The Rivals is a reaction against sentimental novel. Discuss.
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Sentimentality, or feelings, was greatly prized in the 18th century, and the rise of the cult of sentimentality was very closely linked with the rise of a new form of fiction, the novel, in which sentiment could be presented in all of its unfettered romantic potential. Women were especially fond of such novels where strong, romantic lovers courted virtuous female characters who expressed their feelings of love. Often such romances were opposed by society, and as such, they involved a certain amount of intrigue and elopement away from the eyes of "respectable" society. The way that Sheridan wrote this drama to react against sentimentality is clear from the way that Lydia Languish is presented as a character to be mocked. The works that she sends her made to get for her in Act I scene 2 are actual romantic novels from the period, and would have been recognised by the audience. Note too the way that Lydia refers to the avidity with which women of her class read such novels, refering to Lady Slattern's "most observing thumb" as she reads a book that has been read before her.
It is Lydia's desire to experience in her life the kind of romantic fiction she loves to read about that causes Absolute to disguise himself as Beverley. Her attachment to this romantic fiction is shown when Absolute reveals his true identity and how she has been duped, and says to her, to try and allay her anger and sadness at having a conventional marriage after all:
Come, come, we must lay aside some of our romance--a little wealth and comfort may be endured after all.
Instead of having an exciting elopement against the wishes of her relatives that would plunge her into poverty, as in her novels, Lydia must accept that she will have a socially sanctioned marriage between two people of equal status that will increase their wealth. It is this truth that she finds so difficult to accept. Sheridan thus satirises the sentimental novel through this play in a hilarious fashion through the extremes that Lydia is determined to go to in order to achieve her romantic fiction in her life.
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