Emerging in England in the mid- to late eighteenth century, and reflecting a similar trend in continental literature at the time, literary sentimentalism or "sensibility" prioritized feeling. It developed primarily as a middle-class phenomenon, reflecting the emphasis on compassion or feeling as a desirable character trait in the newly emergent middle class.

in England by the 1770s the rise of sensibility was also linked to a growing activism—the awareness of and concern for the suffering of others reflected in, for example, the antislavery movement, concerns about child labor, and the campaigns for better hospitals, prison reform, and charity schools.

Among the earliest British novels that heralded the rise of sentimentalism were Samuel Richardson's "Pamela"; or, "Virtue Rewarded" (1740) and "Clarissa" (1747–1748); Oliver Goldsmith's "The Vicar of Wakefield" (1766); Laurence Sterne's "A Sentimental Journey" (1768); and Henry Mackenzie's "The Man of Feeling" (1771). To be a "man of feeling" became a desirable goal even among middle-class men of business.

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