- Scrupulous Sincerity:Susanna Rowson's Sentimental and Gothic Turns
Susanna Rowson's sentimental tale of Sarah Darnley frequently takes a gothic turn. For much of the novel, the trembling, innocent victim wends her way through scenes of torment and lurking violence—a plot brimming in works of sentimental and gothic fiction alike.1 Extreme suffering has long been established as a point of connection between the sentimental and the gothic, as has their shared focus on the affective work of fiction.2 One common pattern of criticism views the gothic genre as a critique of sentimental fiction's emotional extravagance, awarding it the self-conscious role of assessing the mechanisms and effects of sentimental discourse.3 Another pattern regards the gothic as a constitutive, often concealed, element of sentimental literature itself. In the words of Julia Stern, late-eighteenth-century sentimental and gothic modes "exist in hierarchical relation, like geological strata, the gothic bedrock masked by a sentimental topsoil" (8–9). From this perspective, the gothic—its preoccupation with violence, brutality, and rage—supplies the foundational ingredients for the sentimental's investments in sympathy, benevolence, and other moral feelings.
While both formulations have merit, they implicitly grant the gothic greater perspicacity or critical legitimacy than the sentimental.4 Rather than continue to place the gothic in the privileged position, this essay aims for an alternative approach. How might the discussion proceed differently, I ask, if we admit parity between the two modes? I developed this question while teaching Sincerity in an upper-level English course on the American gothic in fall 2015. Including this novel on a gothic literature syllabus impressed upon me the need to work out an explanation that did not minimize the sentimental and thereby diminish an important tradition in women's literature. We read Sincerity during our unit on gothic feminism, which I introduced via feminist and queer studies arguments about the gothic's preoccupation with the repressive construction of normative gender roles. Sentimental fiction, as we observed in our initial discussion of Sincerity, similarly explores the coercive constraints to female subjectivity and autonomy—in the case of Sarah Darnley, I suggested, by her compulsive adherence to the moral virtue of sincerity. This investigation of [End Page 183] scrupulous sincerity forced us to reckon with another startling dimension of the sentimental and gothic relation: what Eric Savoy calls "the turn."
In what follows I extend our class insights to an argument about the uncanny relationship between the sentimental and the gothic. First, I discuss "scrupulous sincerity," sincerity as it functions in sentimental culture and discourse, where it commands the highest moral value and materializes in and on the body, especially in the display of emotions. Moving from sincerity's physical to psychical exposures, I examine the tyranny of this moral virtue, attributing its repressive character to the perversion of superegoistic conscience, and argue that Sarah's exaggerated suffering from sincerity is a means of negotiating the strictures of this inner judge. Finally, I advance a model of gothic and sentimental association through "turns" and "returns." In Sincerity, the sudden swerves to the gothic occur when this shadow self, in the form of a domineering conscience, becomes a prosopopoeial force—a revenant or a stalker—and alters the nature of persecution and the affective register of protagonist and reader. Through these turns, the gothic and the sentimental function as fluid limits for one another; in Rowson's hands, this turning is a reflexive gesture that forces the sentimental genre to interrogate its own parameters, to question, in effect, domestic fiction's basic premise that women as well as men find greatest fulfillment in the social relations and social order fostered by the happy home.
In Latin usage, sincerus referred to unadulterated substances—things such as wine, honey, and precious stones that needed to retain purity for their value. In modern English usage, sincere came to designate the unalloyed moral character of human beings, eventually, and specifically, their truthfulness. Sincerity, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, is "freedom from dissimulation or duplicity; honesty, straightforwardness." The next two entries define sincerity as a quality of "feelings" or "actions" ("sincerity"). The 1792 edition of the...