The Sentimental Novel Essay - Critical Essays

The Sentimental Novel


The Sentimental Novel

The sentimental novel, also known as the domestic novel, deviated from the literary norms established by such authors as Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, and Mark Twain to focus on the intimate details of women's private lives during the nineteenth century. A form of literature which was most popular in early and mid-nineteenth century America, the sentimental novel is traditionally dismissed in literary histories, though works such as Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), and Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854) were at one time among the most popular publications in American letters.

The sentimental novel has historical roots in Europe, particularly in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-48) and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), both of which tell of men seducing virtuous women. American authors in the early nineteenth century replicated and amplified this theme, though later domestic novels expanded the variety of conflicts and protagonists: the unique social, spiritual, political, and economic circumstances of nineteenth-century America conditioned the issues that confronted the female characters and the ways in which such issues were resolved. Sentimental novels appealed primarily to female and middle-class readers who, in colonial and Revolutionary America, were taught to read in order to teach their sons democratic ideals. This idea of influential republican motherhood evolved into the "cult of domesticity," in which women were the guardians of spirituality and virtue, and which is embodied in the domestic novels' morally pure protagonists—such as Little Eva, from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Eliza Wharton, from The Coquette (1797).

Sentimental novels are traditionally contrasted with the writings of Melville, Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who exalted individuals who transgress against cultural conventions. The historical identification of the sentimental novel with the "feminization" of American, and especially Southern, culture reinforces the criticism that these works uncritically replicate conventional ideas and values. But the identification of women as protectors of the family links sentimental novelists with abolitionism, which often argued against slavery by noting its destructive impact upon families, and with other political movements such as prohibition. Consequently, some recent critics argue that domestic novels are less formulaic than initially perceived, and have interpreted them as expressions of proto-feminism and as attempts to celebrate the traditional role of women in society.

Despite the common criticism that sentimental fiction portrays an idealized account of domestic life, authors frequently insisted that their stories were grounded in reality, and feminist theorists such as Jane Tompkins and Cathy N. Davidson have challenged the idea that domestic novels are merely romantic and idealistic. Instead, these critics contend that the novels portray issues and characters that were relevant to nineteenth-century women—familial relations, issues of dependence and independence, and definitions of virtue and femininity. Although mundane and conventional behavior frequently dominates the private world represented in the domestic novel, the genre lends insight into both the cult of domesticity and the resistance to that ideal that emerged from the increased education of women under American republicanism.

Representative Works

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women 1869

Maria Cummins

The Lamplighter 1854

Martha Finley

Elsie Dinsmore 1867

Hannah Webster Foster

The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton 1797

Judith Sargent Murray

Story of Margaretta 1798

Samuel Richardson

Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded 1740

Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady. 1 vols. 1747-48

Susanna Rowson

Charlotte Temple, a Tale of Truth 1794

E. D. E. N. Southworth

The Hidden Hand 1859

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin 1852

Susan Warner [Elizabeth Wetherell]

The Wide, Wide World 1850

Augusta Evans Wilson

St. Elmo 1866

S. S. B. K. Wood

Amelia; or, The Influence of Virtue 1802


Alexander Cowie

SOURCE: "The Vogue of the Domestic Novel: 1850-1870," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. XLI, No. 4, October, 1942, pp. 416-24.

[In the following essay, Cowie summarizes common plot elements of nineteenth-century sentimental novels, and argues that they prescribed conservative feminine values.]

In 1842 William Gilmore Simms referred to Cooper's Precaution as "a very feeble work, . . . a second or third rate imitation of a very inferior school of writings, known as the social life novel." By the "social life novel," Simms meant a story in which the bulk of detail was made up of "the ordinary events of the household, or of the snug family circle." The action of such a story might reach its climax at a ball or a dinner party. To a man accustomed, as Simms was, to handling issues that determined the fate of states or nations, this sort of thing seemed paltry stuff, for it gave almost no play to the "imagination" or the "creative faculty." No wonder Cooper failed in Precaution and Scott in St. Ronan 's Well. If such novels have to be written, let them be written by women.

