Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Thomas Dixon's "Weeping Britannia"

Thomas Dixon is a historian of emotions, philosophy, science, and religion at Queen Mary, University of London, where he directs the Centre for the History of the Emotions. A regular contributor to radio and television programs as an academic consultant, interviewee, and presenter, he was the consultant for Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip: An Emotional History of Britain, a three-part BBC Two series in 2012. The author of several books and numerous articles on the history of ideas, in 2008 he was awarded the Dingle Prize (for the best book on the history of science accessible to a wide readership) for his Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears, and reported the following:
I almost shed tears of joy when I turned to page 99 of my book and found that it contained a discussion of the most famously lachrymose character in all of English literature – Harley, the unworldly and sensitive hero of Henry Mackenzie’s 1771 novel The Man of Feeling. Harley cries in sympathy with beggars, prostitutes, orphans, and lunatics. On page 99 of Weeping Britannia, I quote several examples of Harley’s weeping, including a moment when he grieves with an old soldier’s grandchildren at their parents’ grave, concluding: ‘The girl cried afresh; Harley kissed off her tears as they flowed, and wept between every kiss.’

The Man of Feeling was just one example of the sentimental novels that were so popular in Britain and the rest of Europe in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. The popularity of such books is a useful reminder that the so-called ‘Age of Reason’ was also an age of passion, enthusiasm, feeling and sentiment. For the first time, in the eighteenth century, it was to works of prose fiction, as well as to religion, drama, and poetry, that people turned in large numbers for the education and exercise of their feelings, and for the pleasurable experience of shedding sympathetic tears. This kind of reading and weeping was new, and became a recognised characteristic of eighteenth-century culture.

One of The Man of Feeling’s most admiring readers was the Scottish poet Robert Burns, who was moved to tears by Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and by favourite biblical passages, as well as by Mackenzie, and he also gets a mention on page 99. The dual quest both to find partial historical precedents for our own new age of sensibility, and to try to understand how and why our ancestors’ emotions differed from ours, is well served by a consideration of the tears of Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling. So, I think page 99 provides an appropriate sample of my book – a representative droplet from a larger sea of tears.
Learn more about Weeping Britannia at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue