Eighteenth-century sensibility is linked inescapably to the econ-omic. The classic sentimental tableau, such as this set piece in Bedlam from Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), in which the spectator weeps at another’s distress, is based not simply on feeling, but on feeling and money: money which the spectator generally has, and which the object of his or her gaze does not. The centrality of feeling in fiction labelled ‘sentimental’ has long been a commonplace of criticism, but the link with the economic has been largely neglected. Yet sensibility manifests itself again and again economically and in situations of financial delicacy and exigency. Mary Collyer, popular sentimental novelist of the 1740s, wrote (with a telling lack of either finesse or irony) of ‘drying up the tears of the distressed with money’.2 Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison quite consciously uses the response to financial generosity as a barometer of moral worth. The possibility of reformation in his ward’s wayward mother is confirmed by her new husband’s speechlessness and tears on being presented with a large banknote: ‘He hurried out, and when he was in the hall, wiped his eyes, and sobbed like a child. ’3


Eighteenth Century Moral Worth Luxury Good Economic Discourse Humanist Discourse 
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  1. 1.
    Henry Mackenzie, The Man of Feeling (1771; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 34–5.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary Collyer, Letters from Felicia to Charlotte (1744–9; rpt 2 vols, London: R. Baldwin, 1755), vol. I, pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Samuuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), vol. IV, Letter ix, p. 311.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    As James Thompson points out in Models of Value: Eighteenth-Century Political Economy and the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996), p. 4.Google Scholar
  5. Examples of earlier treatment of economic aspects of eighteenth-century literature include the now classic work of Maximillian E. Novak, Economics and the Fiction of Daniel Defoe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962)Google Scholar
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  9. 6.
    As Mary Poovey has commented, in the course of the eighteenth century, ‘sentimental virtues were increasingly identified as feminine virtues’ (‘Ideology and The Mysteries of Udolpho’, Criticism, 21 [1979], pp. 308–9), while in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984) she points out that ‘even critics of excessive sentimentalism … agreed that women were “naturally” suited to this species of composition’ (p. 38) In Feminist Literary History: A Defence (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988), Janet Todd underlines the crucial connections between eighteenth-century women writers and male writers such as Richardson, commenting that the ‘gender polarities of that century cut across sex lines to label his prose “feminine”’ (p. 42). See also Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (Oxford and New York: Blackwell,1986; rpt 1987), pp. 77–8.Google Scholar
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    Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the Words are Deduced from their Originals, and Illustrated in their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers (2 vols, London: J. and P. Knapton et al., 1755).Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    George Berkeley, An Essay towards preventing the Ruin of Great Britain (1721), in Stephen Copley (ed.), Literature and the Social Order in Eighteenth-Century England (London, Sydney and Dover, New Hampshire: Croom Helm, 1984), pp. 90–1.Google Scholar
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  20. 22.
    Sarah Fielding, The Adventures of David Simple (1744 and 1753; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), Book H, Chapter x, p. 139.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
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  22. 26.
    Bernard Mandeville, ‘Remark L’, The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye (1714–28; 2 vols, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), vol. I, p. 107.Google Scholar
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    Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (1976; Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1984), p. 100.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977).Google Scholar
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    For contemporary response to Mandeville’s work, see Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1984; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1984; Toronto: Random House, 1984), pp. 30–1 and Elizabeth Bellamy, Private Virtues, Public Vices: Commercial Morality and the Novel, 1740–1800 (unpublished PhD thesis; Cambridge, 1988), Chapters 1 and 2.Google Scholar
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  31. 43.
    Since beginning this project nine years ago, valuable and innovative work has been produced on the sentimental novel in the eighteenth century, much of which I have profited by and I hope fully acknowledged. I am sorry that Markman Ellis’s The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) came to my attention too late to enable me to include it in my discussions, but I am also delighted that the very title of his study confirms my conviction that the broader significances of the sentimental novel deserve much greater attention.Google Scholar

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© Gillian Skinner 1999

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