The present age may be termed ... the age of sentiment, a word which, in the implication it now bears, was unknown to our plain ancestors. Sentiment is the varnish of virtue, to conceal the deformity of vice; and it is not uncommon for the same persons to make a jest of religion, to break through the most solemn ties and engagements, to practice every art of latent fraud and open seduction, and yet to value themselves on speaking and writing sentimentally.
But this refined jargon, which has infested letters and tainted morals, is chiefly admired and adopted by young ladies of a certain turn, who read sentimental books, write sentimental letters, and contract sentimental friendships.
In this essay, More is concerned to warn young ladies against the temptation to enter into "sentimental connexions," which are merely euphemistically presented liasons. She describes in detail the strategies of young men who set out to ensnare "sentimental girls," and paints a vivid picture of the unhappy marriage that is sure to result from such a seduction.
Throughout the work, she bitterly satirizes the lofty language of sentimental speech and writing, suggesting that the phenomenon of the "sentimental girl" is based on affectation and false refinement. To illustrate her point, More introduces a distinction between "sentiment" and "principle":
Perhaps the error ... originates in mistaking sentiment and principle for each other. Now, I conceive them to be extremely different. Sentiment is the virtue of ideas, and principle the virtue of action.
Thus, More's critique of sentimentalism takes a similar position to Mackenzie's attack on the sentimental novel. (See the entry under "education.")
After exposing the sham of sentimentality, More makes an about-face, and praises true sensiblity with surprising ardor:
But notwithstanding I have spoken with some asperity against sentiment as opposed to principle, yet I am convinced, that true genuine sentiment, (not the sort I have been describing) may be so connected with principle, as to bestow on it its brightest lustre, and its most captivating graces. And enthusiasm is so far from being disagreeable, that a portion of it is perhaps necessary in an engaging woman. But it must be the enthusiasm of the heart, not of the senses. It must be the enthusiasm which grows up from a feeling mind, and is cherished by a virtuous education; not that which is compounded of irregular passions, and artificially refined by books of unnatural fiction and improbable adventure. I will even go so far as to assert, that a young woman cannot have any real greatness of soul, or the true elevation of principle, if she has not a tincture of what the vulgar would call Romance, but which persons of a certain way of thinking will discern to proceed from those fine feelings, and that charming sensibility, without which, though a woman may be worthy, yet she can never be amiable.
More here works to establish as an indispensable element of character a specifically female version of sensibility. Of course, this model is unpalatable to many women, and figures like Wollstonecraft will resist such gender assignments.Related terms: