Victorian Literature Sentimentality
Kirstie Blair, Eliza O'Brien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0063


The nature and status of sentimentality is widely contested, though most critics would agree that the adjective “sentimental” is applied to works that have a primary appeal to the emotions and operate by means of affect. Sentimental literature is interested in the experience, display, effect, and interpretation of emotion (pleasurable or otherwise) and in stirring up emotion in readers. The literature and culture of sentimentality has traditionally been viewed as clichéd, predictable and of limited aesthetic and social value. Yet critical work in the last two decades—primarily in the fields of literary and cultural studies, but also in philosophy—has attempted to rehabilitate the historical sentimental tradition and to argue for the inclusion of sentimental works in the canon. Sentimental philosophy is firmly rooted in 18th-century Britain, and the consequent explosion of sentimental literature meant that the long 18th century is the locus of most critical work in the field of sentimentality. The second most important period in this respect is 19th-century America: American literature and culture has attracted outstanding critical work. Studies of 19th-century British literature and culture lag behind, though several important reassessments of Victorian sentimentality do exist. Recent critical studies of Victorian sentimental texts and contexts tend to draw heavily on the arguments and approaches developed by critics of 18th-century British and 19th-century American sentimental culture. For this reason, although this bibliography focuses on Victorian sentimentality, it also includes critical studies that do not concentrate explicitly on British Victorian texts but have significant implications for their study and have been influential in the field. Victorian sentimentality touches on broad issues of sensibility—including medical and physiological studies—and emotion, which can be profitably summed up under the general heading of affect.

General Overviews

The works listed here provide both wide-ranging accounts of Victorian sentimentality and of the sentimental tradition more broadly. Bell 2000 provides a thorough grounding in the theory of sentiment from the 18th century onward. Davis 2000, sharing the convictions of Fulweiler and Bailin (see Modernity and Class) that Victorian sentimentality responds to the rapid pace of societal change in the period, makes a convincing and reasoned case for the importance of sentimentality in the Victorian novel and should be essential reading. Howard 1999 provides a lucid introduction to the key issues involved in historical and literary-critical accounts of sentimentality and a helpful introduction to the most influential critical studies. Kaplan 1987 remains to a large extent the standard monograph on Victorian sentimentality and was a pioneering instance of critical work that took sentimental literature seriously. Merish 2000 represents 21st-century interest in the relations between the sentimental tradition and capitalism: recent criticism tends to see sentimentality as intimately linked to market culture rather than in opposition to it. Railton 1998–2009 supplies an excellent selection of primary sources on 19th-century sentimentality and serves as an indispensable introduction to sentimental culture. Banfield 2007 is helpful in considering how sentiment was defined in the Victorian period and the shifts that took place in these definitions. Finally, Tompkins 1986 was an early and field-defining work, enormously influential in revaluing 19th-century sentimental literature—particularly though not exclusively by women—and in arguing for its political impact.

  • Banfield, Marie. Special Issue: From Sentiment to Sentimentality: A Nineteenth-Century Lexicographical Search. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 4 (2007).

    Examines Victorian dictionary definitions of “sentiment” to assess the shifting meanings associated with the term in the 19th century.

  • Bell, Michael. Sentimentalism, Ethics, and the Culture of Feeling. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Traces the development of sentimentality from the 18th to the 20th centuries. The first two chapters contain a clear account of sentiment and sympathy in moral philosophy. It is a useful companion to Bell’s previous work, The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in the European Novel (see The Novel).

  • Davis, Philip. “Victorian Realist Prose and Sentiment.” In Rereading Victorian Fiction. Edited by Alice Jenkins and Juliet John, 13–28. London: Macmillan, 2000.

    Short but highly significant essay offering brilliant close readings of extracts from realist novels, to display and reassess the emotional charge they contain.

  • Howard, June. “What is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11 (1999): 63–81.

    Calls for an end to the discourse of judgment surrounding sentimentality. Reexamining important critical studies, Howard suggests the need for an interdisciplinary understanding of sentimentality that takes in new work on emotion and the body from linguistics, the social sciences, and physiology.

  • Kaplan, Fred. Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

    Classic study of Victorian sentimentality, taking a largely sympathetic and revisionary position in tracing the roots of 19th-century sentimental fictions in 18th-century moral philosophy. Focuses primarily on the novel, and on Dickens and Thackeray in particular.

  • Merish, Lori. Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000.

    Traces the construction of an ideal of “sentimental ownership,” in which the development of female consumerism in 19th-century America became associated with discourses of feeling. Persuasive and engaging, with a central thesis that is equally applicable to Victorian literature.

  • Railton, Stephen. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. University of Virginia, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, 1998–2009.

    Outstanding database containing information about and contexts for Stowe’s novel and the American sentimental tradition in general. Includes sections on a variety of 19th-century authors. Very helpful introductory resource to Victorian sentimentality, in Britain as well as the United States.

  • Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790–1860. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

    Foundational work on popular 19th-century fiction by women, reassessing the genre significance and arguing that the sentimental aims of 19th-century novels had vital political significance. Contains a particularly influential chapter on Stowe and sentimentality.

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