Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie is not a household name for most readers. His most famous work, The Man of Feeling, fits into the tradition of sentimental novels. The novel opens with a hunting trip where a curates hands over to his hunting partner an account of a sentimental youth named Harley. The narrator then reads through and reports the surviving chapters of Harley’s memoir. It unfolds as a series of episodic adventures from Harley’s youth describing the intense feelings various incidents produced in him. He tells of his early education and guardians, his adventures in London trying to save a hapless prostitute on the brink of death, his experiences visiting a psych ward, his meeting with an old impoverished farmer from his youth drafted into the army after a stroke of financial bad luck, and the struggle to deal with clandestine feelings for his neighbor’s daughter, and his eventual death. There is even a random episode about a completely different sentimental youth named Sedley and his adventures assisting a sick and impoverished man brought low by local aristocrats during his grand tour of Europe.
It’s difficult to decide if this novel should be understood as a serious dramatic attempt to depict a sentimental character too good for this world or a satire poking fun at his melodramatic antics. Later editions of the work included an “index of tears,” documenting every paroxysm of sadness expressed by the characters. The novel shows a character shocked, and sometimes even duped, by the seedy side of the world. He shows no acumen with finances and is unable to display the least duplicity in order to gain the inheritance of an aunt. The man is genuine in his feelings. The various episodes of fallen personages lead to his intense emotions, and, indeed, in a serious novel and in the real world such events should elicit our pity, yet the reactions are a bit too strong and too frequent. Mackenzie seems to be poking fun at his character, yet it also important to note that these strong emotional reactions often lead Harley to help the suffering person. I think our author is poking fun at extreme sentimentalism, while recognizing that the world really does possess sordid qualities that should evoke our pity. It is too easy to go the other direction and be a man of the world, ignoring others pain and engaging in shady business practices. The novel suggests we must not wallow in sentimentalism, otherwise we might end up ridiculous and unable to function practically in a sometimes cruel world. Harley helps people, but he fails to express his feelings to his love interest until he is on his deathbed and never proposes marriage. He fails to achieve any of his pecuniary goals at the beginning of the novel, not being a man of politics or social graces willing to dissemble for gain. At the same time we should not forget our feelings entirely for our fellow humans and their plight, and remember to empathize and help them. We need to be able to practically advocate for ourselves and our interests, while still caring for other people and their interests.