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19th century sentimental literature

Related: novel - domestic fiction - sensation novel - Romanticism - sensibility - sentimentalism

Novels: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sentimental novel

For 18th century readers and writers, sentiment is equivalent to a strong, romantic, usually exaggeratedly powerful feeling. Sentiment is represented in Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela. The term and the literary style originate in medieval French (and later English) romances, in which the plot is based on a romantic narrative. The hero is usually preoccupied with his or her love and love sufferings.

Henry Mackenzie's novel, The Man of Feeling (1771). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentiment [Sept 2005]

Sentimentalism, sometimes known as sensibility (or "the cult of sensibility"), was a fashion in both poetry and fiction beginning in the eighteenth century.

Sentimental novels are probably descendants of the domestic fiction of the early eighteenth century. Among the most famous sentimental novels are Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey and Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling.

Along with a new vision of love, sentimentalism presented a new view of human nature which prized feeling over thinking, passion over reason, and personal instincts of "pity, tenderness, and benevolence" over social duties.

The first and possibly most prominent example of sentimental ficiton in America is Susan Warner "Wide, Wide World".

Writers of sentimentalism criticized the cruelty of the capitalist relations and the gross social injustices brought about by the bourgeois revolutions. They attacked the progressive aspect of this great social change in order to eliminate it and sighed for the return of the patriarchal times which they idealized. Sentimentalism embraces a pessimistic outlook and blames reason and the Industrial Revolution for the miseries and injustices in the aristocratic-bourgeois society and indulges in sentiment, hence the definite signs of decadence in the literary works of the sentimental tradition. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentimentalism [Sept 2005]

See also: 1700s - emotion - fiction - romance - sentimentalism

The novel of sensibility

At the mid 1700s, these two novels [Pamela and Tom Jones], and others, spawned the novel of sensibility. In it, the protagonist, most often a young woman, naively encounters the world and learns to refine her natural goodness. Sensibility was a character trait important in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. A person with sensibility was attuned with nature and was easily, and rightly, affected by the feelings of others; the "sensible" person noticed the hurt of others and was a barometer of social morality. An excellent example of this type of novel is Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), wherein the heroine, while naturally good, in part for being country-raised, hones her politeness when visiting London she is educated into propriety. This novel also is the beginning of "romantic comedy".

At the end of the eighteenth century, sensibility's value was questioned, as it made its bearers, particularly women, too overwrought and too prone to imagining worlds beyond their appointed ones. These anxieties are in the rise of the Gothic novel, at century's end. The Gothic novel's story occurs in a distant time and place, often Renaissance Italy, and involved the fantastic exploits of an imperiled heroine. The classic Gothic novel is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). As in other Gothic novels, the notion of the sublime is central. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theory held that the sublime and the beautiful were juxtaposed. The sublime was awful (awe-inspiring) and terrifying while the beautiful was calm and reassuring. The characters and landscapes of the Gothic rest almost entirely within the sublime, with the heroine the great exception. The “beautiful” heroine’s susceptibility to supernatural elements, integral to these novels, both celebrates and problematizes what came to be seen as hyper-sensibility.

Finally, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the overwrought emotions of sensibility, as expressed through the Gothic sublime, had run their course. Jane Austen wrote a Gothic novel parody titled Northanger Abbey (1803), reflecting the death of the Gothic novel. Moreover, while sensibility did not disappear, it was less valued. Austen introduced a different style of writing-the comedy of manners, but her novels often are not funny, bur are scathing critiques of the restrictive, rural culture of the early nineteenth century. Her best known novel, Pride and Prejudice (1813), is her happiest, and has been a blueprint for much subsequent romantic fiction; her other novels feature heroines for whom the modern reader has little sympathy, and may dislike. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensibility [Sept 2005]


A term which can encompass the medieval narrative poem, Spenser's Faerie Queene, gothic horrors and sentimental pap for the mass market is bound to be difficult to define. --A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (1973) - Roger Fowler

Sentimentalism, Psychology, and a New Individual, 1750-1850

The mid- and late 18th century novel of sentimentalism produced an entirely new individual, one with a different attitude towards privacy and the public. Had the early 18th century heroine been bold and ready to protect her reputation if necessary in a press war her mid-18th century descendant was far too modest and shy to do the same. Early 18th century heroines had their secrets, they loved effective intrigues, they tried whatever they felt necessary to get what they wanted. Mid-18th century heroines developed a feeling of modesty. They suffered if they had to keep secrets and felt an urge to confess. They searched for friends and intimacy, for situations in which they could freely open their hearts and speak of their deepest wishes.

The 18th century audience saw these new heroes and heroines with amazement. When it came to their most secret wishes they dared to confide in their parents and friends—a trust which would have made them easy victims in the early 18th century world of fiction, libel, intrigue and scandal. Now, however, these weak heroines met an environment of compassion. Instead of making their affairs a public entertainment, the new heroes and heroines developed an intimacy into which the novel alone could take a careful look.

Special genres flourished with these protagonists who would not wash their dirty linen in the public: Their letters or diaries were found and published only after their death. A wave of sentimentalism was the first result, leading to heroes like Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling (1771). A second wave followed with more radical heroes who could no longer dream of an environment understanding them. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was at the forefront of the new movement, and yielded a wave of compassion and understanding with readers ready to follow Werther into his suicide.

Critics embraced the new heroes as the best sign of a new literature which aimed at discussions. The understanding these heroes craved for afforded a secondary discussion—a discussion of the nature of the human psyche so much better observed by these new novels.

The novel had, with these developments, turned advocacy of individual and societal moral reform into a genre. With the romantic movement beginning in the 1770s, the development went one step further: the novel became the medium of an avant garde, the genre where emotions found their test cases. The Bildungsroman developed in Germany—a novel focussing on the development of the individual, his or her education and its way into individuality and society. New sciences—from sociology to psychology—developed with the new individual and influenced the discussions surrounding the novel in the 19th century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel#Sentimentalism.2C_Psychology.2C_and_a_New_Individual.2C_1750-1850 [Oct 2005]

Virtue in distress: Studies in the novel of sentiment from Richardson to Sade (1974) - R. F Brissenden

Virtue in distress: Studies in the novel of sentiment from Richardson to Sade (1974) - R. F Brissenden [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

See also: virtue - sentimentalism - novel

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (2000) - Marianne Noble

The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (2000) - Marianne Noble [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Editorial Reviews
Suzanne Juhasz, University of Colorado
"A well-written and sophisticated study of nineteenth-century female masochism and its expression in the writing of middle-class American women of the period. Marianne Noble's plan is impressive: she is at once a thoughtful theorist and an admirable close reader of texts. The result is a work that engages in an illuminating and thought-provoking manner with extremely complex issues."

[A] complex, nuanced volume. . . .
[T]he author abundantly documents the oppressive aspects of fantasies of masochistic desire. . . .
[Jammer's] contributions to the conceptual foundations of physics have been, and continue to be, both fruitful and enlightening. Noble's flexible and dazzling close reading of Stowe, Warner, and Dickinson are artful.

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