In Enlightened Sentiments, Hina Nazar shows how Enlightenment rationalism is involved with sentimentalism, and how that involvement is embedded within Romantic fiction. Sentimentalism, located philosophically with David Hume and Adam Smith and fictively with novelists as differently positioned as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jane Austen, is “mutually engaged” with rationalism “in an ongoing liberal project that seeks normative underpinnings for a postmetaphysical age” (3). Nazar grounds her argument in a delineation of an autonomous judgment that is fundamentally social, enacted through the epistolarity of mid-century novels and within the drawing rooms of Austen’s domestic fiction. The “social constitution of subjectivity” (4) aligns sentimentalism with Kantian rationalism through their shared use of an “aesthetic analogy for moral judgment” (5): characters in novels judge others and their own hearts by using the same rules and standards by which they judge landscapes, artworks, poems.
Nazar establishes the frame-work for her argument in the first two chapters, which outline the “rhetoric of spectatorship” (12) that informs philosophical and novelistic sentimentalism. Spectatorship links aesthetic and moral judgment to “an understanding of individuals as socially embedded subjects, whose ability to question the norms [End Page 679] of their societies and to constitute alternative principles of action requires active social engagement in the form of critical debate” (16). The “claims of the subject” in sentimentalism and Kantian aesthetics share space with the claims “of context” (58). In chapter 3, “Judging Clarissa’s Heart,” Nazar points out that Samuel Richardson’s epistolary structure cooperates with Clarissa’s (1748) trope of spectatorship to enforce the sociability of judgment. Throughout the novel, until her death and martyrdom, Clarissa “insistently questions her heart’s authority” (61), installing herself as both spectator and judge. Her understanding of herself “as her heart’s observer rather than its blind disciple” emerges in her injunctions to her friend and correspondent Anna to “‘lay [her] heart open,’ as though it were a book that could be placed on a lectern, or some other object for joint viewing” (64).
In its formal structure as much as its plotting, Richardson’s novel insists on an “other-directedness of judgment” (52) that derives from David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Through her letters, Clarissa “socialize[s]” the “paradigm of judgment” (62). Correspondence enables her to receive “readers’ reports on her self-representation” (67)—a departure from the Puritan diarists whose rigorous self-scrutiny constitutes them as her most obvious formal forebears. Epistolarity articulates inward judgment but upends its infallibility. Through Clarissa’s insistence that self-examination is a social act, fully realized only in exchange, Richardson “opens up an ethical understanding that pivots around standpoints rather than standards, and that identifies the social world to be an ineluctably perspectival public space” (79).
In “A Sentimental Education: Rousseau to Godwin,” Nazar reads Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloise (Julie, or the New Heloise, 1761), as one of Clarissa’s immediate heirs. Inheritance is a key critical trope in Enlightened Sentiments: the legacy of “moral self-direction” (1) passes from Clarissa to Julie to Henry Mackenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777) to William Godwin’s Fleetwood (1805) to “the writings of one of sentimentalism’s most important literary heirs”: Austen (115). But, like the plots of so many sentimental novels, literary heritability is never straightforward: every generation, as Mary Crawford remarks in Mansfield Park (1814), “has its improvements.” In Julie, “Rousseau seeks to revise Clarissa into a Bildungsroman of the passions, to show how the love of two people of refined sensibilities . . . lends itself to affiliation with virtue” (82). But by the novel’s conclusion, which leaves St. Preux as an intellectually free ascetic and Julie as both bourgeois matron and willing sacrifice, it has become “simply [End Page 680] a narrative of replacing obedience with obedience” (91).
Mackenzie and Godwin set out to correct the patriarchalism that erases Julie from Rousseau’s narrative—one with tragic overlay, one with liberal corrective. In Julia, Mackenzie returns to the female community that constituted the sociability of judgment for Richardson, but...