Virginia Cope Response



"What, in your opinion, is the meaning of the word sentimental, so much in vogue among the polite..Every thing clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word...I am frequently astonished to hear such a one is a sentimental man; we were a sentimental party; I have been taking a sentimental walk" ----Lady Bradshaigh to Samuel Richardson, 1749.

The word "sentimental" came into being in the same decade as Clarissa; because the novel is often taken as the quintessential sentimental text, it seems that an understanding oft the oft-misunderstood, ever-changing term is vital. What follows is a summary of the term's evolution, as I understand it, as well as abstracts from various articles applying the term to the novel and to Clarissa in particular.

I hope that this discussion will complement Corey's report on Clarissa in the context of Puritan conduct books; although this is not a direct response to his work, it sprang from the same desire to read Clarissa in eighteenth- rather than twentieth-century terms. Corey argues that the genre expectations of reading for moral improvement were heavily influenced by the Puritan conduct books. I would add that the concepts of sentimentality/sensibility, as understood in the mid-18th century, helped create a framework relating moral improvement to the pleasures of reading such engaging fictions as Clarissa.

The word "sentimental" made its first appearance in the 1740s; Lady Bradshaigh's letter is sometimes quoted as its first appearance. Most critics view the development of sentimentality and its colleague, sensibility, as evidence of a shift away from reason as the unquestioned foundation for all moral judgments. They relate it to the ethics of feeling of David Hume and Adam Smith, and to the Earl of Shaftesbury's benevolism. Ann Jessie Van Sant, for example, considers the development of the related words sentimental/sensibility to "the general shift of the foundation of moral life from reason and judgment to the affections" in the 18th century (5). Feelings rather than reason--or feelings as an important component of reason, in some descriptions--were increasingly seen as appropriate to provide principles for action and judgment. "Passions" weren't simply something to be overcome.

Sentiment and sensibility connoted refined feeling; they also connoted what's now often forgotten, morality--whether through the intense sympathetic responses to others' sufferings that inspires benevolence; or through the idea implied in the phrase "moral sentiments," which imbues the refined feeling with a moral evaluative capacity.

One note: I gave up trying to separate sentimentality and sensibility in my discussion. I found Van Sant's description of the distinction useful, however: "Although closely related, sensibility and sentiment/sentimental are in one respect easy to separate: sensibility is associated with the body, sentiment with the mind. The first is based on physical sensitivity and the processes of sensation; the second refers to a refinement of thought" (Van Sant 4).

Sentimentality is often traced to the latitudinarian divines of the 17th century; some call on the Cambridge Platonists as precursors. The philosophy is often described as a reaction against Calvinistic or Puritan belief in humanity's natural depravity and against Thomas Hobbes' bleak vision of the constant social war that would result without government control over natural passions.

Louis Bredvold, in his analysis, focuses on the groundwork laid by the Cambridge Platonists. In response to Calvinistic belief in man's total depravity, he argues, the Cambridge Platonists "insisted that he [man} still retains something of the image of God in which he was made," that is, that virtue is the natural state of the healthy soul (8-9).

Bredvold accords Phase 2 of this sentimental journey to the Earl of Shaftesbury (author of the Characteristics of Men, Manner, Opinions, Times, etc. of 1711) who argued for an innate sense of virtue, particularly in the well-bred man. "Be persuaded that wisdom is more from the heart than from the head. Feel goodness, and you will see all the things fair and good," Shaftesbury wrote to a protigi (in Bredvold 12).

Adam Smith's "The Theory of the Moral Sentiments" contributed the idea of conscience built up through sympathy. To use Bredvold's summary of Smith: "It [conscience] is build up psychologically by means of sympathy--our feelings for others, our sensitiveness to their opinions of us and our conduct, and our acceptance of their way of scrutinizing the propriety of our actions" (19).

David Hume too rested his case on an ethics of feeling, and Bredvold goes on to paraphrase: "We are just, not because we obey a moral law ... but because we are moved by the passions of sympathy and benevolence" (21-2). Therefore, Hume wrote, "morality is more properly felt than judged of" (23). John Mullan summarizes Hume more succinctly: "When Hume writes that 'morality' is 'more properly felt than judged of' ... he puts his faith in neither an innate moral sense nor a prevailing tendency to benevolence. ... He rests his case on the unhinderable flow of feeling and and on the sympathy that makes that possible" (56)

Brissenden summarizes sentimentality, as do many others, as comprising "notions of man's innate benevolence, of his 'humanity', of his capacity to sympathize, of his ability and his right to exercise his own judgment, to formulate alone and unaided his moral sentiments" (33). Unlike some other critics, Brissenden argues strongly for the inclusion of reason in the understanding of sentimentality's workings: "although 'sentiment' and 'sensibility' could be taken, and indeed were taken, to refer to the feelings, they still carried with them strong connotations of rationality" (53).