Well, a few years after Simms wrote these words, women did bend themselves to producing the social or domestic novel with such zeal that they put a severe crimp in the sales of other varieties of fiction including Simms's specialty, the historical romance. Indeed, they all but pre-empted the field of fiction. The fifties and sixties saw the publication of scores of domestic novels by a variety of authors. Their sales were tremendous. Maria Cummins's Lamplighter sold 40,000 copies within eight weeks. Two of Susan Warner's books, The Wide, Wide World and Queechy, sold an aggregate of 104,000 copies in three years. Mrs. Hentz's sales totaled 93,000 in three years. Mrs. Holmes's books reached a total of 2,000,000 sold copies. The demand for the books of Jane Augusta Evans Wilson may be partly judged by a notice printed in one edition of St. Elmo: "Special edition limited to 100,000 copies." Other writers of the school made almost comparable successes. The vogue of the form was perhaps greatest in the fifties and sixties; yet as late as 1872 the Boston Public Library "confessed . . . that the most popular authors of the day were Mary Holmes, Caroline Lee Hentz, and Mrs. Southworth." It is no accident that Joyce's Ulysses, set in 1904, reports Gerty MacDowell as having read The Lamplighter. Nor are people lacking in the present generation even among the intelligentsia who, if pressed, will blushingly admit that they have read and enjoyed St. Elmo.

The productions of this prolific race of novelists have generally been dismissed briefly by historians of literature as being subliterary, and therefore unworthy of critical attention. Granted that sales are no criterion of literary values, yet the vast popularity of these writers so affected the market for fiction and the standards of public taste that more serious artists were alarmed. In 1855 Hawthorne referred in exasperation to the authors as a "damned mob of scribbling women." Howells later had much ado to correct false artistic standards of taste they created. Some knowledge of the origin, aims, and vogue of such an influential school is essential to an understanding of the temper of the period and of the evolution of the novel.

The domestic novel had reciprocal relationships with various other forms of fiction. A precise definition is therefore difficult, but for the moment the domestic novel may be roughly defined, in its first phase at least, as an extended prose tale composed chiefly of commonplace household incidents and episodes loosely worked into a trite plot involving the fortunes of characters who exist less as individuals than as carriers of pious moral or religious sentiment. The thesis of such a book is that true happiness comes from submission to suffering. In its purest strain the domestic novel relied far more on religious sentiment than on romantic love, but as time went on the latter greatly increased its ratio and even an erotic element (for which the author acknowledged no responsibility) became dimly apparent between the lines. Other variations occur from author to author, but enough homogeneity obtains in the genre to give some validity to the following receipt to make a domestic novel.

First, take a young and not-too-pretty child about ten years old. Boys are possible, but girls are to be preferred, for the author and the increasing majority of women readers will be more at home in the detail. Make sure that the child is, or is shortly to be, an orphan. If the mother is still living, put her to death very gradually in a scene of much sorrow and little physical suffering, uttering pious hopes and admonitions to the last. The father presumably died years ago under circumstances not well known. Now put the child under the care of a shrewish aunt, who resents being obliged to take care of her dead brother's brat. If it has been impossible to remove the father as suggested above, a reasonably good compromise will be to have him make a second marriage with a frivolous heartless society woman. In an emergency a cruel housekeeper will do. The child is now unhappy, undernourished, and underprivileged. She is exposed to the taunts of snobbish little rich girls. It is essential that she accidentally overhear unkind comments on her awkward clothes, rustic manners, bad behavior, or even her family honor. Slander may be used freely for spicing the plot. The child's behavior may in fact be actually bad in the beginning. She may "sass" her aunt. She may even shy a stone through a window.

