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Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition

Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition

Fielding, Richardson, Sterne, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Lamb

By Valerie Purton

‘Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition’ is a timely study of the ‘sentimental’ in Dickens’s novels, which re-evaluates his presentation of emotion as part of a complex literary tradition that enables him to critique nineteenth-century society.

Paperback, 218 Pages


January 2014

£25.00, $40.00

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  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents

About This Book

‘Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition’ is a timely study of the ‘sentimental’ in Dickens’s novels, which places them in the context of the tradition of Fielding, Richardson, Sterne, Goldsmith, Sheridan and Lamb. This study re-evaluates Dickens’s presentation of emotion – first within the eighteenth-century tradition and then within the dissimilar nineteenth-century tradition – as part of a complex literary heritage that enables him to critique nineteenth-century society.

The book sheds light on the construction of feelings and of the ‘good heart’, ideas which resonate with current critical debates about literary ‘affect’. As the text argues, such an analysis reveals sentimentalism to be a crucial element in fully understanding the achievement of Dickens and his contemporaries.

The first chapter of the book outlines the sentimentalist tradition in English literature from the Middle Ages onwards. The second and third chapters then examine Dickens’s eighteenth-century inheritance in the works of Sterne, Fielding, Goldsmith and Sheridan, whilst Chapter Four explores Dickens’s inheritance from Charles Lamb and his acting in sentimental plays by Bulwer Lytton and Wilkie Collins. Chapter Five analyses three early novels, including ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, revealing the extremism of post-Romantic sentimentalism. In Chapter Six, three later novels including ‘Dombey and Son’ are reread in terms of Dickens’s changing use of sentimentalist rhetoric to achieve remarkably subversive effects. The final chapter then looks at other examples of nineteenth-century sentimental writing, and at the ‘afterlife’ of the mode in the past two centuries.


‘If you thought Oscar Wilde’s laughter at the death of Little Nell said it all about the sentimental Dickens, this radical revaluation of the complex tradition of literary and theatrical sentimentalism, culminating with distinctive power in Dickens’s fiction, will make you think – and maybe weep – again. Scholarly criticism of rare courage and conviction.’ —Dr Rick Allen, Anglia Ruskin University

‘“Dickens and the Sentimental Tradition” is a challenging and deeply rewarding study of Dickens’s reworking of the legacy of sentimentalism. Valerie Purton’s revaluation of the most denigrated and least understood aspect of Dickens’s writing should be essential reading not just for Dickens’s admirers but for anyone who doubts his greatness.’ —Dr Paul V. W. Schlicke, University of Aberdeen

Author Information

Valerie Purton is Reader in Victorian Literature at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge.


Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series

Table of Contents

Introduction; Chapter 1: Dickens and the Sentimentalist Tradition; Chapter 2: Sentimentalism and its Discontents in the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Fielding, Richardson and Sterne; Chapter 3: Sentimentalism and its Discontents in Eighteenth-Century Drama: Goldsmith and Sheridan; Chapter 4: Dickens and Nineteenth-Century Drama; Chapter 5: The Early Novels and ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’; Chapter 6: The Later Novels; Conclusion: The Afterlife of Sentimentalism

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