The Feminisation Of Men In Sentimental Fiction English Literature Essay

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This essay will focus on the feminised male characters of Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768) and will explore the authors' intrinsic motivations and the extrinsic socio-political factors that determined the feminisation of men both in sentimental fiction and eighteenth century culture more generally. Both texts "differ considerably in their presentation of male suffering and sensibility" [1] while both of the male protagonists seem to acquire feminine traits which when represented in excess are recognised as ailments symptomatic of the hypochondrial state.

The manifestation of this hypochondria was recognised to be identical to that of female hysteria including, "a withdrawal from the commercial world, a sedentary lifestyle, a delicate and weak body, a heightened sensibility, and an overexertion of mental powers." [2] The concept of sensibility in relation to the nervous system and in terms of physiology and psychology [3] was outlined in contemporary medicine and discussed at length by George Cheyne in The English Malady, 1733.

Within the culture of sensibility and the genre of sentimental fiction, the feminisation of men transformed the notion of 'the man of reason', so highly promoted by Enlightenment thinkers, into 'the man of feeling.' In sentimental fiction, male protagonists often took on the strong emotionally driven characteristics of their female counterparts, substituting "masculine signs of honour" [4] for "feminine postures of grief." [5] 

With the Enlightenment's promotion of reason and rationality in the early part of the eighteenth century, gender distinctions as biological and psychological absolutes [6] accorded to this; it had taught of the debilitating effects of excesses of emotion and had termed all those expressions of feeling associated with these excesses effeminate. These 'manners of women' were in many respects seen as a "female disease" [7] and possession of such qualities was seen as detrimental to both masculinity and the male capacity for reason.

It was understood by some philosophers that although excesses of emotion could prove problematic, tenderness and benevolence were important traits in the creation of a strong social and familial infrastructure; Addison and Steele "exalted domesticity and gentleness" [8] while other thinkers drew on the work of John Locke and his theories concerning the notion that "'mind' [was] inevitably associated with feeling." [9] Locke "suggested that sensibility - openness through sensation to the world - was the only route to knowledge;" [10] . Introspection became for many philosophers key to a more informed understanding of humanity.

The notion of sentiment relied upon the "conviction that 'reason' alone is limited;" [11] in a world in which commercial capitalism was bringing about huge changes to Britain socially and economically. [12] There was a fear that the 'civilised' man might become the 'effeminate' man, as reformation of manners threatened traditional male behaviour "bound up with classical and warrior ideals." [13] 

Male characters became an almost hermaphrodite composite of masculine form and feminine sensibility [14] , the expectation of men to be strong, composed beings; their 'firmness of nerve' ensuring their focus on rationality and reason, was subverted from the realm of the 'mind' to that of the 'body'.

Both in literature and life "women were thought to express emotions… more sincerely and spontaneously than men… crying, blushing and fainting." [15] It is these physical demonstrations of effeminacy that later sentimental writers such as Goldsmith, Sterne and MacKenzie sought to display.

The two key male protagonists of A Sentimental Journey and The Vicar of Wakefield are respectively: Yorick, a clergyman who considers himself a "Sentimental Traveller," [16] through France and Italy; and Rev. Dr. Charles Primrose, the titular vicar of Wakefield who with his family endures a number of unfortunate circumstances.

At one of the first signs of distress, his daughter falling into a "rapid stream" [17] renders Primrose helpless and immovable, "my sensations were even too violent to permit my attempting to rescue her" (VW 20) while the idea of the fille de chambre blushing, causes Yorick to blush, his awareness of this "super-induced a second blush." (SJ 77) In practice, both characters adhere to Primrose's definition of "a disorder in which the whole body is so exquisitely sensible… the slightest touch gives pain" (VW 19) which in itself undermines the fundamental concept of the 'strength in constitution' of masculinity. Both Primrose and Yorick's susceptibility to the suffering and emotions of others displays their own sensibility but also it may be argued that their inability to respond 'correctly' to their situations innately reflects the importance of sentimental literature. Janet Todd argues that early sentimental fiction "initially showed people how to behave… and how to respond decently to life's experiences." [18] Primrose's inability to "disengage [himself]" (VW 20) and Yorick's indulgence in a "pleasing half guilty blush" (SJ 77) might be said to support the argument that the feminisation of men, their inability to "respond decently to life's experiences" [19] justifies the need for the genre of sentimental fiction against its criticism of propagating effeminacy; these character express excessive emotion because they have not learnt how to control their feelings and when it is appropriate to demonstrate them.

Contrary to this argument, some have considered that despite the moral didacticism present in earlier works from this genre, relating to this notion of instruction in terms of how to express emotions, "men of feeling, that is, generally do not represent a social consensus nor an example for others to follow." [20] If men of feeling reduce the instructive element of sentimental fiction, it could be suggested that the feminisation of men deconstructs the prototype narrative structure of the genre.

