The Man of Feeling
In my last review, on “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”, I introduced to theme of the sentimental novel. Well, we are there again, this time condensed to the exclusion of anything else.
“The Man of Feeling” has a single purpose, to present several tableaux to move the reader. We are supposed to cry a little, feel sorry for the unfortunate, a bit of weltsmertz and then on to the next. Apparently back in its day this really worked. Henry Mackenzie’s “The Man of Feeling” was an instant bestseller and remained so for a long time. The individual tableaux were singled out and used whenever people needed to be moved and in the world of sentimental literature Mackenzie was legend.
Here is the thing though: There is literally nothing else in this novel. No progressive narrative, no character study, no morale, except that for many people life stinks. Therefore, all depends on that these small bits of emotional porn work their magic.
Structurally, this is a story within a story within a story. The outermost shell of this literary babushka doll is Mackenzie himself. He is writing about some curate who accidentally come by a fragmented text. The text is written by an observer (likely a fellow called Sedley) who is telling the story of a gentleman called Harley. The fragmentation of this manuscript allows the author to skip in the narrative so what we get are a number of incidents were Harley is the observer to somebody else’s story. Harley rarely interacts with the unfortunate any further than listening to them and offer a bit of assistance or sympathy. He is the sentimental person who is moved by the story and obviously it is hoped that this translates to the reader.
There are stories about fallen women, old people sent to the army, a father to a prostitute, the mental ill and so on. These stories are naturally sad stories, and as such they are milked to the max. The major problem, at least my issue with them, is that they are tableaux. We are presented to people who then disappear, we have no deeper relationship to them and therefore I do not feel as much impact from their stories as I would had I known them better. The characters easily become non-entities or types rather than actual people and that significantly reduces the emotional impact. For this reason, “The Man of Feeling” does not carry anywhere close to the impact today as it apparently did back then.
This is a real problem, when the only leg the book has to stand on turns out to be weak and this is why I am rather indifferent to the book. It is a lot easier to read than Sterne, but as a sentimental novel I much preferred “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” as we here at least had a focus in Yorick and the book became a character study on him. I know practically nothing of Harley except he was a passive and easily moved fellow.
The value of “The Man of Feeling” is mostly its significance in the development of the sentimental and romantic genre. In itself I found it less than impressive and I do not think there is much to recommend it.