On sensibility in The Man of Feeling

I read Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of FeelingĀ 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.

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