But her worst sin is her "pride." Now introduce a young woman living not far away, who embodies all Christian virtues, especially humility. Let this lady kiss, pray over, and cry with the heroine at intervals of from three to four pages. The lady may or may not be blind; at any rate, she has had her sorrows and she is destined to die about two thirds of the way through the book of badly diagnosed tuberculosis. She will die at sunset—without a struggle. She is going home. Tears which have been flowing freely now practically inundate the book. The girl's only remaining friends are an eccentric (Barkis-like) teamster, and a wealthy (Cheeryble-like) merchant who now and then gives her a lollipop. In the meantime she has learned to subdue her pride and to submit graciously to the suffering which is the lot of all mortals in this shabby world. You may end your story here if you will, with the child on the verge of adolescence; but it is preferable to carry on a few years in order that the heroine may be menaced by a proud, handsome, moody, Rochester-like man aged about thirty who has traveled and sinned (very vaguely) in the Orient. He at first scarcely notices the meek little girl, but her bright spirit and vaguely-referred-to physical charms finally force him to admit to himself that he must have her. If it weren't for Queen Victoria he would try to seduce her, but as it is he is reduced to proposing marriage. To his astonishment she refuses. This sends him darkly off on more travels. The girl meanwhile has learned to support herself by teaching, acting as governess, or by writing, and she talks rather briskly about independence for women. Let her endure many trials and perform many pious acts. Monotony may be broken by a trip to Saratoga or by the introduction of some physical peril such as a carriage accident, an attack by a mad dog, or a fire. One day the moody man comes back, and finds her sitting in a cemetery. He proposes again and is accepted. Don't be alarmed at this: his pride has been humbled, too, and he is now reformed. He may even become a minister, but he has plenty of money. For her part, the heroine now drops all fantastic notions of female independence, for she realizes that a woman's greatest glory is wifely submission. The acid aunt either dies or experiences a change of heart toward the heroine. In the latter case she may be married off to the neighboring teamster (blacksmith will do). The wealthy merchant turns out to be the heroine's father: he wasn't really lost at sea! Everybody is now happy in a subdued, Christian sort of way.

This composite story is intended to give some idea of the domestic novel as it was practiced by Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, Jane Augusta Evans Wilson, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, Ann Sophia Stephens, Caroline Lee Hentz, Mrs. H. B. Goodwin, Marion Harland, E. P. Roe, and others from 1850 to 1872. Its descent in the family of fiction is complicated. It is obviously related to the novel of sensibility and as such it goes back to Pamela. Miss Edgeworth was also an acknowledged ancestor of the type. But there are more obvious relationships with four later British writers—Bulwer, Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and Mrs. Gaskell—whose first published novels appeared respectively in 1829, 1837, 1847, and 1848. Bulwer provided a model for drawing-room scenes and fascinating, wicked, fashionable young men; Dickens, for pathetic little girls and eccentric characters; Brontë, for the persecuted governess; and Mrs. Gaskell, for idyllic village life. From American novelists there was less that could be borrowed handily. The sensitive, swooning heroine lately released from the defunct Gothic romance and the moribund historical romance could be drafted into the service of the domestic novel, given a course of intensive religious training, taught maneuvers of the heart by Jane Eyre, and assigned to heavy emotional duty on the domestic front. The kitchen realism which Miss Sedgwick employed for the benefit of readers beginning to tire of the details of military campaign and Indian adventure could be easily imitated. Yet models and inspirations outside the novel were perhaps quite as important: Mrs. Sigourney's tremendous success in poems of religious sentiment, Fanny Fern's domestic essays, Ik Marvel's dozing reveries, and the variety of sentimental pieces whether essay, tale, or poem, which filled the literary annuals and gift-books. It is a fair guess that the domestic novel gradually took over much of the public created by the gift-book vogue, which, beginning in 1825 and carrying on to the sixties, showed a marked decline shortly after 1850. And when in 1853 Mrs. Stowe contributed Little Eva to the gallery of sentimental heroines, there was no stopping the lady novelists.