A Sentimental Journey differs somewhat from The Vicar of Wakefield in this respect. As in earlier fiction, there is certainly a sense that Primrose becomes the 'suffering victim' who, with his family, is subjected to a number of trials and tribulations; his emotions are tested, "I tried to restrain my passions for a few minutes in silence, but I thought I might have died with the effort" (VW 142) and sympathy is often evoked from such displays. The structure of A Sentimental Journey is somewhat different; it has "no plot beyond a journey of the heart across the simplified social map," [21] his personal suffering is limited and most of the moments of pathos originate in the various sad situations he encounters. This does not reduce the sentimentality of the narrative, nor diminish the sensibility of its protagonist but it certainly seems contrary to the plotlines of sentimental fiction that preceded it.

Written towards the end of the eighteenth century, Goldsmith and Sterne wrote in the shadow of a plethora of sentimental novels, each of which circumscribed to the tradition of the over-emotional, tragically suffering female protagonist. Working against stereotypical rakes, domineering fathers and self-righteous brothers these texts entertained the public desire for "a man of sensibility who, continually suffering would allow the luxury of sympathetic grief." [22] 

A Sentimental Journey subverts the traditional narrative of sentimental fiction; rather than the reformation by virtue of a corrupted libertine, Yorick is presented as having "the credit all over Paris of unperverting Madame V****." (SJ 93) In just this way, Madame de Q****'s proclamation that she had "never had a more improving conversation with a man in her life" (SJ 92) assigns the qualities of feminised virtue to Yorick. Eighteenth century women's conversation was recognised as a way of refining gentlemen and was bound up in the desire for a hetero-social culture [23] ; Yorick partakes in both actions of refining and reforming in quick succession.

There was in some sense a tendency towards the reformation of male manners; "'libertines' and 'rakes' became targets of the ensuing campaign for the reformation of manners" [24] and to some extent the attainment of 'gentleness and humanity' was desired, not necessarily at the cost of the loss of 'firmness of nerve and strength in constitution', but rather a balance of both would temper overt masculinity; "the ideal personality and culture would combine these traits and harmonize them into a whole. Women would become more rational and men more sensitive." [25] 

In this respect sensibility itself was not wholly condemned, the idea that men being tempered by feminine sensibilities was variably promoted, the distinction of "a virtuous tenderness from an excessively susceptible imagination" [26] determined the acceptability of expression of emotion in men.

A common theme throughout works of sentimental fiction is that of sexuality and sexual continence although in the late eighteenth century when these novels were published it "tended to lose association with sexuality." [27] Despite this, there seems apparent particularly in A Sentimental Journey, a preoccupation with sexual desire. The notion of "sensibility as moral and physical susceptibility" [28] gave rise to concerns about sexuality and this is dealt with particularly playfully in the characterisation of Yorick, "holding the two forefingers of my other to the artery" (SJ 44) of the "grisset" (SJ 46) in the shop, throwing the "fair fille de chambre off her centre" (SJ 78) and inadvertently catching hold of the maid's hand in the final scene.

Whereas the bawdiness of Tristram Shandy had been criticised for its distastefulness, the use of suggestion in A Sentimental Journey retains its sexual connotations but is less shocking and obvious; the intriguing punctuation, "- and then -" (SJ 78) between the chapters 'The Temptation' and 'The Conquest' seems to be designed to excite the reader, while the entrance of 'The Husband' (SJ 44) in the shop (while Yorick is feeling the pulse of the wife) might add a sense of thrill to the situation, indulging the reader in a sense of voyeurism. "Although the language may render the pathos erotic," [29] through its use of double entendre and the suggestive remarks, and as lustful as Yorick seems, the feminised sentimental hero was predominantly desexualised.

As Paul Goring highlights, Yorick has "been in love with one princess or another almost all my life;"(SJ 28) but it appears that although he may have loved many women, he appears to have sexually conquered none of them. There is a sense throughout all of Yorick's 'sexual encounters' in the novel that he does not or perhaps cannot consummate his relationships with these women. Whether this be due to physical inability, as Rebecca Gould argues, or emotional incapacity or disaffection, Yorick's failure to act on these sexual desires relegates him to the same level of effeminacy that Goring projects onto the largely "desexualised" [30] character of MacKenzie's Man of Feeling, Harley and "goes some way towards bringing the male to the social condition of the female… investing him with female sentimental significance." [31] 

The feminisation of men affected the way that sentimental fiction was perceived by the reader; despite the limited literacy of women - "in the late eighteenth century female literacy is typically about two thirds of male literacy," [32] The genre found much of its popularity in female readers although of course it also became a fashionable literary form for men too. [33] The genre's association with women is perhaps the reason that, later in the century, it was considered to place "'feminine' qualities in strict opposition to 'masculine' actions." [34] 

Following on from this opposition, sentimental fiction has in later years been read as either insincere or coloured with qualities of irony and satire. The reason for this change in reception may be attributed to a number of causes. Some scholars have argued that the act of viewing a male character weeping, or expressing excessive emotion "may embarrass the reader." [35] The idea of a man taking on the female qualities of helplessness and overindulgence in personal feelings subvert the stereotype for typical 'victims of suffering.' Although sentimental fiction was not intended to have multiple readings, [36] some of the moral philosophy is lost on a perhaps more cynical, modern reader and as such these characters are understood rather as parodies of emotion rather than expressions of passion. The effeminacy of the man of feeling enables the perception of irony that would not be appropriate in "epistolary novels of female sensibility." [37] 

