On sensibility in The Man of Feeling

I read Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling a few weeks ago now and I really have been unable to stop thinking about it, moreover I am struggling to work out why that is the case. There were differences in the form with it being a manuscript and with their being large sections of the text missing; being written in the 18th Century there were large differences in the language. But I have read similar books before and this one really stood out.

The novel has a slightly confusing synopsis, so I apologise if I get confused here. The manuscript is found in a cottage that used to belong to Harley, The Man of Feeling, and has been used as gun wadding, hence why there are large sections of the text missing and it seems completely fragmented the entire way through. It is then compiled by an unnamed character and published. The text itself has been narrated by a third person, someone who seemed to have appreciated Harley and his moral perspective on life and documented it. The chapters are individually episodes in Harley’s life as he travels from Scotland to London in search of a better financial situation, but ultimately returns home bankrupt.

Sir Brooke Boothby, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby

Sir Brooke Boothby, painted by Joseph Wright of Derby

What I really liked was the way that the text commented on sensibility, which was an important cultural attribute on the 1700’s. To be considered a man of sensibility or feeling was to possess refined emotions and intellect in order to use them. Crying in public was not seen as feminine or embarrassing like it is today, but a cultural aspiration of many men. Harley the protagonist cries at many moments throughout the novel as he witnesses injustices. Interestingly the Victorians, who had the binary opposite attribute of the stiff upper-lip considered this to be a comedy, and an index of tears was compiled at the back of the book for people to reference.

This was what has really troubled me when deciding what to write about this book. I am undecided whether this is idea of sensibility is good or bad, and whether it is applicable to our 21st society. I cannot imagine a man in the City of London walking past a homeless man and offering to hear his life story. Yes, granted Mackenie’s novel is a satirical critique of sensibility but it remains entirely ambiguous throughout. Yet I don’t think it would be a bad thing if people showed more emotion.

In a world that is becoming increasingly isolationist and lonely I think that perhaps what it really needs most is a reintroduction of sentimentality on a small scale.

On Austen’s Emma and why I just couldn’t warm to it

My summer reading list for my English course starting next Thursday has finally been completed. I successfully managed to read the list in time, whilst simultaneously enjoying my holiday and reading the other books that I wanted to get through. I don’t want to make the reading task sound like a chore, because it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. In fact a lot of the texts that I read I really enjoyed and were already on my ‘To read’ list anyway; so two birds were hit with one stone.

Emma by Jane Austen was the last one to be crossed off, and I am really unsure what I quite make of it. I love Austen, I really do and I find it quite shocking that I have only just read Emma. But there is something about the book that has really perplexed me; and it really is starting to become a nuisance. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot I will summarise. Emma is a beautiful and rich girl who adores arranging marriages for her friends, but never seems to be very good at it, to the extent where she causes much more harm than good.

Cover of "Emma"

Cover of Emma

Now, the main problem I had with the novel was that seemed to be it. There was hardly any plot or real storyline. We sit back idle as we watch Emma make blunder after blunder not only for herself, but particularly for Harriet (her friend) who does not possess the same qualities or birth right as Emma and as a result is fairly helpless. But it happened time and time and time again and I couldn’t work out why Austen would have not altered the plot. The conclusion seemed to me, to have been apparent from the beginning of the novel. The marriages that end the novel, were fairly obvious at the outset, it just took them a long and drawn out road to get there.

What also really shocked me about this book was that I simultaneously loved and despised the protagonist Emma. She meant no harm through her little match-making schemes and yet she didn’t stop once they started inflicting pain on her nearest and dearest. At times she acts very much like the spoilt brat that she probably would have been, but then at others she was very genuine and lovable. There seemed to be a lack of continuity in the characterisation. The other characters however, seemed to stay put. They were either hero or villain, never the twain shall meet. So yet another confusion added to the mix.

I even went as far as watching a film adaptation of the novel to see if it improved my opinion. It didn’t. I watched the Kate Beckinsale ITV film version which seemed to only further my opinion on the matter. Emma is both fickle to her friends and family as she is to herself. Her opinions and ideas change and swing back and forth so rapidly it is often like watching a tennis match. She manipulates her father and her friend Harriet, abuses her power of authority in society as a role model for young ladies and ultimately has a few too many unattractive qualities.

I cannot entirely criticise the novel because there are a few things which I found very agreeable indeed. Firstly, the relationships between the families and the differing social situations was very interesting to look at through fiction if one was gathering information on that historical time period. There was a great that could be taken from that novel in relation to social norms and societal expectations, which were very interesting. The balls and the dinner parties offered a great insight into what ladies and gentleman did both for leisure and as a means for courtship. The language and the prose is up to the standard expected of Austen and so it is an enjoyable read on that front. However I personally could not get over the vanity of Emma to really warm to her as a character and therefore the book on the whole. Of course I would recommend this book, however I feel it is just not one of the best.