From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism, which is to be distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction beginning in the eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.
An early example is Manon Lescaut by Antoine-François Prévost in 1731, the story of a courtesan for whom a young seminary student of noble birth forsakes his career, family, and religion and ends as a card shark and confidence man. His downward progress, if not actually excused, is portrayed as a sacrifice to love.
The prototype of the English sentimental novel is Samuel Richardson's novel Pamela (1740). The term and the literary style originate in medieval French (and later English) romances, in which the hero is usually preoccupied with his or her love and love sufferings. The second important novel was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. The sentimental novel was satirized by Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews a year later.
Sentimental novels are related to the domestic fiction of the early eighteenth century. Among the most famous sentimental novels are Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1768) and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771).
Along with a new vision of love, sentimentalism presented a new view of human nature which prized feeling over thinking, passion over reason, and personal instincts of "pity, tenderness, and benevolence" over social duties.
The novel of sensibility
After the 1760s, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy spawned the novel of sensibility; it is also a peak in the development of sentimentalism. In it, the protagonist, most often a young woman, naively encounters the world and learns to refine her natural goodness. Sensibility was a character trait important in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. A person with sensibility was attuned with nature and was easily, and rightly, affected by the feelings of others; the "sensible" person noticed the hurt of others and was a barometer of social morality. Tobias Smollett tried to imply the "cult of sensibility" in his Humphry Clinker 1771. An excellent example of this type of novel is Frances Burney's Evelina (1778), wherein the heroine, while naturally good, in part for being country-raised, hones her politeness when visiting London she is educated into propriety. This novel also is the beginning of "romantic comedy".
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther was highly sentimental and immediately extremely popular throughout Europe, and even caused young people who could relate to Werther's sorrows to commit suicide.
At the end of the eighteenth century, sensibility's value was questioned, as it made its bearers, particularly women, too overwrought and too prone to imagining worlds beyond their appointed ones. These anxieties are in the rise of the Gothic novel, at century's end. The Gothic novel's story occurs in a distant time and place, often Renaissance Italy, and involved the fantastic exploits of an imperiled heroine. The classic Gothic novel is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). As in other Gothic novels, the notion of the sublime is central. Eighteenth-century aesthetic theory held that the sublime and the beautiful were juxtaposed. The sublime was awful (awe-inspiring) and terrifying while the beautiful was calm and reassuring. The characters and landscapes of the Gothic rest almost entirely within the sublime, with the heroine the great exception. The “beautiful” heroine’s susceptibility to supernatural elements, integral to these novels, both celebrates and problematizes what came to be seen as hyper-sensibility.
Finally, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the overwrought emotions of sensibility, as expressed through the Gothic sublime, had run their course. Jane Austen wrote a Gothic novel parody titled Northanger Abbey (1803), reflecting the death of the Gothic novel. Moreover, while sensibility did not disappear, it was less valued. Austen introduced a different style of writing-the comedy of manners, but her novels often are not funny, but rather are scathing critiques of the restrictive, rural culture of the early nineteenth century. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), has been a blueprint for much subsequent romantic fiction. Her Sense and Sensibility is a "witty satire of the sentimental novel", by using the popular motives of the genre and the Age of Enlightenment (sense=reason and sensibility=sentimentalism) in contrast with reality (marriage and inheritance).