shudder

Preferred Citation: Logan, Peter Melville. Nerves and Narratives: A Cultural History of Hysteria in 19th-Century British Prose. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1997 1997.