Want to know how to navigate the Victorian Web? Click here.

In 1843, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published “The Cry of the Children,” her scathing critique of the British factory system, and the Victorian public rallied in support. Reviewers called the poem “heart-stirring,” “tender,” and asserted that it was “not to be read without a choking voice” (Ferguson 144; Johnstone 721). Five years after its publication, the famous commentator George Gilfillan posited that “The ‘cry of the factory children’ moves you, because it is no poem at all—it is just a long sob, veiled and stifled as it ascends through the hoarse voices of the poor beings themselves. Since we read it we can scarcely pass a factory without seeming to hear this psalm issuing from the machinery” (623). Undoubtedly, the Victorian middle-class was moved by what Peaches Henry has called Barrett Browning’s “sentimental artistry” (535). Both contemporary and Victorian critics have agreed that the poem is unabashedly sentimental, a literary-rhetorical mode Barrett Browning used to universalize suffering and make the plight of the working-class tangible to a middle-class audience.

Literary sentimentalism was of course hardly new to Barrett Browning and her nineteenth-century readers; Victorian literature is brimming with sentiment, from Charles Dickens’ orphaned Oliver Twist (1837-39), to Frances Trollope’s poverty-stricken Michael Armstrong (1840), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s impoverished seamstress Mary Barton (1848). In these texts, as in “The Cry of the Children,” sentimentalism serves as a political and aesthetic tool to transmit emotion across gender, race, and class differences and create a human community based on shared moral feeling (Kaplan 3). Indeed, sentimentalism promises to permeate the hearts and minds of readers, and “The Cry of the Children” exemplifies this promise. Barrett Browning’s sentimentally intimate portraits of fictionalized suffering, inspired by the real-life “exciting causations” she found in The Report of the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in Mines and Factories, helped to pass the Factories Act of 1844 and the Factory Act (or “Ten Hours” Act) of 1847. Yet, if scholars have celebrated Barrett Browning’s poem for its assistance in passing factory reform legislation, critics then and now often wince at her fictionalized representations of dead and dying children that reduce real bodies to sentimental objects of pity. Because of its aesthetic and political contradictions, “The Cry of the Children” offers a fruitful departure point to consider the power and limits of sentiment to permeate the hearts and minds of Victorian readers and initiate personal, political, and economic transformations.

Derived from the classical Latin “sentire,” meaning “to feel,” and reintroduced in the fourteenth-century with its modern French spelling, the word “sentiment” denotes “a mental feeling, an emotion” or a “refined or tender emotion” (OED). Early iterations of sentiment, stemming from the works of Plato and Aristotle, understood the passions as being ruled by the intellect. However, as definitions of sentiment evolved – particularly with the advent of eighteenth-century moral philosophy – sentiment came to be understood in connection with morality and sympathetic feeling. As George P. Landow points out in The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (1971), the role of sentiment in ethics became a sign of one’s moral status. Hence, expressions of emotions – crying, sighing, laughing, grieving, etc. – indicated one’s ability to experience sympathy, or “fellow feeling.” Thus, while we now equate sentimentalism with artifice, “excessive indulgence” or “insincere display of sentiment,” the outward display of sentiment in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries signified a moral responsibility to feel with, as well as feel for, others (OED).

Many literary critics have attended to the political role of sentimentalism. For instance, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, writing about American women’s anti-slavery literature, suggests that reading sentimental fiction is a “bodily act” where the felt experiences of “pulse beats and sobs…radically contract the distance between narrated events and the moment of their reading, as the feelings in the story are made tangibly present in the flesh of the reader” (100). Readers’ tears on either side of the Atlantic are felt reminders of such sentimental powers, understood not only in bodies of individual readers but also as broader political phenomena. Jane Tompkins famously theorizes the politics of sentimentalism in her influential essay, “Sentimental Power.” Taking up the historical impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an ur-text of sentimental studies, Tompkins counters twentieth-century critics who deemed the genre trivial and inconsequential. Sentimental fiction, Tompkins argues, is “world shaking” and its enterprise is “anything but domestic, in the sense of being limited to purely personal concerns...its mission...is global” (146). Drawing from a Victorian understanding of sympathy via Adam Smith, June Howard, further explains that “sentimentality at the same time locates us in our bodies and takes us out of them” (77). Howard, like Sánchez-Eppler and Tompkins, shows that sentimental feeling, while manufactured by means of literature, is neither necessarily artificial nor ineffectual. Rather, this feeling has intimate, bodily effects, which might come in the form of tears and a quickening pulse, and allows readers to feel with and feel for the sympathetic subject in palpable and powerful ways.

In Victorian literature, the sympathetic subject takes a number of familiar forms: penniless orphans who choose poverty over crime, abused or abandoned women who find solace and redemption by means of strict religious piety, and industrious, male laborers whose love and devotion to their families allows them to overcome economic hardship. In each case, the prerequisite for sympathy in Victorian literature is the presence of a “good heart,” in the sense that the subject in question has the tendency to react with moral feeling (Kaplan 27). For this reason, moral sentiment is tied to character, not social class. Thus, Dickens can depict a character such as Nancy, a prostitute of “low birth”, as an admirable person deserving of readers’ sympathy, and Gaskell can argue for the redeeming qualities of Ruth, a fallen woman. Such depictions are at once moving in their sentimentality and politically transformative in their call to action, as we have seen with Barrett Browning’s “The Cry of the Children.” Moreover, such sympathetic subjects lead us to ask how literature moves readers to enact reform and what types of sentiment make justice possible.

Works Cited

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “The Cry of the Children.” 1843. Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology, edited by Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds, Blackwell Publishers, 1995, 75-80.

Ferguson, Sir Samuel, "Miss Barrett’s Poems." Dublin University Magazine, 1833-1877, vol. 25, no. 146, 1845, pp. 144-54. 

Gilfillan, George. "Female Authors, no. II.” Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 14, no. 165, 1847, 620-5.

Henry, Peaches. “The Sentimental Artistry of Barrett Browning’s ‘The Cry of the Children.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 49, no. 4, Winter 2011, pp. 535-556. Project Muse,.

Howard, June. “What is Sentimentality?” American Literary History, vol. 11., no. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 63-81.

Johnstone, Christian Isobel. "Recent Poetry." Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 11, no. 131, 1844, pp. 720-8.

Kaplan, Fred. Sacred Tears: Sentimentality in Victorian Literature. Princeton University Press, 1987.

Landow, George P. The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin. UP Press, 1971.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism, and the Politics of the Body. University of California Press, 1993.

“Sentiment.” Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online. Oxford UP.

“Sentimental.” Oxford English Dictionary. OED Online. Oxford UP.

Tompkins, Jane. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Oxford University Press, 1986, 122-146.

Last modified 10 April 2018