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The Ceremony of Crying:
The Novel of Sensibility as Theatrical Performance,
Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771)
Sara Martín Alegre
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
No other novel epitomizes the 18th century cult of sensibility better than Henry
Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). However, despite the enormous popularity of
this novel following its publication, today Mackenzie’s reputation is on the ebb, especially if we compare him to Laurence Sterne, the other genuinely sentimental writer of the 18th century and rightful pioneer of post-modernism. All in all, while Walter Allen claims that “Mackenzie wrote very well indeed”1, we rather tend to agree with Brian Vickers when he states that “The Man of Feeling has little absolute literary value yet if we use it mainly to gauge the ‘tune of the time’ we must grant that Mackenzie caught it with some sensitivity”2. No doubt Mackenzie worked in tune with his times, not only because in sensibility he sided with the precursors of the Romantics–on the side opposite to Goldsmith or Sheridan–but also because he was the heir to the tradition of sentimentality started in mid-century by Richardson. Precisely, what makes a modern renewal of Mackenzie’s success unlikely is his position at a crossroads between Romanticism and 18th century Sentimentalism. Henry Mackenzie’s Harley is no doubt a (proto)Romantic–just like Goethe’s young Werther– and, as such, not completely gone out of fashion, even in our hardly Romantic times.
What makes his story less palatable now is the mode Mackenzie uses to represent his hero’s sensibility. It is not only that the text is aimed at awakening the emotional 1 Walter Allen, The English Novel (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1954 (1984)) p. 87.
2 Brian Vickers, “Introduction” to Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) p. xxiii.
Sara Martín Alegre, The Ceremony of Crying: The Novel of Sensibility as Theatrical Performance, Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) response of the reader and, as the inheritors of Modernism, we regard this function of Literature as something rather inelegant; the problem is that we cannot successfully suspend our disbelief because the representation of sensibility in The Man of Feeling is simply too theatrical. Thus, this active use of theatricality in fiction to heighten emotional effects, which places Mackenzie well within the sentimental tradition of the 18th century, is what most distances him–and most sentimental novelists–from us;
although, paradoxically, non-literary sentimentalism is still successful in aural-visual fields of communication, such as television and the cinema. Of course, in these media sentimentalism is more acceptable because they do not suffer from the dissociation of sensibility and intellectuality that often handicaps the popular success of modern Literature. This dissociation resulted both from the late 19th century fragmentation of the reading public and the Modernists’ view of the novel as art, which pushed sentimentality away from high-brow literature an into the cultural ghetto of low-brow fiction inspired by sentimentalism most despised heir: melodrama. Fred Kaplan summarizes well the distrust modern readers are likely to feel towards Henry Mackenzie and his Victorian successors, beginning with Dickens himself, when he
The novelist of sentiment is particularly reprehensible, for any novelist aware of his genre and in control of his craft should know that the assumptions about reality upon which the novel as a genre is based allow no place for an idealistic depiction of human nature. Such a depiction must be either insincere or in bad taste.3 What seems questionable is whether The Man of Feeling is truly a novel, since it does not seem that Mackenzie feels he is bound to a definite genre or to have control over his subject matter; within the text itself, neither the narrator nor the curate of the introduction know how to define the text about Harley and the same framing narrator excuses the lack of consistency of the story on the grounds of its having been used by the curate as wadding. The Man of Feeling is a hybrid fiction, very much like Sterne’s A
Sentimental Journey (1768) or even Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-39), which shares with these books a fragmentariness and an attention to individual scenes that seem closer to drama than to the novel. The absence of a clearly structured plot, the sudden shifts from moments of intense pathos to comic moments, the subordination of artistic craftsmanship to eliciting a response from the reader which appear in The Man of Feeling are the same features that little educated audiences enjoyed in popular melodrama–a fact that perplexed Dickens but that did not prevent him from artfully using the very same features in his own novels. So, although Kaplan argues that the fragmentary form of The Man of Feeling reflects Harley’s acute sensibility and his consequent difficulties to see reality in any structured from, in all probability Janet Todd hits on a better motivation for the little organized plot when she connects
sentimental novels with the greatest idol of 18th century theatre:
In Garrick’s expressive method, the emphasis was on character as attitude, on the individual scene rather than on the play as a totality, and on gesture rather than flow of speech. Consequently the emotional tableau, so common in sentimental writing generally, predominated over narrative coherence, a tendency supported by the fashion of the time for paintings of actors in high dramatic and static moments (...)4 The Man of Feeling contains a considerable number of these tableaux, ranging from the scenes in Bedlam to Harley’s death, which have in common their conventionality both in form and in content. Scenes like these were stereotyped situations appearing with small variations in all kinds of sentimental literature, both in drama and in the novel; they were inherited by Hollywood cinema and by TV soap operas where they still perform the original function of moving the viewers to tears, though adapted to modern circumstances and to cinematic, rather than to dramatic modes of representation. It seems, then, than thorough visualization is indispensable in sentimental fiction since, of course, emotional sympathy is more easily aroused by immediate imitation of the characters physical reactions than by detailed descriptions of an emotional state. Sometimes, the dramatic inheritance of sentimentalism is found
in the most unexpected places and times, such as the following tableaux, from Bram
Stoker’s Dracula, will show:
We men were all in tears now. There was no resisting them, and we wept openly.
