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Dickens, Gaskell, and Sentimentalism in Victorian Culture
"Without Any Check of Proud Reserve":
Sympathy and Its Limits in George Eliot's Novels
Preaching Pity: Dickens, Gaskell, and Sentimentalism in Victorian Culture, by Mary Lenard; pp. viii + 157. New York: Peter Lang, 1999, $43.95.
"Without Any Check of Proud Reserve": Sympathy and Its Limits in George Eliot's Novels, by Ellen Argyros; pp. 244. New York: Peter Lang, 1999, $52.95.
The two works under review are volumes 11 and 8 respectively in Peter Lang's Studies in Nineteenth-Century British Literature Series, edited by Regina Hewitt. Both volumes address literary affect in fiction concerned with social conduct and reform.
Mary Lenard's Preaching Pity brings the insights of Americanist critics like Jane Tompkins on the political force of women's sentimental domestic fiction to bear on the British novel of the nineteenth century. She argues for the cultural importance of now largely forgotten women writers such as Frances Trollope, Elizabeth Stone, and Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, whose sentimental works primarily address factory reform and the exploitation of children. In Lenard's view these writings shaped "the entire discourse of social reform in the Victorian period" (74). Lenard claims that the reception of successful writers like Charles Dickens was in large part determined by these neglected writers whose works made it possible for nineteenth-century audiences to read and to be moved by a work like A Christmas Carol (1843).
Lenard rehearses the philosophical and religious antecedents of sentimentalism in the eighteenth century and notes the increasingly deprecatory view of the sentimental mode as feminized and of little literary value. Lenard attributes the resurgence of [End Page 323] sentimentalist discourse in the works of women in the 1830s and 1840s on the one hand, to the increasing anxiety about social divisions and the sufferings of the poor and, on the other, to the rise of a domestic ideology which confined women to the home and to matters of the heart, but also gave them a social and political function in view of their particularly feminine compassion and moral force. Preaching Pity is so far on familiar ground—ground covered by works (which she fully credits) like Christine Krueger's The Reader's Repentance (1992) and Joseph Kestner's Protest and Reform (1985).
What Lenard claims to bring to this subject matter is the emphasis on sentimentality as a discourse which lent the works of these women their cultural and social power, but which at the same time consigned them unfairly to literary oblivion—out of print, unread, and undervalued. She returns frequently to the assertion that the sentimental mode has been the victim of the formalist values of a masculine tradition as well as of feminist scholars who wish to establish the feminine canon on the basis of that same tradition. This assertion, clearly a motivating factor in Lenard's treatment of her subject, is weakly demonstrated. Although she finds fault with others for evading or setting aside the question of literary value, she never makes a sustained case for the opposite view. When she does address the question she appeals to a rather feeble set of criteria. Tonna's Helen Fleetwood (1841), for instance, is said to be "well-plotted and moving—the novel's central situation [...] realistic, and the important scenes [...] spare, simple, and effective" (74). If the assessments of value that would dismiss the quality of such novels are "outdated, narrow and a-historic" (74) then Lenard needs to work harder to offer an alternative model of judgment.
The most interesting chapters are those that discuss the critical reputations of Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell in relation to their association with sentimentalist social rhetoric. In chapter 3, Lenard examines the ways in which Dickens absorbed the sentimentalist social discourse of women writers only to disavow any influence through repeated accusations that they were copying him or through savage portrayals of philanthropic women...