Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 17 (1986)
At the heart of George Eliot's fiction is an abiding concern for truth of feel i ng. The al truism of a Dorothea, as much as the egoism of a Rosamund, can lead to a disastrous failure in self-knowledge and in understanding of the world. Eliot, of course, was concerned with the outer worlds of nature, of society and of history, yet her approach is always through the emotional perceptions of specific individuals. Several of the great mid-Victorian novelists shared this belief that large social questions were to be approached through the issue of right feeling. Most notably Dickens sought to educate and arouse public conscience through feeling and he expressed considerable distrust of parliamentary legislation and social science although these might be thought to be complementary to, rather than in opposition to, his emotional appeals. And it is Dickens again who most readily attracted the charges of sentimentality commonly brought against those Victorian novelists who emphasised feeling in this way. I have no space here for a proper defence of Dickens or other Victorian novelists in this respect, but it is important to recognise the strength and sophistication of the Victorian novel in its treatment of feeling.
A full account would encompass the Victorian novelists' transformation of the 18th century cult of sentiment. The cult of sentiment was an attempt, in an increasingly secularised culture, to base the moral life on human feeling rather than on divine sanction. It constituted a massive and permanent change in the literary, moral and social culture of Europe; so extensive in fact that we now take its effects for granted as normal. But the process of assimilating the cult of sentiment was a gradual one and some of the early manifestations of sentiment seemed increasingly absurd to later generations. The 18th century 'man of feeling', with his exaggerated effusions of benevolent emotion, then came to seem conventional, self-regarding and even insincere. Indeed, the word 'sentimental', which at first referred approvingly to this self-conscious. arousal of feeling, gradually acquired its modern sense of a mawkish, exaggerated or self-indulgent quality of feeling. But this gradual decline of the word 'sentimental' from an approving to a disapproving term does not indicate a decline in the value we attribute to feeling. On the contrary, the modern negative use of the word 'sentimental' implies a criterion of true feeling with which it is being contrasted. Hence the gradual assimilation of the cult of sentiment involved an increasing capacity to discriminate between true feeling and sentimental effusion.