Sentimentalism & Sentimentality

The fashion for sentimental novels started in the mid-eighteenth century with the publication of Rousseau's Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1762) and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Throughout the 18th century and earlier, upper-class male-female sexual relations had mainly consisted of a) quick gratification with a prostitute, b) marriages arranged for financial and social reasons, and c) affairs and seductions after marriage. These two novels introduced a new kind of sentimental love that "etherialized sex and made it into an affair of religious devotion rather than the body, a secular equivalent to the love a religious devotee feels towards the godhead. It burgeoned in rural simplicity rather than panelled drawing rooms, seeking--and failing--to transcend all social restrictions and conventions. It gloried in the pain as well as the exaltation of love and thought in terms of the commitment of a lifetime--Jane Austen's Marianne Dashwood is typical of her disapproval of 'second attachments'. Most significantly, it believed that man and woman in love could be free and equal--equally noble, equally passionate" (Christiansen 99).

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. Rousseau insisted that people were naturally good, and that "natural feeling could only flourish in natural surroundings, away from the corruptions of cities, with their spirit of emulation and greed" (Christiansen 96). Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" celebrates the "homely joys" (30) of simple farmers, contrasting them with the "pomp of power" and the learning and pride of those who live in cities. The second part of Gray's poem imagines itself as an elegy for a natural poet, a "mute, inglorious Milton" (59) who lived "Far from the madding crowd" (73). In her novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), Jane Austen contrasts two sisters, one (Elinor) who approaches life and love with "sense" (reason) and the other (Marianne) who navigates by her "sensibility" (instinct or feeling). The first sister runs the risk of missing out on romance altogether, while the second risks being deceived or "ruined" by a charming but dissolute fortune-hunter.

Later, in 1859, George Meredith defined sentimentalists as readers who seek escape--and only escape--from consequences, from themselves, and from real emotion:

"Sentimentalists . . . are they who seek to enjoy Reality without the incurring the Immense Debtorship for a thing done."

"It is . . .a happy pastime, and an important science, to the timid, the idle, and the heartless, but a damning one to them who have anything to forfeit."

--George Meredith, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, chapter 28 (1859)

1. In what ways is sentimentality a sort of emotional lie? Do you think there are other, truer, kinds of empathy?

2. Do you agree with Meredith that sentimentality is dangerous to those who have something to lose? If so, in what ways would you think it is dangerous?

3. According to Meredith's definition, in what ways is reading a sentimental activity? Explain. Do you think there are ways in which one could read in an unsentimental fashion? If so, how? (Difficult questions, so think of concrete examples.)

Works Cited

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