It is worthy of note that both A Sentimental Journey and The Vicar of Wakefield have been considered to be humorous, and at times satirical and it might be argued that the feminisation of their male protagonists might prove to be the underlying cause for such receptions. It has long been debated to what extent A Sentimental Journey represents a true piece of sentimental fiction, or rather how much of it is satirical, "the travels are 'sentimental' -the traveller is a fellow of infinite jest." [38] Sterne was considered both "a master in the science of human feelings, and the art of describing them" [39] and as one who "ironically mocked [the Sentimental Traveller's] naïve faith in his benevolent sentiments." [40] 

The various tableaux used by Sterne, the crust of bread laid upon the bit of the ass's saddle (SJ 34), the little starling, "thrusting his head through the trellis" (SJ 60) of his cage repeatedly saying, 'I can't get out' and the prison captive "lifting a hopeless eye towards the door" (SJ 61) of the dungeon each relate moments of sadness and relay a sense of suffering. However, it seems as though, through images such as these Sterne is undermining the very notion of sentimental fiction. The sympathy the reader feels in these instances is towards either situations Yorick encounters or, in the case of the prison captive, situations he imagines rather than sympathy for Yorick himself. Circumstances such as these are repeated throughout the novel in a sequence of fragments, pieced together, and are described in full sentimental ardour each and every time. It seems as though by emphasising the sadness of every event he encounters, and the strong emotional display Yorick exhibits, Sterne is satirising the notion of sensibility. The world is full of sad situations and Yorick's excessive sadness towards each of them renders them increasingly insincere and his emotions progressively more effeminate.

From the outset of The Vicar of Wakefield, from the name given by Goldsmith to Rev. Dr. Primrose, there is a sense of irony and humour, his protagonist is immediately associated with effeminacy and delicacy through his name and this is emphasised further by phrases such as "we loved each other tenderly" (VW 9) and "moral and rural amusements," (VW 9) which "indicate sentimental doctrine and expect a sentimental understanding." [41] 

A key preoccupation within The Vicar of Wakefield is the issue of commerce and its relationship to effeminacy. The novel exposes "the gaps between… the discourse of Christian humanism and commercial society;" [42] . Primrose's lack of understanding concerning fiscal matters proves to be his first downfall; in entrusting his money to a merchant, who "has gone off, to avoid a statute of bankruptcy" (VW 15) he has lost his family's wealth. The romanticised notion of life that Primrose had previously put his faith in, "all our adventures were by the fire-side" (VW 9) is shattered by this revelation. Primrose's effeminate "innocence and lack of worldly knowledge… makes it impossible for him to recognise or counter the dangers that threaten his family." [43] 

Primrose's son, Moses is also seen to partake in an attempt to sell the family colt in exchange for a horse "that would carry single or double on occasion and make a pretty appearance at church…" (VW 53) Moses is commended by his mother for his discretion and ability to effectively deal with matters of commerce - a characteristic considered particularly effeminate, "the softening of male manners… aided commercial transactions." [44] Moses' ability to sell the colt, but poor judgement in his purchase of "a groce of green spectacles" (VW 55) seems a potential satire on this mode of commerce; humour is evoked from the farcical nature of the purchase but the comment on the act of private trade seems poignant.

Critics of commerce such as John Brown reflected, "The Spirit of Commerce, now predominant, begets a kind of regulated Selfishness," [45] "it begets Avarice, gross Luxury." [46] He considers that the "Sexes have now little other apparent Distinction… The one Sex having advanced into Boldness, as the other have into Effeminacy;" [47] commerce and the "vain, luxurious and selfish Effeminacy" [48] are in Brown's eyes, a threat to public prosperity. In the context of a possible danger of losing The Seven Year War, [49] Brown considers commerce to attend to individual interests rather than those of the general public and as such deems effeminacy detrimental to society as a whole.

The feminisation of men in sentimental fiction, particularly in A Sentimental Journey and The Vicar of Wakefield permit a number of readings that differentiate themselves from the standardised archetype of sentimental fiction that had preceded them. They explore social preoccupations and concerns with the ever increasingly effeminate male population, "exacerbated by England's melancholy climate that breeds nervous disorders." [50] The feminisation of men, besides its potentially satirical commentary, reflects upon questions of morality and emotions that cannot be explored through female sentimental heroines alone.

The effeminate man in sentimental literature is equipped with the socially prescribed authority available only to men and might elicit a greater emotional impact - as in tragedy, the tragic element is heightened by how far the protagonist falls from grace; the sentimental effect might be greater in one who is not so susceptible to sensibility in terms of gender.

The feminisation of men succeeded in many ways to increase the acceptability of men expressing emotion, "tears… are no signs of an unmanly, but contrarily a human nature" [51] and while such depictions of men were subject to satire, the demand for this man of feeling in this particularly popular genre of literature indicates a change in social attitudes, moving towards a balance between 'gentleness and humanity' and 'firmness of nerve and strength of constitution'.