The Man of Feeling, by Henry Mackenzie

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.”

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2 thoughts on “The Man of Feeling, by Henry Mackenzie

  1. Fascinating – I must confess I’ve never heard of MacKenzie before! Which goes to show, I suppose, how influential the “Classics” sections in bookshops are in creating the canon…

    Sterne really made a huge impact, didn’t he? The influence is clear in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” say (with its dedication in the middle of the work when Pushkin suddenly remembers about it), and Diderot’s “Jacques the Fatalist” seems dangerously close to plagiarism at times.

  2. I came across him flicking through Project Gutenberg – well, either that or by some other method – but became perplexed by the book starting at chapter 11: I couldn’t tell if it was by design, or it had become lost in the text file. But then I came across a “real” copy of it, in The World’s Classics.

    Sterne was ridiculously influential, and what we see today is the tiniest tip of the iceberg. So much is forgotten, lost forever in c18th, such as:

    The Life, Travels and Adventures of Christopher Wagstaff, Grandfather to Tristram Shandy
    The Life and Opinions of Bertram Montfichet
    The Life and Opinions of Jeremiah Kunastrokius
    The Posthumous Works of the Celebrated Dr Sterne
    The Life and Amours of Slawkenbergius
    The Life and Opinions of Miss Sukey Shandy
    Yorick’s Meditations

    All of them cashing in on Tristram Shandy. – It’s a whole world of literature unto itself.

    I’ve not read Jacques the Fatalist yet, but it’s there on the bookshelf, like so much else. Come to think of it, I still haven’t finished Tristram Shandy.

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