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)[Notice]

  • Timothy Fulford

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  • Timothy Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

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: 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 ...