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Pronounced /sɛntɪˈmɛntəl/Help with pronunciation

This week, the British popular press has been savaging Professor Anthony O’Hear for his eight-page academic essay that forms part of a new book, “Faking It — The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society”. The book’s thesis is that in Britain we live in a society whose institutions are false, based on emotion rather than logic, and whose inhabitants increasingly cannot tell image from reality, a situation largely brought about by media manipulation. Most press comment focused on his criticism of the late Princess Diana, whom he describes as being a “muddled, self-obsessed woman who damaged the monarchy and pandered to modern sentimentality”. He says that after her death the British public had been in the grip of a sentimental over-reaction. He is careful to say that the emotions were genuine, but argues they were misplaced and excessive.

The adjective sentimental is first recorded in the middle of the eighteenth century, though the noun sentiment is much older. The latter originally referred to physical feelings, or personal experience or knowledge that we gain through our senses (it’s closely linked through its Latin original with sensation and sense). Later, it came to mean what one feels about a matter, one’s attitudes or opinions. It’s now old-fashioned, but when Dickens wrote in Dombey and Son “Barnet, to say the truth, appeared to entertain an opposite sentiment on the subject”, he was using this idea of opinion.

When it first appeared, sentimental indicated an emotional reaction to something, in particular a refined or elevated response in literature or art, which employed “a language of feeling”. A new genre appeared, the sentimental novel, of which the first is usually said to have been Samuel Richardson’s Pamela of 1740. The emotion here was seen as valuable, building on Rousseau’s philosophy that good moral development was enhanced by experiencing powerful sympathies (it seems that clergymen actually recommended reading Pamela as a way of educating the heart; these days I feel it’s more likely to train one in patience, but perhaps I’m biased). Though sentimental feelings in books of this kind were often amatory, they rose above mere physical attraction.

The person most associated with the sentimental novel was Laurence Sterne, first in Tristram Shandy and then Sentimental Journey (1768), which relates the travels of a man of great sensibility through France, whose encounters with people continually provoke displays of tender feelings. Characters in such novels are moved to displays of emotion not only by sympathy for their fellow beings, but also by the beauty of the natural world, of art and of music (the concept of the sublime is closely connected). In the theatre, the related style was the sentimental comedy, in which people were put through trials which might lead them astray but which eventually brought them back on the path of virtue. Richard Steele, who wrote one of the best known of these, The Conscious Lovers, said he would like to arouse “a pleasure too exquisite for laughter”.

But the word sentimental has since gone down in the world. We have to blame the Victorians for its evolution into a word for self-indulgent wallowing in superficial emotion. It seems it came about under the influence of a certain kind of sanctimonious religiousness and the growth of a lower middle-class audience for fiction. Dickens is usually pointed at as the chief exponent of this kind of mawkish weepy fiction, which was much derided by many of his contemporaries (Oscar Wilde surely got it right: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”), though other authors were much worse — think of East Lynne.

As a result of all these forces, sentimental exists today in several senses. The relatively neutral ones of “moved by fond memories of the past” and “showing or affected by emotion rather than reason” rest uneasily with “characterised by excessive or self-indulgent emotional behaviour”.

Paul McCartney (alas, also in the news this week because of the death of his wife Linda) remarked many years ago: “What’s wrong with sentimental? Sentimental means you love, you care, you like stuff. The thing is, we’re frightened to be sentimental”. This relates more to the eighteenth-century view of emotion as a characteristically human and positive force. When Professor O’Hear argues that Princess Diana’s funeral was “the defining moment in the sentimentalisation of Britain”, he means the debased sense of the word.

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Page created 25 Apr 1998