While literary scholars have written extensively about sensibility in the past two decades, most of the studies have treated either the history of sensibility itself or how it interacted with a particular aspect of English culture and literature, such as sexuality or politics. My project instead examines how a single author, Maria Edgeworth, used sensibility in her writing over the course of her career. I analyze the use of sensibility in three of her novels: Belinda (1801), her first full-length novel; The Absentee (1812), her influential Irish national tale, written at the height of her popularity in the middle years of her career; and Helen (1834), her last novel. This analysis illustrates the changing attitude of both Edgeworth and English society to sensibility and its representations in literature. In Belinda, Edgeworth uses sensibility to demonstrate the virtue and superiority of the characters who possess it, and also to rehabilitate the concept itself. She differentiates between mere affectation and true sensibility by creating both positive and negative examples of sensibility in Belinda – characters clearly possess true sensibility, and those who only pretend to it. In The Absentee, Edgeworth adheres much more closely to the conventions of sentimental fiction than she had in her previous society novels. In my discussion of The Absentee, I demonstrate how Edgeworth uses the conventions of sentiment both to make Irish culture accessible to her English audience and to justify the Irish estate system which put Anglo-Irish landowners in a position of authority over native Irish tenants. My final section focuses on Edgeworth's last novel, Helen, which marks a return to the genre of the society novel with which she began her career. While Edgeworth still uses sensibility as a sign of virtue in Helen, she is also much more interested than previously in the interplay between education and inborn qualities of personality – the very qualities whose existence she was so skeptical of in her education manual, Practical Education, published two years before she began her career as a fiction writer.
College and Department
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Sawyer, Octavia Cathryn, "Reinventing Virtue: Sensibility and Sentiment in the Works of Maria Edgeworth" (2009). Theses and Dissertations. 1844.
Maria Edgeworth, sensibility, sentimentalism, novel of sensibility, novel of sentiment, nineteenth century novel, Belinda, The Absentee, Helen, Practical Education