by Laura Miller (UC Santa Barbara)
Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling is often written about in studies of late eighteenth-century sensibility and the sentimental novel. The text’s stance on print readership and its skepticism with regard to narrative conventions are also worth examining. At times the novel places standard formal and narrative characteristics of other eighteenth-century novels in opposition to the genuine feeling it conveys. However, The Man of Feeling’s fragmented form and narrative simultaneously reveal its status as a printed piece of fiction and complicate the ways it directs its readers to feel.
From its beginnings, The Man of Feeling displays an awareness of print culture. The novel’s narrative frame shows diverging standards of judgment among groups with regard to texts. A curate who has been using the novel’s manuscript paper for gun wadding acts the part of potential publisher: he has found a manuscript, a bundle of papers, much as many early novels were presented as miscellaneous papers tied together. However, the curate considers this story unpublishable by his standards: the handwriting is bad, the authorial stamp inconsistent, and there is not “a single syllogism from beginning to end” (4). From this list of complaints, readers can draw a list of this man’s standards for reading: that a text be easy on the eyes, narrated consistently, and give thoughtful conclusions to the scenarios it presents. It should mean something, and cause no frustration trying to make it out. His hunting companion, responsible for the novel’s ultimate publication, is also carrying a text he dislikes: “an edition of one of the German Illustrissimi,” a far more logical and rational text (4). The two men trade book-for-manuscript, saving both texts from ruin. Each finds a book that he’s suited to: even two men hunting in the same thicket may belong to different reading publics. A sketch of The Man of Feeling’s ideal reader emerges through a series of negations to the curate’s complaints: the manuscript’s reader must be patient to decipher handwriting, tolerant of narrative inconsistencies, and prepared to draw his own personal conclusions with the text. Even though we are reading a typeset and easier to read version, a tolerance and willingness to draw one’s own conclusions are encouraged. With regard to the many emotional scenes that follow, the reader is warned about the book’s tearjerking content, paradoxically via an injunction against crying over the works of an unknown author.
The novel contains many familiar plot elements found in other eighteenth-century novels, but they come in a fragmented form that criticizes the artificiality of plot-driven narrative. As in other novels, Harley, The Man of Feeling, begins his life in the countryside, but travels to London. Like many characters in novels, Harley seeks necessary financial gain in the city: through the lease of some lands belonging to the Crown. Also like other male characters, Harley lives near a beautiful and virtuous young woman, Miss Walton, whom he loves but dares not approach. As the opening section continues, this fragmentation awakens readers to the ways these devices have been used less conspicuously in previous novels, and thus to the vulnerability of the reading process itself. When a reader is in the hands of a masterful author who directs the action seamlessly, is it possible for a reader to have an individualized response? Even though this story is seen as its own kind of “false point,” where the narrative looks like it’s going to turn into something but never does, it also criticizes the existence of all points – true and false - in fiction. For this broken-up novel, the point of prose fiction is not formal perfection, but evocation of sympathetic feeling. Wherever the novel goes, it follows Harley’s sympathies, and cannot do otherwise. By contrast, manipulated plot points, however neatly they lead us to other, carefully planned fictional revelations, have a false truth to them. Of course, even Mackenzie’s book feels very manipulative to us reading it now – about a hair away from Lyrical Ballads in terms of its coincidental meetings with the colorfully downtrodden – but it resonated enough at the time of its publication that people wanted to know the identity of the real Man of Feeling.
Feeling does drive the novel, but even when feeling prevents traditional narrative events from taking place, narrative continues in other forms. En route to London, Harley means to breakfast at an inn, a narrative set piece of many novels, “but the fullness of his heart would not suffer him to eat a morsel” (15). So he goes for a walk, where he encounters a beggar who subsists by fortune-telling among the people of his town. Harley has wandered out of a narrative only to meet a storyteller. The beggar tells his own story, which resembles that of a tragic actor turned comic writer. When the beggar discovered others didn’t want to hear his honest narrative of his own misfortunes, he started telling happier, personalized tales to his audience because “folks will always listen when the tale is their own” (17). He acts as a master narrator of the town, picking up names and bits of information in order to supplement his predictions and prove his authenticity in fortune-telling. This strange scene offers a provocative challenge to contemporaries who might blame cheap print for encouraging self-indulgent entertainment. If this common man uses oral tactics identical to those used by novelists who are trying to appeal to a broad range of people, how responsible is the print market for its easily seduced readers? Alternatively, are novelists fortune-telling beggars?
Harley’s visit to Bedlam (as well as many other scenes that I don’t have space to discuss) also illustrates these tense connections between feeling, narrative, and print. Harley’s most sympathetic encounter in Bedlam isn’t the most extreme or shocking: it’s the most novel-friendly: the young girl who went mad after the loss of her lover and her cruel father. When Harley and his friends visit those who are “in the most horrid state of incurable madness” they wish to leave immediately (23). Next they meet a parade of Enlightenment losers: a mathematician who incorrectly predicted the return of a comet based on Newton’s calculations, a stock-trader who lost everything in the South Sea Bubble, and a schoolmaster who lost his mind in a sea of Greek vowels (24-25). Even though the novel could endeavor an emotional response to the early eighteenth century by interacting with its cast-offs, these men instead serve as a warning against living too much in our minds: the same thing people are warned against when they read too many books, or when the books they read are of poor quality. At the same time, this novel encourages fantasy, with its many missing parts and melodramatic scenarios.
The way to align some of these contradictions between narrative convention and following one’s feelings would appear to be sensibility, with its emphasis on appropriate emotional outpourings, but reading publics and print culture are too powerful on their own to be overlooked. Maureen Harkin writes that, “The novel basically pits Harley against the forces of modern commercial life in an unequal struggle that Harley is bound to lose” (324). The force of print is one of these forces – so powerful that it is the only way we can encounter Harley. And Harley, if he is attempting to pursue feeling at the expense of behaving like a dutiful character in a plot, must lose at least a little, if he is to outlast the hunting season.
Harkin, Maureen. “Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling: Embalming Sensibility.” ELH 61.1 (1994) 317-340.
Mackenzie, Henry. The Man of Feeling. Oxford World’s Classics Edition. 2001.