Sensibility in English Prose Fiction, 1760-1814: A Reinterpretation

By Walter Wright Francis | Go to book overview

CHAPTER III
THE COMMON EMOTIONS AFTER 1760
Tristram Shandy, 1759-67. Emily Montague, 1769.
Julia Mandeville, 1763. The Man of Feeling, 1771.
The Fool of Quality, 1766-70. The Excursion, 1771.
The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766. Emma Corbett, 1780.
A Sentimental Journey, 1769.

Sterne's Faith in Sensibility as the Finest Human Quality

THE SPIRIT which had been developing during the age of Richardson and which had animated the tenth-rate novels parodied by Colman brought fruit in the 1760's in the form of several very creditable works of prose fiction. Chief among the authors it inspired was Laurence Sterne.1 That Sterne was sentimental is well known, but the full significance of his sensibility is not so obvious.

Critics have usually tried to interpret Sterne as an individual who was influenced by a few masterpieces but in no way by the literature of his time nor by the spirit of an age. They have consequently failed to discover the most important influences upon his work, and, not being able to account for what seems to them the uniqueness of Sterne's attitude, they have concluded that it is inexplicable. Sichel, for example, calls Sterne "a riddle to himself and others."2De Froe, proceeding "in the light of modern psychology," confesses that Sterne is a "Sphinx,"3 Cazamian treats him as an intellectual analyst of emotion and then grows bewildered when he sometimes finds him forsaking the intellectual and yielding himself to his feeling. All three historians expect normally to discover in a work of literature a rational design. Failing to discover such a design in the novels of Sterne, they attribute its absence to the inconsistency of the author.4

Miss Edith Birkhead, on the other hand, assumes that Sterne

____________________
1
Cf Tristram Shandy separate editions before 1814 are extant from the years 1759-67 (1st), 1760-67, 1769, 1777, 1779, 1781, 1793, 1794, and 1808. Of A Sentimental Journey separate editions are extant from the years 1769 (1st), 1782, 1802, 1803. The Works of Sterne, including both novels, were published in 1779, 1780 (two), 1798, 1800, 1802, and 1803.
2
W. Sichel, Sterne, a Study, 2.
3
A. De Froe, Laurence Sterne and His Novels Studied in the Light of Modern Psychology. Dissertation, Gröningen, 1.
4
De Froe then endeavors to interpret the inconsistency.

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