Sentiment comes to mean a 'reasonable feeling,' he claims, developed from the belief that the individual's spontaneous moral response has authority. (Erik Erametsa backs up this contention, p. 25 plus especially).

One note: Syndy Conger insists that R.S. Crane's chronology of sentimentality is the most widely accepted. Crane traces the sentimental ethic to the latitudinarian divines (rather than the secular philosophy of Shaftesbury etc.). His four key tenets, however, are similar to what I've already described:

--the identification of virtue with acts of benevolence

--the assumption that "good affections" are natural

--the praise of sensibility (responsiveness) instead of stoicism in the face of suffering

--the emphasis of "self-approving joy"--that is, the joy of acting benevolently.

Such concepts lead to various theories of how sentimentality plays out in novels. Critics append to the basic description such qualities as distrust of language; a commitment to experientially inspired narrative; and stasis of character.

From Leo Braudy: "Structure in the sentimental novel strives to imitate feeling rather than intellect, and to embody direct experience rather than artistic premeditation. ... Ultimately the sentimental novel asserts the superiority of the inarticulate language of the heart to the artifice of literary and social forms, the articulate mind and the fluent pen. Like the novel in general, it rejects the older shapes of intellectual self- consciousness as well as any formal literary sophistication authenticated by tradition. ... The form of the novel must come from within, through a first-person narrator ... because the novel in the eighteenth century addresses itself to the problems of presenting and explicating character whether that of the narrator or one of his underlings, in a literary mode that rejects or subsumes the methods of the past. Such a novel assumes that the fictional shaping of a congruence between self and story is the best way to examine more closely those dim and submerged aspects of human character that earlier literary forms tend to obscure" (Braudy 5).

Northrop Frye says authors in the age of sensibility tended to present novels as "a continuous process from experience"--an explanation for Richardson's epistolary style and Sterne's authorial interruptions.

From Starr in "Only a Boy," the concept of sentimental novels as anti-Bildungsroman: "Instead of a progress toward maturity, the sentimental novel deals sympathetically with the character who cannot grow up and find an active place in society. Its ideal is stasis or regression, which makes for episodic, cyclical narratives that finally go nowhere or back where they began."

Characteristic of sentimentalism is not the quickly outdated language it developed, but "a fundamental skepticism about the adequacy of language itself as a medium of expression or communication" (502). Language is linked with disguise and exploitation; articulateness with villainy; humor/wit with the desire to control, "which would run contrary to the helpless, passive, victimized posture of most sentimental heroes" (505).

"Great stress is laid on openness to experience, but only in the sense that the hero must be prepared to have his susceptibilities set a-jangling in all sorts of odd moments and unlikely places; such openness does not extends to the point of allowing the hero to be transformed by his experience" (518).

In an article on Aphra Behn, G.A. Starr also disputes one of the commonly claimed attributes of sentimentality--its benevolism--and sees it rather as an extension of Hobbes' bleak ideas from the victim's standpoint:

"Sentimentalism examines what is means to be powerless in a society where, despite Christian pretenses and protestations, power is everything, and the Beatitudes are a prescription for endless torment" (362). Sentiment in his theory sympathetically imagines the victims' marginality and invites the readers to join in, he contends.

Brissenden on Richardson (after reminding us that in the Clarissa-era "sentimental" had primarily positive connotations):

"The term 'sentimental novel' for Richardson, and probably for many other English people in the 1740s and 50s would not have meant primarily a novel of feeling of passion. .... to describe a novel as 'sentimental' would have been to imply that it was a thoughtful, moral work, and one which presented human passion in a sober and realistic rather than a fancifully romantic manner" (100-1).

Moreover: "Clarissa is the feminine embodiment of the sentimental virtues and ideals: she believes in man's innate benevolence and in the right of the individual to follow the promptings of his own heart. She is also the woman of exquisite sensibility and, beneath her reserve, one who is capable of deep sexual passion. The trials ... are also a test .. of the moral attitudes she represents" (161).

Also: "In a negative and perverse but yet profoundly moving way it demonstrates both the truth and the falsity of the sentimental assertion that man is by nature a benevolent creature. ... The shocking thing, so far as certain eighteenth-century beliefs are concerned, is that the better feelings are defeated" (185).

