Slavery and the Novel of Sentiment

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Although its contribution was barely recognized two decades ago, the sentimental novel is now understood to have played a prominent role in turning public opinion against the slave trade in the 1770s and 80s. Recent studies by Ellis (1996), Carey (2005), Festa (2006), Boulukos (2008), Swaminathan (2009), and Ahern (2013) have confirmed that sentimental novels frequently focused attention on the suffering of enslaved Africans, sometimes merely drawing a tear, but often encouraging an “active sensibility” that prompted political engagement in the abolition movement. Drawing on these six major studies, and revisiting several of the texts they discuss including novels by Laurence Sterne, Henry Mackenzie, Sarah Scott, and Maria Edgeworth, it reasserts both the importance of the novel of sensibility to the debate over the slave trade, as well as demonstrating its shifting and unreliable nature as a political tool. The chapter concludes with a reading of the anonymous Memoirs and Opinions of Mr Blenfield (1790) which contains a portrait of Shirna Cambo, an African man of sensibility loosely modelled on the historical figure Ignatius Sancho (1729–80), who “for every decent merriment had a smile, for every sorrow had a tear”. The chapter concludes that Cambo represents both the type of the sentimental hero and a central trope of British literary abolitionism.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Sentimental Novel in the Eighteenth Century
EditorsAlbert J. Rivero
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781108292375
ISBN (Print)9781108418928
Publication statusPublished - 21 Mar 2019


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