Obviously the domestic novel was not only a literary phenomenon but a social one as well. Telescoped into a few generalizations, the opinions it reflected and promoted can be seen to have been of a distinctly conservative nature. In effect, the domestic novel functioned as a sort of benign moral police, whose regulations were principally comprised under the heads of religion and morality. The religion inculcated was not heavily freighted with theological doctrines; it was rather, as Gerty says in The Lamplighter, a "religion of the heart" and as such was available to any one ready to listen to the voice of God. Its chiefest enemies were Goethe, Emerson, and various other vendors of "transcendental sophistries" devised originally in Germany. If the German vice was unorthodoxy, the threat of the French was immorality. There was no surer way of damning a character than by showing him in the act of reading a French novel, particularly one by Eugene Sue, whose Mysteries of Paris and The Wandering Jew were promptly translated and published in this country in the middle forties. The French, moreover, were the prime exemplars of that fashionable life against which the domestic novelists protested—and sometimes protested too much. As for formal education, the general tendency is to indorse a simple type of curriculum in the local elementary schools. Boarding schools are looked upon askance as places where children are underfed and poorly instructed under the orders of a tyrannical, greedy headmaster. Colleges are tested for their religious tone: Yale, for example, is preferred to Harvard and Columbia as the place where a lad can get "a granite foundation for . . . religion—everything solid and sound there." It is conceded by another novelist, however, that a Harvard commencement is an "intellectual banquet." Women's rights are smartly debated in practically every domestic novel. Keen feminist arguments are met by the stock replies that women have intuition but not reason, that they may lose feminine graces in the pursuit of rights, and that men will deteriorate too if the need for chivalry is removed. Such sex warfare generally ends in an ignoble truce whereby the woman barters all her advantages for a scrap of paper—a marriage certificate. As for the heroine who takes to writing as a career, she renounces that at the altar: a bluestocking she must not be. Least of all should she be a reformer. The lady novelists showed their conservatism in nothing so much as their universal detestation of reform movements. Charitable Christian deeds performed by individuals were acceptable, but reform movements were "radical." This attitude extended even to the subject of slavery, which forms a staple of conversation in many novels. It is argued, of course, that to hold a human being in the condition of a chattel is wrong, but nowhere is there much said for the militant abolitionist. Moreover, the Southern cause is well represented (especially since two of the principal domestic novelists, Marion Harland and Jane Wilson, were Southerners) and it is often argued that the position of a (contented) slave is considerably better than that of "the miserable, half-starved seamstresses of Boston and New York, who toil from dawn till dark, with aching head and throbbing breast." In this debate, however, the novelist generally remains neutral. Other political and economic problems are but lightly touched. There are vague allusions to the beneficence of "Republican institutions" and the dignity of labor, but there is no systematic arraignment of the socio-economic order even for those evils which closely impinged upon domestic life—child labor, defective factory conditions, and miscellaneous exploitation of the poor classes—much less the growing political corruption that was to flower rankly in the Gilded Age. The domestic novelists handled no inflammable social doctrine, for it was no part of their purpose to create industrial unrest or to foment class hatred.

In most respects, then, the domestic novelists were conservative socially. The pioneer spirit was not in them, and they were not concerned with "progress." Enough to be safe in the moment. Yet in one respect they exhibited, perhaps unconsciously, a tendency which has been ratified by later thinkers. This was shown in their fundamental conception of the regeneration of a person given to evil courses. Instead of trying to stamp out evil violently as a sign of innate depravity, lodged in man ever since old Adam's first slip, they sought to lead the child to grace by kindly encouragement. The motive power was more often love or hope than fear. Satan's agency in sin was left out of consideration and causes were sought for nearer at hand, specifically in heredity and environment. Vicious surroundings accounted for undesirable traits which could be removed, but only gradually, by transplantation to a more favorable environment: "The plant that for years has been growing distorted, and dwelling in a barren spot, deprived of light and nourishment, withering in its leaves and blighted in its fruit, cannot at once recover from so cruel a blast. Transplanted to another soil, it must be directed in the right course, nourished with care and warmed with Heaven's light, ere it can recover from the shock occasioned by its early neglect, and find strength to expand its flowers and ripen its fruit." There was a perceptible swing from a theological to a scientific conception of the proper control of mental and moral states, for "'there is mental as well as bodily sickness and a true physician should minister to both.'" In general the novels of this school show a tendency to rely on admonition rather than punishment as a means of discipline. There is less talk of the devil and more of angels, less forcing and more leading. To be sure such positive, optimistic doctrine was not wholly new in the 1850's, but it was of some significance in a social order only recently emerged from the depressing atmosphere of Calvinistic thought.

