All entries for Monday 03 October 2011

October 03, 2011

Sensibility and Henry MacKenzie's 'Man of Feeling'

Man of FeelingHenry MacKenzie (1745-1831) was a Scottish novelist and journalist, best known for his novel The Man of Feeling (published anonymously in 1771). He believed that sensibility was essential to mental improvement in men, to the "discernment [...] comparison of objects, distinction of causes' and, moreover, beneficial to business, as it could "guide the speculation of the merchant, and [...] prompt the arguments of the lawyer".1 As G.J Barker-Benfield discusses, this "tension between the high evaluation of refinement in men and the wish to square it with manliness" preoccupied the eighteenth-century novel. As sensibility was linked to virtue and morality, it could also make them good husbands and fathers.2 As Henry Fielding wrote to Samuel Richardson of Clarissa (a novel written by Richardson) in 1748 "God forbid that the Man who reads this with dry Eyes should be alone with my Daughter when she hath no assistance within call."3 It could make them benevolent, compassionate, considerate and even pious.

Sir Walter Scott remarked of MacKenzie in his Lives of the Novelists (1823) that his works were of "moral truth", and that his principal object was to

reach and sustain a tense or moral pathos, by representing the effect of incidents, whether important or trifling, upon the human mind, and especially on those which were not only just, honourable and intelligent, but so framed as to be responsive to those finer feelings to which ordinary hearts are callous. This is the direct and professed object of MacKenzie's first work, which is in fact no narrative, but a series of successive incidents, each rendered interesting by the mode in which they operate on the feelings of Harley [the protagonist]. The attempt had been perilous in a meaner hand; for, sketched by a pencil less nicely discriminating, Harley, instead of being whom we love, respect, sympathise with, and admire, had become the mere Quixote of sentiment, an object of pity, perhaps, but of ridicule at the same time.4

In one chapter of The Man of Feeling Harley visits the asylum at Bedlam and speaks to a young female inmate, struck down by grief:

He found them in a quarter of the house set apart for the insane of the other sex, several of whom had gathered about the female visitors, and were examining, with rather more accuracy, than might have been expected, the particulars of their dress. Separate from the rest stood one, whose appearance had something of superior dignity. Her face, though pale and wasted, was less squalid than those of the others, and showed a dejection of that decent kind, which moves our pity unmixed with horror: upon her, therefore, the eyes of all were immediately turned. The keeper, who accompanied them, observed it: 'This, said he, is a young lady, who was born to ride in her coach and six. She was beloved, if the story I have heard is true, by a young gentleman, her equal in birth, though by no means her match in fortune: but love, they say, is blind, and so she fancied him as much as he did her. Her father, it seems, would not hear of their marriage, and threatened to turn her out of doors, if ever he saw him again. Upon this the young gentleman took a voyage to the West Indies, in hopes of bettering his fortune, and obtaining his mistress; but he was scarce landed, when he was seized with one of the fevers which are common in those islands, and died in a few days, lamented by every one that knew him. This news soon reached his mistress, who was at the same time pressed by her father to marry a rich miserly fellow who was old enough to be her grandfather. The death of her lover had no effect on her inhuman parent: he was only the more earnest for her marriage with the man he had provided for her; and what between her despair at the death of the one, and her aversion to the other, the young lady was reduced to the condition you see her in. But God would not prosper such cruelty; her father's affairs. Soon after went to wreck, and he died almost a beggar.' Though this story was told in very plain language, it had particularly attracted Harley's notice-; he had given it the tribute of tears. The unfortunate young lady had till now seemed entranced in thought, with her eyes fixed on a little garnet ring she wore on her finger: she turned them now upon Harley. 'My Billy is no more! said she, do you weep for my Billy? Blessings on your tears! I would weep too, but my brain is dry; and it burns, it burns, it burns!'—She drew nearer to Harley.— 'Be comforted, young lady, said he, your Billy is in heaven.' 'Is he, indeed? and shall we meet again? and shall that frightful man (pointing to the keeper) not be there? —Alas! I am grown naughty of late. I have almost forgotten to think of heaven: yet I pray sometimes; when I can, I pray; and sometimes I sing; when I am saddest, I sing:—You shall hear me, hush!' […] She would have withdrawn her hand; Harley held it to his lips. '—I dare not stay longer; my head throbs sadly: farewell!' She walked with a hurried step to a little apartment at some distance. Harley stood fixed in astonishment and pity! [...] —He put a couple of guineas into the man’s hand: 'Be kind to that unfortunate'—He burst into tears, and left them.5


1 Henry MacKenzie "Defense of the Literary Studies and Amusements in Men of Buisness", The Lounger, 30 December 1786.

2 G.J Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, (Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp.91-2

3 As quoted by Barker-Benfield, p.141

4 Sir Walter Scott, "Henry MacKenzie", Lives of the Novelists (1823), Google Books.

5 Henry MacKenzie, Chapter XX, The Man of Feeling, Google Books.


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