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London! O Melancholy! : the eloquence of the body in the town in the English novel of sentiment Morgan, George MacGregor

Abstract

Morgan reads the treatment of gesture in Clarissa (Richardson, 1747 - 48), Amelia (Fielding,1 751), and Cecilia (Burney, 1782) to study the capacity the sentimental novel attributes to physical forms of eloquence to generate sociability and moderate selfishness in London. He argues that the eighteenth-century English novel of sentiment adopts a physiology derived from Descartes's theory of the body-machine to construct sentimental protagonists whose gestures bear witness against Bernard Mandeville's assertions that people are not naturally sociable, and that self-interest, rather than sympathy, determines absolutely every aspect of human behaviour. However, when studied in the context of sentimental fiction set in the cruel and unsociable metropolis of London, the action of this eloquent body proved relatively ineffectual in changing its spectators for the better. In the English novelistic tradition that stems from Samuel Richardson's Clarissa (1747 - 48), selfishness lies at the roots of civilization, and inculcates modern urban people with instinctively theatrical mores: metropolitan theatricality, marked out in the gestures of the polite body, works to vitiate the sociability that might naturally animate everyday human intercourse. Clarissa responds to the dilemma of the intrinsic theatricality and self-interestedness of modern civil society with a heroine whose gestures (that is, whose physical states) demonstrate an eloquence that partially counteracts some of the effects self-love has upon the metropolis. But while sympathy and natural eloquence do little to diminish London's submission to selfishness, they remain, in Clarissa, unequivocally good. In contrast with Clarissa, Henry Fielding's Amelia (1751) and Frances Burney's Cecilia (1782) criticize both phenomena. In these novels, both by written by socially conservative authors, natural eloquence and sympathy do not generate sociability in London at all and do not even ensure personal virtue unless they are tempered by the discipline of some kind of theatricality. For Fielding and for Burney, unregulated sympathy becomes a problem to which the best remedy is a modicum of stage-craft. But, strangely enough, all three novels indirectly licence the principles of the self-interest they ostensibly attack. Ultimately, these novels of sentiment self-consciously position sympathy and natural eloquence as supplemental discourses that might protest against the dominant practices of Mandevillian self-interest that produce the social order of the metropolis. The net result is that the novel of sentiment implicitly tolerates the dominance of self-interest in the areas of public activity that lie mostly outside the subject-matter with which sentimental fiction principally concerns itself.

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