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Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0 521 55221 4 (hardback). Price: £35 (US$54.95)

  • Timothy Fulford

…more information

  • Timothy Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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The sentimental novel does not, on the face of it, seem immediately suitable for historicist and materialist investigation. It usually lacking in political content, and is often considered escapist. Markman Ellis, however, declares himself a historicist critic at the outset of this thought-provoking study. And he at once confronts the difficulty his apparently unpolitical subject poses him:

The paradox of sentimentalism, simply stated, is that these novels are the site of considerable political debate and that this is so despite and because of the extraordinary texture of the novels, with their focus on romantic-love plots, their devotion to the passions and the rhetoric of tears and blushes, and their fragmentary and digressive narrative.

p. 4

By the end of Ellis's survey, the paradox is effectively resolved—or at least displaced— for he has effectively shown how sentimental novels contributed to a number of eighteenth-century discourses, more or less political.

After an introductory chapter in which he intelligently summarises the historical phenomenon of sensibility, Ellis turns his attention to the first of the detailed contextualisations that form the core of the book. He examines the role played by sentimental texts in the campaign for the abolition—or at least reform—of slavery. He focuses on the work of Sterne, and relates Sterne's references to slavery to the contemporary African writer Ignatius Sancho. Not least amongst the virtues of this chapter is the elegantly presented and clear-sighted discussion of the different strands to be found within anti-slavery writing. Also welcome is the double focus that Ellis brings to the matter. "If then," he writes, "we seek to understand more of the sentimental novel by reading the history of slavery, so too we might understand the history of slavery better by reading the sentimental novel" (pp. 50-51). In the end Ellis is successful in this aim, though his focus is in fact sharper with regard to novels than to the history of slavery generally. He begins biographically, reconstructing the network of personal relationships through which Sancho was related to Sterne, before arguing that Sancho's letters were responsible for the discussions of slavery included in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. He then analyses these discussions carefully, before concluding that "the sentimentalist reworking of the master/slave dialectic is in the end a deeply reactionary and perhaps quietist position—and furthermore, it is thus because it is sentimentalist" (p.79).

The implicit egalitarianism of the sentimental belief that all humans felt deeply was, Ellis shows, a powerful influence in the formation of the moral conscience of the abolition movement. But sentimentalists fought shy of deeper critiques of slavery proper, being disinclined to question the system of values upon which Britain's commercial prosperity was based. Sentimental writing displaced what it could not face: "whenever these limits were approached, benevolent emotions were channelled into safer images of suffering and exploitation—such as the caged bird [in Sentimental Journey]—which offered secure and unproblematic ground for testing and developing new attitudes" (p. 86). Ellis turns from his powerfully critical verdict on Sterne to a distinct strand of literary representation of slavery. He looks at two novels which advocate reform, but not abolition, of slavery—Sarah Scott's The History of Sir George Ellison (1766) and Henry MacKenzie's Julia de Roubigné (1777). He shows that the aesthetic terms developed in Burke's theory of the sublime are played out in Scott's fictionalised West Indies, where the benevolent Mr Ellison experiences delight when he relaxes the severe punishments normally inflicted on slaves and receives their adulation in recompense. This recompense is a form of symbolic capital: the adoring slaves become, in this fantasy, a mirror in which their master contemplates his own virtue. "Sentimental benevolence," Ellis concludes, "enriches the giver as much as, or even more than, the receiver" (p. 109). William Blake put it more forcefully and pithily: "Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody poor." Capital and its circulation is Ellis's theme in the next chapter, an analysis of Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality in the light of Brooke's press campaign to promote Irish commerce by building canals. Drawing on J. G. A. Pocock's Virtue, Commerce and History, Ellis shows Brooke's novel to align feeling, politeness, and taste with commerce; corruption, on the other hand, is linked with aristocratic landed wealth. The novel discusses commerce's role in circulating manners as well as goods. As a published text that achieved wide commercial success, it itself participates in the circulatory system it recommends. For Brooke, the sentimental novel is like the canal he wants to build—both will channel the benefits of polite culture to the uncivilised interior of Ireland.

Having revealed sentimentalism to be complicit with the commercial society of which it is often ostensibly a critique, Ellis next tackles its importance in representations of prostitution. He shows that novels were accused of debauching women's imagination—of turning them into prostitutes. But sentimental texts were also used as means of positioning prostitutes as pitiable victims, as repentant Magdalens deserving of charity. Such texts, he shows, went hand-in-hand with (and were often part of the promotional material of) the institutions for "fallen women"—institutions which subjected their inmates to a regime of physical and moral surveillance designed to redeem them. A final chapter considers the collapse of the discourse of sensibility in the 1790s, and argues against Janet Todd and Chris Jones that this collapse was prefigured in the debates of the 1780s, and was not simply the result of sensibility's implication in the debates over the French Revolution. Here Ellis's argument is too briefly made, and too dependent on a strained interpretation of one Gillray caricature, to be convincing.

Despite the relative weakness of its excursion into the 1790s, Ellis's book is a consistently engaging one, welcome not least for the clarity with which it presents literary developments and the precision with which it handles theoretical debates. If at times some of the texts he considers seem too slight to repay his subtle critical intelligence, nevertheless the historical contexts he restores to them are often fascinating. He has made a valuable contribution to the literary and cultural history of the late eighteenth century.