Victorian Literature Sincerity
Anna Barton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0065


Sincerity is a term that is associated both with Victorian formulations of cultural and moral value and with 20th- and 21st-century formulations of “the Victorian.” It is prominent in the work of the most canonical thinkers of the 19th century, many of whom name it as the sine qua non of human or literary worth. Sincerity is the Victorian articulation of a Romantic ideology that places emphasis on individual subjectivity. Sincerity, both personal and poetic, is therefore closely related to a truth to self: to honesty, integrity, plain speaking, and earnestness, as well as expressivism, sensibility, and emotional truth. It is central to Victorian poetic theory, to the construction of character in the Victorian novel, and to the development of realism in fiction and drama. Its application is so broad, in fact, that any critical investigation of sincerity is likely to encounter contradictions. It is associated both with emotional outpouring and with emotional reserve; it is claimed as both a masculine and a feminine trait. As a result of sincerity’s overexposure, toward the end of the 19th century, artistic movements sought to break away from or reverse the aesthetics of sincerity that had dominated the period. Sincerity was loudly rejected by writers associated with Wilde and the decadent movement in favor of insincerity, style, and artifice. Nevertheless, the sincere ideal survived well into the 20th century, remaining prominent in the critical vocabulary of F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards, and others. From the middle of the 20th century onward, Victorian sincerity was regarded with increasing skepticism, viewed as a cultural convention, conformed to or performed in ways that made it begin to resemble its opposite: hypocrisy. It is Lionel Trilling who sounds the death knell for sincerity as a critical term in 1972, when he divided it from its Romantic origins and defined it as truth to a social or public self, as opposed to a Wordsworthian “authenticity,” that does not recognize the public/private distinction on which sincerity relies. However, more recently sincerity has begun to experience a tentative renaissance in literary and cultural criticism, reevaluated via the rise of neoliberalism, developments in the study of literature and the emotions, and the revival of literary ethics.

Critical Overviews

Sincerity has a significant place in the history of literary criticism. Inheriting the term from the Victorians, early-20th-century critics employed it to establish literary value. Sincerity is a central concern for perhaps the two most influential critical movements of post–World War I Britain: the Scrutiny Movement, led by F. R. Leavis, which placed great emphasis on the moral achievements of Victorian literature, and the New Criticism, founded by I. A. Richards. Both movements sought to locate cultural worth and moral seriousness within particular literary works, values that are associated by both with sincerity. Leavis 1968 provides an example of the kind of criticism carried out by the Scrutiny Movement; whereas Richards 2004 is the foundational text of the New Criticism. Russo 1986 makes the connections between Richards and his Victorian inheritance explicit and is therefore useful for anyone tracing sincerity’s history as a critical term. In the 1960s and 1970s, sincerity was reassessed by Peyre 1978, Ball 1964, Abrams 1971, and Trilling 1980. Abrams and Trilling are more skeptical than Leavis and Richards of sincerity, and both provide essential, influential critiques of sincerity as a Victorian value. Ball 1964 offers a helpful critique of sincerity’s fall. In a less critical vein, but nevertheless treating sincerity as a thing of the past, Peyre’s history of literary sincerity focuses on its continental European origins. Likewise, Houghton 1985 provides what is still one of the most readable general introductions to Victorian sincerity and earnestness. In recent years the definition of sincerity provided by Trilling has itself come under scrutiny, and Anderson 2006 is a good example of work that seeks to find possibilities for sincerity’s critical future.

  • Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

    In his chapter “Poetic Truth and Sincerity,” Abrams draws on the work of Carlyle, Keble, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth, and George Henry Lewes to chart sincerity’s rise to become “the primary criterion, if not the sine qua non, of excellence in poetry” (p. 318) during the 19th century.

  • Anderson, Amanda. “Beyond Sincerity and Authenticity: The Ethos of Proceduralism.” In The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory. By Amanda Anderson, 161–189. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    Although Anderson’s essay does not deal directly with Victorian literature and culture, her chapter, which employs Trilling’s definitions of sincerity and authenticity in a discussion of the political proceduralism of Habermas and Rawls, demonstrates how this 19th-century term might have application in 20th- and 21st-century political philosophy.

  • Ball, Patricia M. “Sincerity: The Rise and Fall of a Critical Term.” Modern Language Review 59 (1964): 1–11.

    DOI: 10.2307/3720579

    Ball argues that sincerity is a Romantic value that is more firmly defined by the Victorians, who tend to confine its meaning to “a more naïve and emotional interpretation of the artist as man ‘speaking the truth’” (p. 3). It is this narrowing of definition, Ball suggests, that leads to sincerity’s fall from grace at the turn of the century.

  • Houghton, Walter E. The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830–1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    Houghton’s classic study of Victorian values, beliefs and attitudes includes a chapter on “Earnestness,” which describes the Victorian intellectual and moral revolt against the leisurely playfulness of Regency England. His book concludes with a consideration of the moral value Carlyle placed on personal sincerity and the importance of being honest with oneself. Originally published in 1957.

  • Leavis, F. R. “Reality and Sincerity: Notes in the Analysis of Poetry.” In A Selection from Scrutiny. Vol. 1. Compiled by F. R. Leavis, 248–258. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

    Leavis’s essay, which ranks “Barbara” by Alexander Smith, “Cold in the Earth” by Emily Brontë, and “After a Journey” by Thomas Hardy according to a criteria of sincerity, is old-fashioned, but provides a good, accessible example of the way sincerity was used by the Scrutiny movement to evaluate 19th-century literature.

  • Peyre, Henri. Literature and Sincerity. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978.

    Peyre’s history of sincerity and European literature begins with Catullus and Ovid and ends with André Gide. Its focus is on the literature of continental Europe, but it takes in the work of Wordsworth, Arnold, Tennyson, and Browning in chapters on “Romanticism and Sincerity” and “The Poetry of Introspection.” Originally published by Yale University Press in 1963 (Yale Romanic Studies, 2d ser., 9).

  • Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004.

    Although now out of fashion, Richards’s work, which formed the foundation of the New Criticism, is still important for students tracing the critical history of sincerity. Richards argues that sincerity “is the quality we most insistently require in poetry” and that which we “most need as critics” (p. 265). Originally published in 1929 (London: Kegan Paul).

  • Russo, John Paul. “Belief and Sincerity in I. A. Richards.” Modern Language Quarterly 47 (1986): 154–191.

    DOI: 10.1215/00267929-47-2-154

    A helpful reassessment of Richards 2004 that traces I. A. Richards’s understanding of literary sincerity back to its 19th-century roots and considers ways in which it might have application for late-20th-century criticism and theory, drawing some interesting parallels with Adorno.

  • Trilling, Lionel. Sincerity and Authenticity. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

    The most influential critical study of sincerity and literature to be published in the 20th century, Trilling’s series of lectures defines the sincerity that is championed by the Victorian novel and by the likes of Arnold, Ruskin, and Carlyle as a unified relationship with one’s social self/identity. He pits this against “authenticity,” which, he argues, enables the self to perform a productive disjunction with the social structures it inhabits. Originally published in 1972 (London: Oxford University Press).

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