There can be no question of the tremendous vogue of the domestic sentimentalists or of their acceptable moral teaching. What can be said of the intrinsic merit of the books themselves? Very little. Obviously they are in no cases the product of first-rate writers. Yet some abilities must be looked for in novelists who were able to command the attention not only of the average intelligent reader but of the critics as well. If they had addressed themselves only to a semi-illiterate public, their sales would not have disturbed Hawthorne by the thought of potential readers lost; if their books had been totally devoid of literary merit, Howells would not have bothered to attack them. Evidently they were read by persons who were unaware of stooping to an unworthy variety of entertainment. Why? The simplest answer (beyond the religious content of the books) is that most of the domestic novelists exhibited a fairly good prose style: their books looked like literature. It was perhaps as easy for the untutored layman to confuse their work with genuine literature as to mistake the popular illustrations of Currier and Ives for great art. Almost every writer in the group wrote with great facility—perhaps a fatal facility—and some of them, notably Mrs. Wilson, had a gift for phrasing that would have done credit to more important books.

If an odious comparison may be admitted, it is likely that in sheer literary gifts Mrs. Wilson excelled her present-day successors, Faith Baldwin and Kathleen Norris.

For the rest, the plot is based on a framework of trite devices, such as mistaken identity and the long-lost relative, and set into motion by coincidence. The fuel is sentiment or emotion, which is used in such a rich mixture that overheating results. No great speed is attained, but there are many melodramatic crises. The characters are generally lacking in individuality except for an occasional minor person. There is much whimsy but little humor. The description of natural scenery is slight in amount, and the sense of place is almost negligible: in this respect the domestic novelists displayed little advance over the novelists of fifty years before. The principal structural defect is the almost universal practice of chopping the action up into short scenes of approximately equal length—a method which, though perhaps dictated in part by the exigencies of serial publication, is generally fatal to proportion. The story sprawls through several years—perhaps an average of six or seven. A chronological order is observed throughout to a point about two thirds or four fifths of the way through the book, when the author finally vouchsafes the explanation of whatever mysteries in the plot have been arbitrarily withheld. This explanation, which generally consists of the life story of one of the characters, is so long as to throw the whole book still more askew structurally. How much better results might be obtained by the condensation or complete omission of certain scenes and the selection of others for expansion, together with the judicious use of flash-backs, remained for Howells and James to demonstrate.

The domestic novel was a popular commodity in which originality was no great virtue. Even in its period it seemed somewhat old-fashioned. As time went on, the effects of excessive inbreeding finally foreshadowed its temporary extinction. Yet the species was amazingly tenacious, and its life span extended through the seventies and even beyond. Meantime there has appeared in the late I860's the first publications of three men—Mark Twain, Howells, and James—destined in different ways to give American fiction more vitality and greater merit. Yet none of these men immediately preempted the field, and one of them, James, can scarcely be said to have had a popular vogue at all. Their immediate influence, like that of Whitman, was not widespread. The gravest threats to the domestic novel in the seventies and eighties were local-color fiction (often taking the form of the short story), the international or cosmopolitan novel (especially, in the popular field, the work of Francis Marion Crawford), and the historical romance, which was revived in the 1880's and 1890's. The development of the railroad contributed to the physical expansion of the country which brought the local-colorists into prominence; and the great increase in European travel in part prepared for the rise of "international" fiction. When "swaggering Americans were thronging Europe in great crowds," the novelist whose characters were followed to no point more remote than Saratoga began to seem a little provincial. As for the historical romance, its occasional recurrence is inevitable. At all events new costumes, gorgeous settings, and more "personalized" characters gave the historical romance a new vogue in the eighties. A little later, the panic of 1893 doubtless made romance even more welcome as a resource against incessant discussion of wages, strikes, monopolies, and economic depression. At all events the nineteenth-century domestic novel was by that time pretty well choked out by heavy competition except for the sporadic reappearances already noted.

