The Man of Feeling – A Novel of Sensibilities

 

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The Man of Feeling, a sentimental novel by Henry Mackenzie was published in 1771 at the pinnacle of sentimental literature. The importance of sensibilities in a polite society was catching momentum and Mackenzie’s hero Harley was the quintessential sentimental hero.

It is difficult to look at Harley through 21st century mindset and admire him. To appreciate him, and to appreciate Mackenzie’s literary effort, we must look at it from the 18th century perspective, when to feel and to sympathise was to become a better human being. The novel itself is written in fragments, scenes of Harley’s encounters with various unfortunate people during his travels, his reactions to their stories, and ultimately the end of his journey.

There are some holes in narration. The novel starts with a narrator who apparently found pages of Harley’s story in a curate’s possession. But by the time we come to the end, there is someone else narrating Harley’s illness, someone who calls himself Harley’s friend, and yet we haven’t seen a glimpse of him throughout the book.

The scenes, the writing, and the sentence structure are full of energy, and we are able to glimpse Harley as we travel through the pages along with him.

The novel is a reflection of its times and of the sensibilities pervading through that period. Harley’s admiration for Miss Walten seems quite hollow from modern perspective, as he barely knows her. Yet, apparently that was enough in those days. He admired her, even though she was no longer beautiful.

“…at seventeen, therefore, she had been a universal toast; her health, now she was four and twenty was only drank by those who knew her face at least. Her complexion was mellowed into a paleness, which certainly took from her beauty; but agreed, at least Harley used to say so, with the pensive softness of her mind.”[1]

The comment upon her beauty and upon the “softness” of her mind is also a reflection of the times as women were supposed to be softer. Intelligence and wit was the providence of men. In this novel, where so much emphasis is put upon feelings, Mackenzie distinguishes men and women by thus differentiating Miss Walten for her lack of wit and learning.

“Her conversation was always cheerful, but rarely witty; and without the smallest affectation of learning…Her beneficence was unbounded; indeed the natural tenderness of her heart might have been argued, by the frigidity of a casuist, as detracting from her virtue in this respect, for her humanity was a feeling, not a principle…” [2]

As a woman, she was allowed feelings but it was only the men who were supposed to have principles. It was acceptable for men to acquire sensibilities and finer feelings through learning and practice, but women could only feel what they were naturally capable of without becoming conceited, or falling into corruption as  they were susceptible to do. Books, particularly novels were also blamed for corrupting woman, which is pointed out by Miss Atkin’s misfortunes. 

“His figure, his address, and conversation, were not unlike those warm ideas of an accomplished man which my favourite novels had taught me to form…” [3]

Miss Walten remains a central figure in Harley’s heart, though he travels and meets others whose misfortune affect his feelings. His naivety, his desire to see the good in everyone often ends in him being tricked by those who would take advantage of him. Even when Harley discovers that he was duped, he usually talks himself out of it, and excuses for the others’ behaviour.

“Harley began to despise him too, and to conceive some indignation at having sat with patience to hear such a fellow speak nonsense. But he corrected himself, by reflecting, that he was perhaps as well entertained and instructed too, by this same modest  gauger, as he should have been by such a man as he had thought proper to personate. And surely the fault may more properly be imputed to that rank where the futility is real, than where it is feigned; to that rank, whose opportunities for nobler accomplishments have only served to rear a fabric of folly, which the untutored hand of affectation, even among the meanest of mankind, can imitate with success.” [4]

A common thread amongst the unfortunate people Harley encounters seems to be that they have all been victims of misfortunes. There is very little contributed to misfortune caused by one’s own actions, perhaps because that wouldn’t excite as much sympathy as being a victim. For example, one of the gentleman in the bedlam was struck by “unlucky fluctuation of stock” [5] whereas the mathematician, “feel a sacrifice…to the theory of comets; for having, with infinite labour, formed a table on the conjectures of Sir Isaac Newton, he was disappointed in the return of one of those luminaries…” [6]

There are a lot of tears. Harley’s eyes get moist in every scene, at every unfortunate story. This was the message of the sentimental literary, and of the movement of sensibility – that to feel emotions was a good thing. They encouraged sympathising with the misfortunes of others, for that made one a fitting member of the polite society. Though these finer feelings were usually contributed to people of better classes, and people they were sympathising with were usually of the lower classes, a principle that also pervades through The Man of Feeling.

“He [Harley] put a couple of guineas into the man’s hand: ‘Be kind to that unfortunate’ – He burst into tears, and left them.” [7]

Mackenzie doesn’t shy away from raising opposite opinions. Harley makes an acquaintance of a gentleman who makes his contempt known for modern notions of “Honour and Politeness.” He says, “You have substituted the shadow Honour, instead of the substance Virtue; and have banished the reality of Friendship for the fictitious semblance, which you have termed Politeness.” [8] For that was the price of politeness. There were so many rules for what was politeness that the only option left open to most people were insipid conversations.

One of Harley’s main weaknesses is to judge a person by their appearance. As we are told, “indeed physiognomy was one of Harley’s foibles, for which he had been often rebuked by his aunt in the country; who used to tell him, that when he was come to her years and experience, he would know that all’s not gold that glisters…”[9]

But Harley continues to make the same mistake, and continues judging people based on their appearance, taking their stories at face value. This trait, which perhaps the author intended to come across as goodness of heart, comes across as naive if we are being gentle, and stupid if we are being harsh. He’s a grown man, quite possibly a learned gentleman, who is travelling about the country and yet unable to learn from his mistakes. It seems however that he does learn, or at least alters his view just before his death. In fact, towards the end he seems to go from one extreme to another, to almost Hume[10] like view. 

“The world is in general selfish, interested, and unthinking, and throws the imputation of romance or melancholy on every temper more susceptible than its own.” [11]

But the final closing message is that particularly sensitive souls are too good for this world. The Man of Feeling, while not a fascinating piece of literature in itself, is an important one to gain an understanding of the movement of sensibilities in the 18th Century. 

 

1. Chapter XIII, Page 15

2 Chapter XIII, Page 16

3. Chapter XXVIII, Page 57

4. Chapter XIX, Page 29

5. Chapter XX, Page 31

6. Chapter XX, Page 30, 31

7. Chapter XX, Page 35

8. Chapter XXI, Page 39

9. Chapter XXV, Page 45

10 David Hume, Scottish Philosopher known for his view that humans were essentially selfish creatures

11. Chapter LV, Page 129

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