"Clarissa" reveals "the insufficiency and one-sidedness of the sentimental picture of man" even as it "demonstrates the value and importance of the sentimental ideal" (186).

In a related fashion, Carol Flynn claims that Richardson transformed the stereotypes of his age by "developing the paradox of the sentimental woman" (99). She closes in on one aspect of sentimental novels and plays, their attitude toward women, and argues that it was the hallmark of sentimentalism that a woman's virtue had to be tested; women were "temples built on a sewer," always in danger of falling, whose virtue could never be assumed to be innate or lasting. Richardson nears a parody of the sentimental formula, she claims: "--Sentimentalists expected their women to be angels in imagination, not in fact. Clarissa carries the sentimental formula to an extreme, enduring ultimate suffering [rape] to enjoy the ultimate reward [death]" (141).

John Mullan defines sentimentality according to the commitment to the communication of feeling to cement social bonds. Consequently, he summarizes Hume, Richardson, and Sterne as "writers committed to the resources of a language of feeling for the purpose of representing necessary social bonds; all discover in their writings a sociability which is dependent on the communication of passions and sentiments" (2).

Like Brissenden, he argues for the rigor of sentimentally derived judgment. Therefore, he says of Richardson's novels: "These are not narratives of unconscious impulse or introspective ambivalence; they are novels of sentiment, depicting rigorous judgment supported by acute sensibility" (68).

Also: "At the centre of all three of his novels he has women writing with a 'Softness of heart' and a rigor of judgement--writing, in other words, of their 'sentiments.' The heart from which writing flows is a principle of constancy, inviolable and virtuous, but also of a keen susceptibility to ennobling feeling." (62).

Clarissa values her capacity for suffering, he notes for, "In the 'sensible' passivity of such suffering, she holds to an unwavering habit of judgement, which is also sanctioned by the heart" (64). "In the promptings of the heart are combined will, judgement, and feeling" (64).

Quite interestingly, Mullan then goes on to posit a theory of sentimental practice of reading. Like some other critics, he notes a deep undercurrent of pessimism in sentimentality:

"Novelists were able to concede that habits of sociability were limited or exceptional, only just surviving in a world in which fellow-feeling was rare and malevolence prevailed; but they were able to position each private reader as the exceptional connoisseur of commendable sympathies, and to imply such a reader's understanding of the communication of sentiments and the special capacities of sensibility. It is as if the very form of the novel in the eighteenth century implied a contract, by the terms of which a reader was set apart from the anti-social vices or insensitivities which the novels were able to represent" (13).

Now the $10 million question: How neatly--if at all--do we think Clarissa fits into the sentimental theory? Is the world of Clarissa one of innate benevolism? Does the communication of sympathies create a common bond? Does Clarissa suffer from a stasis of character, as Starr would have it?

These issues are particularly interesting in light of Corey's discerning thoughts at the end of his report: That the reader is to take up the vacant position of sensibility. Mullan's theories on "sentimental reading" play nicely into Corey's theory, you'll note.


Braudy, Leo. "The Form of the Sentimental Novel." Novel 7:1 (Fall 1973) 5-13.

Bredvold, Louis I. The Natural History of Sentimentality. Detroit: Wayne State UP 1962.

Brissenden, R.F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade.

Conger, Syndy. Introduction. Sensibility in Transformation. Rutherford: Associated UP 1990.

Crane, R.S. "Suggestions Toward a Genealogy of the 'Man of Feeling.'" ELH 1:3 (Dec. 1934) 205-230

Erik Erametsa, "A Study of the Word 'Sentimental' and of Other Linguistic Characteristics of Eighteenth Century Sentimentalism I England, Helsinki 1951.

Flynn, Carol Flynn. Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters. Princeton UP 1982.

Frye, Northrop. "Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility." Eighteenth Century English Literature: Essays in Modern Criticism. NY: Oxford UP 1959. 311-18.

Jones, Chris. Introduction. Radical Sensibility: Literature and Ideas in the 1790s. NY: Rutledge 1993.

Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press , 1988.

Starr, G.A. "Aphra Behn and the Genealogy of the Man of Feeling." Modern Philology 87: 4 (May 1990) 362-372:

----- "'Only a Boy': Notes on Sentimental Novels." Genre 10 (Winter 1977) 501-527.

Van Sant, Ann Jessie. Eighteenth-century Sensibility and the Novel, NY: Cambridge UP 1993.