Victorian Sentimentalism

By Brantlinger, Patrick | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Victorian Sentimentalism


Brantlinger, Patrick, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Fred Kaplan. Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987. 156 pp.

In Sacred Tears, Fred Kaplan approaches Victorian sentimentalism as a question of intellectual history. Focusing on Dickens and Thackeray, with Carlyle as their antagonist, Kaplan traces sentimentalism back to the eighteenth-century moral philosophers, particularly David Hume and AdamSmith. "Dickens, Thackeray more so, and Carlyle extensively, read the moral philosophers" (7). The note of reservation about Dickens is important, partly because it has always been difficult to align him with systematic thinking of any sort. But Kaplan demonstrates that all three knew the arguments of the moral philosophers, although he wisely also shows that both Dickens and Thackeray were more directly influenced by the eighteenth-century novelists, especially Richardson, Fielding, and Goldsmith. From these sources, Dickens and Thackeray drew the central idea that "sentimentality is the possession of innate moral sentiments" (33). These moral sentiments, focused in benevolence and promoting community, were defined as antithetical to "sensibility," or egoistic, excessive indulgence in feeling. Victorian sentimentalism emerges from this account in opposition to Romantic passion, although Kaplan points out that Wordsworth was as important an influence as Richardson or Hume.

"Victorian sentimentality was a late, occasionally shrill stage in the rear-guard action to defend human nature from further devaluation" (38) both by Puritanism and by "philosophical realism" or materialism. Without clear supernatural sanction, Victorian novelists had to locate the sources of goodness and progress elsewhere--in nature or human nature--or else not locate them at all, as in Gissing, Hardy, and Conrad. The doctrine of innate moral sentiments, and its expression in such sentimental set-pieces as the deaths of Little Nell and Paul Dombey, provided an optimistic, non-theological solution to the question of evil. Although Kaplan does not use the term, humanism seems appropriate--a view of the essential goodness of human nature central to the "liberal imagination" that informs Victorian fiction from Dickens through George Eliot.

As intellectual history, Kaplan's study is excellent. But it has the faults of its genre, one of which is the tendency to treat all cultural phenomena as ideas, sprung from the brains of philosophers. Kaplan's demonstration of the impact of moral philosophy is only part of the story, perhaps a minor one. He alludes to various social forces--industrialization, democratization, urbanization--but his focus on the high line of intellectual influence and the brevity of his essay do not allow him to explore these issues. In very different ways, Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience," Scott's celebrations of lost causes and inevitable progress, and Charles Lamb's essays suggest stronger ties between Romanticism and Victorian sentimentalism than Kaplan allows. The Victorian "ideology of feeling" (p.41) had roots also in that very Puritanism or evangelicalism that Kaplan treats as antithetical to the philosophical doctrine of innate moral sentiments.

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