The triplet formed by education, sensibility, and morality gives rise to at least two chains of cause and effect. On the one hand, education contributes to an individual's sensibility by providing a "second nature," as one's primary, inborn nature is susceptible to either refinement or corruption according to the quality of one's education. And a sensibility refined by a proper education can lead to moral excellence. On the other hand, the educational influence exerted by reading about characters of high sensibility is a subject on which there is considerable disagreement. Thus, images of sensibility can pervert education, and establish in the student a "false," second-order sensibility that has corrupt moral tendencies.

Because the audience of the novel is assumed to be predominantly the young, that literary form in particular becomes the center of a debate about the educational and moral effects of sentimental literature.

Certainly, gender plays an important role in determining the specific nature of a "proper education," but males and females are both vulnerable to the corrupting influences of an improper education. Hannah More's essay, "On...Sentimental...Connexions" describes the negative effects attendant upon a young woman's learning the sentimental walk of life; while Richardson strongly demonstrates the negative effects of a university education both in James Harlowe, Jr. and in Lovelace. In fact, he strongly suggests that Lovelace's reading has contributed to forming his rakish way of thinking.

Critics of the sentimental novel differ about the educational or corrupting tendencies of sentimental novels, even when they agree fundamentally about the nature of the experience of reading them. The nearly opposite assertions of Mackenzie in his article in The Lounger and Diderot in Eloge de Richardson indicate the wide range of moral effects attributed to almost identical understandings of the immediate emotional response to fiction.

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography