Sympathy is perhaps the most frequently discussed emotion among scholars working in Victorian literature and culture. Many have argued how important notions of sympathy and later empathy were to the development of nineteenth-century subjects and the novel as a genre. Most of these critics understand sympathy as cognitive, or as a kind of mental feeling. In Scenes of Sympathy, for instance, Audrey Jaffe draws from Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments when she explains that “sympathy ‘does away’ with bodies in order to produce representations, replacing persons with mental pictures, generalized images of ease and of suffering” (11). Yet for many Victorian thinkers, sympathy did not ‘do away’ with the body. In fact, in Victorian scientific and philosophical writing, as well as in much literature of the period, sympathy was often understood as an affective response that was deeply physiological and embodied. Henry George Atkinson, writing to Harriet Martineau in their collaborative text Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development in 1851 called sympathies between individuals, “the influences of one organized body upon another” (117-18). If scholars working on nineteenth-century literature have been so invested in notions of sympathy as a cognitive and ultimately ethical response to reading, how might we read literary texts alongside a more embodied and potentially more ambiguous understanding of sympathy?
A couple of years ago, Connie introduced us to The Yellow Nineties Online, a project edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff at Ryerson University dedicated to producing a TEI-edition of late Victorian periodicals including not only the Yellow Book but also periodicals like the Evergreen and the Pagan Review. Since that post, I’ve used The Yellow Nineties Online in two of my courses this past winter term (we don’t even pretend to call it a spring term here in Calgary!), and I thought it would be a good follow-up to blog about my experiences in the classroom here.