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The Magdalen Hospital and the Fortunes of Whiggish Sentimentality in Mid-Eighteenth- Century Britain: "Well-Grounded" Exemplarity vs. "Romantic" Exceptionality
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The Magdalen Hospital and the Fortunes of Whiggish Sentimentality in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain:
"Well-Grounded" Exemplarity vs. "Romantic" Exceptionality


Over the past decade it has become an accepted truth that the establishment of the London Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes, on August 10, 1758, was a product of the ascendancy of sentimental ideas in mid-eighteenth-century British culture.1 There is, however, a richer, more complex story which remains to be told about the relationship between sentimentality and the Magdalen House.

The adjective "sentimental," with reference to eighteenth-century cultural discourse, does not designate a single coherent literary or philosophical tradition, but a complex, evolving, and frequently contradictory set of discourses. To characterize the evolution of these ideas most starkly, at the start of the century "sentimental" is applied to the cultural productions associated with the Moral Sense philosophy of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith.2 "Sentimental" here designates a Whiggish optimism about the role of the senses in the improvement and refinement of modern social manners, morals, and tastes. By the last three decades of the eighteenth century, however, the adjective "sentimental" designates predominantly a literature which has turned its back on the modern world. Sentimental literature of the late century is more insistent than its forebear on the native goodness of the human senses and particularly the heart, but here this goodness is no longer seen with any conviction as a tool for the improvement or refinement of society as a whole. Instead the native goodness of the heart is shown to be contaminated, exploited, or abused when it comes into contact with the world.

My contention in this essay is first that the founding of the Magdalen Hospital should be read as the cultural high-water mark of the earlier sentimental, Whiggish discourse of improvement. It was a moment at which the merchants [End Page 125] and bankers who dreamt up the institution discovered, in their embrace of this sentimental discourse, the authority to assert a truce between virtue and commerce. They discovered the authority to assert, in the face of traditional Christian theology and classical models of political economy, that desire was not utterly incompatible with cultural probity. As I will argue later in this essay, the extraordinary popularity of the Magdalen Hospital throughout the 1760s and 1770s was material testimony to the authority of the Whiggish sentimental discourse and its power to reassure the public that even the most destructive of commercial appetites were really only the result of misunderstanding and miseducation.

My second contention in this essay is that the Magdalen Hospital would prove to be a limit-case of Whiggish sentimentality. The Whiggish sentimental narrative which engendered the Magdalen Hospital can be traced back most immediately to the sentimental novels of the 1740s—to the "romantic" plots of sentimental fiction rather than to any observable social reality. Embrace of a narrative, whose provenance was literary, for the legitimation of a project of social reform, would foreground the ideological tensions that underpinned this Whiggish sentimental discourse. The Magdalen Hospital of the late 1750s and 1760s, I will argue, presaged and perhaps even precipitated the moment when the "romantic," primitivist, and ultimately more pessimistic aspects of the discourse would cut adrift from their Whiggish moorings to be accepted as the new character of sentimentality. The hospital harbored the seeds of its own subsequent but brief decline in the 1780s and of its own ideological reformation later the same decade as a "sanctimonious sweatshop."3 This essay will chart the ideological origins and early history of the Magdalen Hospital in relation to this discursive sea change.

Sentiment vs. Mercantilism: The Founding of the Magdalen Hospital

Although most of the institutional records for the Magdalen Hospital have now been lost, the history of its ideological foundations is still clearly visible. The plan for the institution was established as a result of a public competition organized by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Commerce, and Manufactures.4 On March 22, 1758, the well-known philanthropist and prison reformer Jonas Hanway stood up at a meeting of the Society of Arts to propose:

the giving...