A novel starts at chapter 11, then follows the sequence: 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 33, 34, 35, 36, 40, 55, 56 – though even then, often not including entire chapters but only excerpts amid ellipses. – Well, I know what you’re thinking: this could only be the eighteenth century. And so it is: 1771, to be precise.
The ruse around all this is the usual post-modernist game: the book as we have it is a selection chosen by an “editor” of a longer manuscript, written by an “author” about the life of a “character”, who is in truth the “narrator” – for even though it’s a 3rd-person affair, it is all his account of his life as given to the “author”. So yes – lots of opportunity for that old chestnut, the “unreliable” narrator; along, for good measure, with some “unreliable author”, and even a bit of “unreliable editor” (e.g. the real author, Mackenzie, clearly wishes us to sympathise with the “narrator’s” views on many (if not all) things, and to question those of the “editor” and indeed some of the decisions he’s made around “editing” the manuscript).
Mackenzie falls into the world of Sterniana, but not Shandiana – that is to say, he was highly influenced by Sterne, but did not – like so many post-Sternian c18th writers – merely fall to plagiarising him. In fact, it seems generally agreed Mackenzie is the best of the c18th British writers (he is a Scot) whom Sterne influenced.
The Man of Feeling has one virtue certainly which is absent from Tristram Shandy: – and that is, it’s short: only 133 pages. You might say Mackenzie adopts entirely the opposite method to his mentor: where Sterne’s discursive rambling endlessly expands his narrative, Mackenzie seeks to curtail anything extraneous. All dull matter – all matter not to the point – is to be excluded; all that’s needed is a few scenes: the remainder can be implied in the absences. (Swift uses this often to a much smaller degree, I’ve noticed: where a particular paragraph seems too much effort for him to find the words, it can be elided over).
He could perhaps do an updated critical appraisal, as this quote from Wikipedia might suggest: “The “Man of Feeling” is a weak creature, dominated by a futile benevolence, who goes up to London and falls into the hands of people who exploit his innocence. The sentimental key in which the book is written shows the author’s acquaintance with Sterne and Richardson, but he had neither the humour of Sterne nor the subtle insight into character of Richardson.”