Tuesday 24 April 2012

Review: Man of Feeling - Henry Mackenzie

I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. I think a person should stand up loud and proud about their pleasures, especially when it comes to music, books and films. 

That said, there are corners of my cd collection that occasionally make me blush; I love girl groups, especially Phil Spector/ Joe Meek ones, I know all of the words to ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘Baby Love’ and I have a big soft spot for twee-pop. 

 What has this to do with The Man of Feeling? I hear me ask. Simply that I imagine reading this book is rather like listening to a Talulah Gosh album, something to do behind closed doors in case people think you have become completely, impossibly and irredeemably soft. Even the title, The Man of Feeling gets you sympathetic ‘aawwws’ on the train, I’d probably have found myself grabbed and forcibly hugged had they known it’s contents. 

The plot (as it is) consists of the entry of Harley, a young man of exceptional strength of feeling, into the big bad world. He takes a trip to London where he feels sorry for some people, on the way back he meets some more people he is sorry for, along the way people tell him stories about when they felt sorry for people and in the end he is denied love from the woman he worships, feels sorry for himself and dies. The narrator is not only sorry for Harley but (in the last line), feels sorry for all the people of the world. To call this book pitiful, could be taken literally as an apt description, this book is full of pity.

 There are also a lot of tears. The copy of the book I have includes a Victorian addition to the text, an ‘Index of tears - not including choking &c.’ There are 49 incidences of different kinds of tears listed. Considering the book does not even reach a hundred pages, it means that over half the book has some kind of tear in it. The tears are listed by type, my favourite being ‘beamy moisture’. 

 The tears are to be expected, this being a cornerstone of the sentimental novel which was designed to provide a succession of scenes that are meant to call forth the tender emotions from the reader. It’s not my first encounter with the genre, I am a big fan of The Vicar of Wakefield, in which a man looses everything and learns nothing; A Sentimental Journey, which I read as the travels of a randy old vicar, then there were the sentimental parts in Tristram Shandy like the bit about Le Fevre. I’d even go as far to say that Fielding dips into the sentimental with segments like the tale of ‘The Man on the Hill’. Despite this preparation, the sheer onslaught of tears and tear-inducing scenarios wearied me even though the book was tiny. 

Another peculiar factor about the book was the way the story was presented. The story of Harley was narrated by an un-named narrator, who occasionally interjects to tell us how we should be feeling, but doesn’t have much personality himself. 

We are brought further back from the story by the frame, two men are going out hunting and the manuscript of the novel is what one of them has been using for wadding. For this reason, the story of Harley starts at chapter eleven and is fragmented from there. 

Add to this, that a lot of Harley’s story are tales he hears second-hand and we sometimes found ourselves to be four times removed from the action. This seems an odd choice for a book that is meant to stir the emotions but maybe removing us several times from the action takes away some of the ludicrousness.

 The fragmentary and scattered nature of the book also means nothing seems properly thought about or finished. There are lots of different issues raised in the book; about whether keeping a moral stance is wise or foolish, whether pity is a humane gesture or a self-celebrating act that highlights the pitier’s own sense of moral worth, about the love and attachment between family and friends and whether they can survive the harsh world - but none of it is developed.

This means that although the book does have some moments of genuine thought and interest, none of it feels properly discussed and the book is ultimately unsatisfying. 

Despite this, and despite the fact that he is utterly wet and a weed, there are moments when the character of Harley is quite likeable. He has a genuine wish to do the right thing, acting strange to his peers but always in a way that shows his own internal life. There is one quote I particularly liked that described his thought processes. 

 ‘He did few things without a motive, but his motives were rather eccentric; and the useful and expedient were terms which he held to be very indefinite, and which therefore he did not always apply to the sense in which they are commonly understood.’ 

 I’m glad I read the book, even given my prior experiences with the genre, it was like nothing I have read before and I wouldn’t mind reading The Man of the World or other books like it, but not too often. 

 Now it’s time to man up and listen to some Ian Dury and read some more biography of Henry Fielding. 

 All yours


  1. You got me with "the Vicar of Wakefield" a man who loses everything and learns nothing. I first read this when I was about ten and was very struck by this fact. My problem was always (since this was before the treacle of Victoriana) was it meant to be a joke or not?

  2. Considering 'The Vicar of Wakefield' was written ten years before 'The Man of Feeling', and only a year or so after the first two (and least sentimental) 'Tristram Shandy's, it can't be much of a reaction to sentimental literature, as not much of it is around yet.

    Also, with poems like 'The Deserted Village', he is not completely clean on the sentimental sheet front.

    However, I get the impression that even if he was trying to write a sweet and sentimental novel, he couldn't help a wry element to creep in. From the first to last line of the book, there seems to be more going on then pure sentiment.

    I have a book called 'The True Genius of Goldsmith' by Robert Hopkins which argues that it's a satire, but I haven't read it yet.

    Your disdain for Victoriana is an utter pleasure to hear in someone else. Sometimes I feel I'm the only one.