Mary Kelley

SOURCE: "The Sentimentalists: Promise and Betrayal in the Home," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 434-46.

[In the essay that follows, Kelley claims that authors of the domestic novel simultaneously glorified and protested women 's domestic roles.]

The sentimentalists, especially those who focused upon woman and her role in the family and society, have long been objects of neglect, dismissal, and scorn. Hawthorne's oft-repeated outburst that "America is now wholly given over to a d d mob of scribbling women" was echoed a century later by Leslie Fiedler's ridicule of "the purely commercial purveyors of domestic sentiments."1 Adopting a more fruitful perspective, other critics have chosen instead to concentrate upon the social and cultural values articulated by this popular and highly influential group of nineteenth-century writers of fiction. Generally the assessments have been strikingly dissimilar, even contradictory, as the interpretations of Alexander Cowie and Helen Waite Papashvily illustrate. Cowie painted the sentimentalists as ultraconservative, claiming that their fiction "functioned as a sort of benign moral police, whose regulations were principally comprised under the heads of religion and morality."2 He contended that...

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The Politics Of Domestic Fiction

Herbert Ross Brown

SOURCE: "The Sentimental Compromise," in The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860, Duke University Press, 1940. Reprint, Pageant Books, Inc., 1959, pp. 358-70.

[In the following chapter from his The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860, Brown criticizes the sentimental novel for its idealism and consequent neglect of social and political issues.]

The central experiment of the generation had been toward the reconciliation of unlikes—the humanitarian philosophy of enlightenment, perfectibility, democracy, beside the philosophy of acquisition, laissez-faire, gratuitous benevolence. Under this...

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A Literature Of Resistance And Repression

Helen Waite Papashvily

SOURCE: "Foreword" to All the Happy Endings: A Study of the Domestic Novel in America, the Women Who Wrote It, the Women Who Read It, in the Nineteenth Century, Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1956, pp. xiii-xvii.

[In the following essay, Papashvily argues that the domestic novel constitutes a more subtle but equally powerful form of resistance to nineteenth-century patriarchy than the 1848 Seneca Falls convention.]

On July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, a Woman's Rights Convention, the first ever held, met and after two days of impassioned discussion issued to the press a Declaration of Sentiments beginning:...

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The Reception Of Sentimental Fiction

Cathy N. Davidson

SOURCE: "Privileging the Feme Covert: The Sociology of Sentimental Fiction," in Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, Oxford University Press, 1986, pp. 110-150.

[In the following chapter from Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (1986), Davidson discusses the popularity of sentimental novels and the social issues upon which they commentincluding marriage, sexuality, childbearing, and domesticity.]

In the new Code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and...

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Further Reading

Baym, Nina. "Susan Warner, Anna Warner, and Maria Cummins." In her Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870, pp. 140-74. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Biographical and critical survey of the lives and works of Cummins and the Warner sisters.

Brown, Herbert Ross. The Sentimental Novel in America 1789-1860. New York: Pageant Books, 1959, 407 p.

Provides a general history of the development of the sentimental novel from its British roots to the height of its popularity in America. The chapter "The Sentimental Compromise" is included in the...

(The entire section is 635 words.)