The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 9. Henry Mackenzie: The Man of Feeling; The Man of the World; Julia de Roubigné
From Sterne to his alleged disciples the descent is abrupt. Two only of these call for notice in this sketch: Mackenzie and Brooke.
Henry Mackenzie (1745–1831) passed a long and peaceful life at Edinburgh, where he held the post of attorney for the Crown, and subsequently of comptroller of the taxes, for Scotland. After the publication of The Man of Feeling (1771, the year of Scott’s birth) he was recognised as the literary leader of Edinburgh society, and he may be said to have held that post by courtesy until his death, a year before that of Scott. In addition to his three novels, he wrote a successful play (The Prince of Tunis, 1773) and edited two successive periodicals, The Mirror (1779–80) and The Lounger (1785–7). He was also chairman of the committee which reported on Macpherson’s Ossian (1805).
He is, of course, best known by his earliest work, The Man of Feeling (1771). At the time, this won for him a name which still survives as a tradition, but which is hardly justified by the intrinsic merits of the book, either in conception or in execution. It is, in fact, mainly remarkable as a record of the influences which, at this period, were battling for the mastery of the novel.
The form of it, which, at first sight, might be taken for picaresque, is, in reality, a reversion to a yet more primitive type of structure: that familiar to us from the Coverly papers. And it may be noted that The Life of John Buncle, Esq., by Thomas Amory, the first part of which appeared some fifteen years earlier (1756), shows, with much better justification for itself, something of the same peculiarity. Mackenzie, however, does not, like Amory, write what professes to be an autobiography. He has not, therefore, the excuse of recording what give themselves out for “actual facts.” On the contrary, he sets about to write a novel with a full-fledged hero to its credit. The hero and the beggar, the hero on a visit to Bedlam, the hero in a stage-coach, the hero in the park and at the gambling-table—such are the disjointed fragments tacked together by way of apology for a story. We are back again at Sir Roger in the Abbey, Sir Roger at the play, Sir Roger and the gipsy-woman; which gives a significant meaning to the title of “the northern Addison,” given to Mackenzie, on quite different grounds, by Scott. The author, indeed, is nothing if not apologetic. He is at pains to account for the lack of connection by the lame expedient of a middleman—a curate with a turn for sport and literature—who gives or withholds material as suits the humour of the moment, suppressing ten chapters at the beginning and some thirty more as the story slowly creeps towards an end. It is manifest that the episodes are chosen, not in the least for the sake of the excitement they may offer, but solely to make call upon the virtuous, if ill-regulated, “feelings,” and, still more, upon the tears, of the hero. And, neither in the spirit of the story, nor in its incidents, is there the smallest trace of humour. These things alone are enough to show that The Man of Feeling owes little or nothing to Fielding or Smollett; but that in form, if in nothing else, it casts back to Addison and the essayists. Some of the elements which, in the interval, the picaresque writers had employed for their own ends, may, doubtless, be fairly recognised as present. But they are bent to uses alien, indeed hostile, to those for which they were originally devised. They are no longer there for their own sake, or for the humour which they offer. The sole purpose they serve is to furnish the stage on which the “sentimental education” of the hero—and, through him, of the reader—is carried out.
It is in working the mine of sentiment that Mackenzie comes as near as he ever comes to Sterne. His methods and aims are utterly different. With him, as with the great humourist, the raw material is sentiment. But how raw the material remains in Mackenzie’s hands! What a wide difference between his clumsy insistence and the light, airy touch of Sterne! Define Mackenzie as sentimentalist or sentimental moralist, and you have told almost the whole truth about him. Describe Sterne by the same terms, and almost everything remains unsaid. A slenderer thread of affiliation could not easily be conceived.
The debt of Mackenzie to Rousseau is, undeniably, more substantial. It is, however, a debt purely of sentiment, of the humanitarian feelings which Rousseau did more than any man to spread abroad through Europe. From the nature of the case, these feelings could not fail to make their way, sooner or later, into the novel. They had done so already in Sterne, and, by anticipation, even in Richardson; nor can it have been an accident that, in the preface to The Man of Feeling, Mackenzie should have placed himself behind the shield of Richardson and Rousseau; though he certainly goes far to destroy the force of the appeal by tacking on the name of Marmontel. For, in spite of their title, the Contes Moraux of that writer belong to a wholly different order.
In his next book, The Man of the World (1773), Mackenzie returned to the same theme, but from the other side. This time, he has taken the precaution to provide himself with a villain, the nominal hero of the story; and the villain, in a long career of intrigue and seduction, brings a plot in his train. The plot may not be specially good; but, after the disconnected episodes of The Man of Feeling, it is an untold relief to have any plot at all. This is the one new element of importance. In all else, The Man of the World moves in the same circle as The Man of Feeling. The influence of Rousseau may, perhaps, be still more strongly marked, and beyond doubt is so in one passage, which exalts the virtues of the Cherokee over the corruptions of Europe with a fervour clearly inspired by the second Discourse and the Letter to Philopolis. But, even this outbreak might be met by an attack on our east Indian conquests, which is to be found in the earlier novel, and which reveals the same train of thought and feeling.
Mackenzie’s last and best book, Julia de Roubigné (1777), strikes a wholly different vein and places him in the straight line of descent from Richardson. The work is planned on a much smaller scale; the intrigue is far simpler, and less elaborately prepared. But it is, none the less, the direct offspring of Clarissa, and one of the very few tragedies to be found in the early stages of the English novel. In scale and general treatment, Julia may, perhaps, have owed something to certain French models: to La Princesse de Clèves, and, still more, to Manon Lescaut. But, when all allowance has been made for this, the star of Richardson—and that, in the letter form as well as in the tragic substance—still remains in the ascendant. Still, whatever Mackenzie might write, he was still for the men of his own day the man of feeling and nothing else. And it was as the man of feeling that he was known to the younger generation, Scott and others, who looked up to him as a venerable oracle of the past. Such are the curious freaks of literary reputation.