September 28, 2006
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v2.1 Reference

Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France

In this ambitious and original study, Lynn Festa examines how and why sentimental fiction became one of the primary ways of representing British and French relations with colonial populations in the eighteenth century. Drawing from novels, poetry, travel narratives, commerce manuals, and philosophical writings, Festa shows how sentimentality shaped communal and personal assertions of identity in an age of empire.

Read in isolation, sentimental texts can be made to tell a simple story about the emergence of the modern psychological self. Placed in conversation with empire, however, sentimentality invites both psychological and cultural readings of the encounter between self and other. Sentimental texts, Festa claims, enabled readers to create powerful imagined relations to distant people. Yet these emotional bonds simultaneously threatened the boundaries between self and other, civilized and savage, colonizer and colonized. Festa argues that sentimental tropes and figures allowed readers to feel for others, while maintaining the particularity of the individual self. Sentimental identification thus operated as a form of differentiation as well as consolidation.

Festa contends that global reach increasingly outstripped imaginative grasp during this era. Sentimentality became an important tool for writers on empire, allowing conquest to be portrayed as commerce and scenes of violence and exploitation to be converted into displays of benevolence and pity. Above all, sentimental texts used emotion as an important form of social and cultural distinction, as the attribution of sentience and feeling helped to define who would be recognized as human.

About the Author

Lynn Festa is the Gardner Cowles Associate Professor of English at Harvard University.


"Extremely well written and very persuasive in suggesting how the discourses of sympathetic identification work to reinscribe various forms of social, gender, and imperial difference. While there are numerous studies devoted to the literary construction of sentimental selfhood in the eighteenth century and a rapidly growing body of work on the genesis of the British empire, no other critic has argued so convincingly for a dialectical approach to the relationship between sentimental texts and the larger sociocultural effects of imperial designs and operations."—Robert Markley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

"With considerable verve and tenacity, Lynn Festa demonstrates that the sentimental mode in the eighteenth century was inextricable from the colonial beginnings of empire. The flinty lightness of Festa's readings cannily resembles the subtlety and style of the varied examples she deftly analyzes, from the snuffbox in Sterne's A Sentimental Journey to the perorations in Raynal's History of the Two Indies. By documenting how writers during the period ventriloquize ostensibly mute slaves as well as inanimate objects, Festa shows how sentimentalism challenged—and also extended—the reach of empire. By plumbing the complexity of eighteenth-century mercantilist and abolitionist discourses, this study breaks new ground in the scholarship about sentimentalism."—Srinivas Aravamudan, Duke University

"Thoughtful, witty, and brimming over with insight and information, Sentimental Figures of Empire offers the best explanation I know of how and why the language of sentimentalism became the preferred idiom for both vindicating and critiquing Europeans' colonial activities. Scholars of Enlightenment philosophy, of abolitionism, of the French and British novel will all benefit from—and be moved by—this rich account of sympathy's global travels during the long eighteenth century."—Deidre Shauna Lynch, Indiana University

"Thoroughly researched and densely annotated, this is a book for scholars of 18th century literature, culture, society, and ideas."—Choice

"Festa's supple prose serves her well . . . She is capable both of the judicious concession . . . and the head-on confrontation."—Deidre Lynch, Studies in English Literature

"Engaging and erudite book."—Jennifer Pitts, American Historical Review

"There is great originality in this book, and even where we find what oft was thought, it's rarely so well expressed."—Cynthia Wall, Eighteenth-Century Life

"As a comparative cultural history, Professor Festa's study offers a sound and especially persuasive argument for researching from the early modern era the emerging social relationships between the self and the objectified other in relation to empire, whether in the sentimental novel or elsewhere."—Christine Clark-Evans, Comparative Literature Studies

"Most memorable for unearthing the volatile politics of the sentimental form."—Roxann Wheeler, Scriblerian

"Festa's account of the shortcomings (and the strengths) of imperialist benevolence in the eighteenth century is unusually deft and lucid."—Carolyn Vellenga Berman, Novel

"Sentimental Figures is, put simply, a terrific book, and perhaps most especially so in the willingness of its author, Lynn Festa, to consider groundbreaking subject matter . . . in at once theoretically astute and historically nuanced ways."—Abby L. Coykendall, 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics and Inquiries

"A beautifully written and compellingly argued book about 'the margins of the Enlightenment.'"—Cynthia Wall, Eighteenth-Century Life

"A remarkable scholarly and theoretical achievement . . . original and powerful."—Eighteenth-Century Fiction

9780801884306 : sentimental-figures-of-empire-in-eighteenth-century-britain-and-france-festa
312 Pages
$60.00 USD

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