Therefore, to find an interesting phase of human folly, we may look back to the years which lie between 1756 and 1793 as the era of sensibility. The great prophets of this false god, or goddess, were Rousseau in France and Goethe with Schiller in Germany, together with a host of midgets who shook and shivered in imitation of their masters. It is not for us to catalogue these persons. Some of them were great figures in literature and philosophy, and strong enough to shake aside the silliness of sensibility; but others, while they professed to be great as writers or philosophers, are now remembered only because their devotion to sensibility made them conspicuous in their own time. They dabbled in one thing and another; they “cribbed” from every popular writer of the day. The only thing that actually belonged to them was a high degree of sensibility.
And what, one may ask, was this precious thing—this sensibility?
It was really a sort of St. Vitus’s dance of the mind, and almost of the body. When two persons, in any way interested in each other, were brought into the same room, one of them appeared to be seized with a rotary movement. The voice rose to a higher pitch than usual, and assumed a tremolo. Then, if the other person was also endowed with sensibility, he or she would rotate and quake in somewhat the same manner. Their cups of tea would be considerably agitated. They would move about in as unnatural a manner as possible; and when they left the room, they would do so with gaspings and much waste of breath.
This was not an exhibition of love—or, at least, not necessarily so. You might exhibit sensibility before a famous poet, or a gallant soldier, or a celebrated traveler—or, for that matter, before a remarkable buffoon, like Cagliostro, or a freak, like Kaspar Hauser.
It is plain enough that sensibility was entirely an abnormal thing, and denoted an abnormal state of mind. Only among people like the Germans and French of that period, who were forbidden to take part in public affairs, could it have flourished so long, and have put forth such rank and fetid outgrowths. From it sprang the “elective affinities” of Goethe, and the loose morality of the French royalists, which rushed on into the roaring sea of infidelity, blasphemy, and anarchy of the Revolution.
Of all the historic figures of that time, there is just one which to-day stands forth as representing sensibility. In her own time she was thought to be something of a philosopher, and something more of a novelist. She consorted with all the clever men and women of her age. But now she holds a minute niche in history because of the fact that Napoleon stooped to hate her, and because she personifies sensibility.
Criticism has stripped from her the rags and tatters of the philosophy which was not her own. It is seen that she was indebted to the brains of others for such imaginative bits of fiction as she put forth in Delphine and Corinne; but as the exponent of sensibility she remains unique. This woman was Anne Louise Germaine Necker, usually known as Mme. de Stael.