She wept too, to see that her sweeter counsels had prevailed. Her husband flung himself on his knees beside her, and putting his arms around her, hid his face in the folds of her dress. Van Helsing beckoned to us and we stole out of the room, leaving the two loving hearts alone with God.5 Presumably, Stoker, who had been Henry Irving’s touring manager and secretary between 1878 and 1905, was well-versed in the art of arousing the audience’s response through dramatic effects. Moreover, he needn’t have felt no great qualms when mixing sentimentalism and horror, for, as Elizabeth Napier (1987) claims, Gothic fiction and the novel of sensibility spring from the same sentimental interest in the distresses of virtue threatened by misfortune. Oliver Twist itself could arguably be a better instance than Dracula as a descendant of both branches of sensibility, since it contains an even more bizarre mixture of sentimentalism, Gothic and Victorian melodrama. Napier further argues that Gothic novels are fragmented for the sake of effect just like sentimental novels, and that the Gothic novel (for instance, Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, 1764) may often be read as burlesque because it depends on exaggeration6–a trait which The Man of Feeling perfectly mirrors in the field of pure sensibility.
The novel of sensibility appeals to our emotions rather than to our intellects, although the uses sensibility has been put to are not uniform and may even include politics, as Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) proves. In the case of The Man of Feeling, Mackenzie uses sentimentalism for no other purpose than letting his readers indulge themselves in the pleasures of feeling sympathy for his hero Harley. Mackenzie was actually convinced that there was an instructional purpose in his novel and so he wrote to his cousin that he “was somehow led to think of introducing a Man of Sensibility into different Scenes where his Feelings might be seen
in their Effects, & his Sentiments occasionally delivered without the Stiffness of Regular Deduction”7. Moral instruction had been the excuse regularly offered by the practicioners of sentimentalism either to introduce elements hardly moral–violence, eroticism–or to indulge in the enjoyment of sentimentality for its sake, without any actual moral basis. Dickens himself justifies his choice of characters from the dark side
of life by appealing to his predecessors in the craft in his “Preface” to Oliver Twist:
On the other hand, if I look for examples, and for precedents, I find them in the noblest range of English literature. Fielding, Defoe, Goldsmith, Smollett, Richardson, Mackenzie; all these for wise purposes, and especially the two first, brought upon the scene the very scum and refuse of the land.8 Apart from the mention of Mackenzie, the metaphor Dickens uses in reference to the fiction of these novelists–”brought upon the scene”–is interesting enough, for it points at a conception of the novel as fictionalized drama; another of his predecessors, Sarah Fielding, whom Dickens significantly ignores, also saw the return of her sentimental hero in the second part of The Adventures of David Simple (1744-1753) as a reappearance on the Stage, or so she claims in the very first chapter. Additionally, the passage by Dickens in the “Preface” to Oliver Twist hints at the introduction of a character like Nancy, the prostitute, for in 1837, more than sixty years after Mackenzie introduced in his book the episode of the prostitute who is redeemed by Harley and accepted by her father, Dickens still had to justify why he had included characters like Nancy–essentially ‘depraved’–in a book about how goodness is always rewarded. The terms in which he does so are fully sentimental since, like most sentimentalists, Dickens does not actually want to see the truth behind his characters, especially if they
It is useless to discuss whether the conduct and character of the girl seems natural or unnatural, probable or improbable, right or wrong. IT IS TRUE... It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth he leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts; the hope yet lingering there; the last fair drop of water at the
bottom of the weed-choked well. It involves the best and worst shades of our nature; much of its ugliest hues, and something of its most beautiful; it is a contradiction, an anomaly, an apparent impossibility; but it is a truth. (p. 36-37, original ellipsis) The same passage can be applied to Mackenzie’s Harley; the paradox is that sentimentality may be used to justify at the same time a thoroughly pure young man and a prostitute and precisely, this double-sidedness of sensibility is what, in part, led to its going out of fashion. The same sardonic impulse that moved Henry Fielding to write Shamela (1741) in answer to Richardson’s Pamela (1742) led many readers away from the easy temptation to succumb to the self-indulgence of sensibility.
Sarah Fielding herself seems insecure about what to do with his hero, David Simple–a clear predecessor of Harley and, incidentally, the protagonist of a much better book than The Man of Feeling–for after rewarding him with the usual happy ending of virtue rewarded in the shape of a lovely wife and faithful friends, she kills him off in the second part of the novel (written twelve years later) after piling misfortune after misfortune upon him. The most interesting characteristic of David Simple is, no doubt, the self-consciousness Sarah Fielding shows as a sentimental writer; a great portion of the second volume discusses two kinds of sensibility: the true one–which is essentially calm, reserved–and the fake one, which is all theatrical performance. So, the paradox is that while in The Man of Feeling we pity Miss Emily Atkins, the prostitute and heroine, when she is cruelly dismissed by her callous lover (when she is about to plunge a knife in her heart) with the memorable line “Madam, I confess you are rather too much in heroics for me” (p. 62) in David Simple a great deal of the hero’s misfortunes are caused by a Mrs Orgueil who cannot believe in feeling unless it is shown by tears or complaints, and who is herself rather too often in ‘heroics’.
involved on one side those who sharply distinguished between a moderate use of sentimentalism to show that excessive sensibility led to folly (Goldsmith, Sheridan) and, on the other, those who exploited sentimentalism without any further concern (Barnwell, Garrick, Cumberland). Since for some obscure reason literary quality ranked higher on the side of the anti-sentimentalists, who were less popular, only they are remembered today and, so, the general impression is that sentimentalism was intrinsically self-parodic. Goldsmith’s The Good-Natur’d Man (1768) is the best instance of a sentimental comedy in which sentimentality is disparaged, since it includes a sentimental hero, Honeywood, severely reprimanded by his well-meaning
uncle for being too good: