The charitable forgiveness of desperate debt was common in eighteenth-century Britain, allowing local elites to accrue prestige, cultivate social authority, and engage in public acts of patronage. Yet the representations of debt forgiveness common in sentimental fiction give a very different impression, exaggerating the rarity and especially the disinterestedness of such charitable acts. Taking Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield as a case study, I argue that the form of sentimental fiction was motivated by an imperative to construct a new theory of social action in which humane and instrumental considerations were kept distinct. To theorize such charitable acts as a kind of heroism of feeling uncontaminated by reciprocity or self-interest was to undermine preexisting visions of social life based in localized parochial communities in favor of liberal and utilitarian justifications for hierarchy understood in terms of political economy and granted a national scope.


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pp. 411-432
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