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Sterne and Sterneana : A sentimental journey through France and Italy By Mr. Yorick

Sterne, Laurence 1713-1768

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p><i>A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy</i> is a gloriously disjointed account of a British tourist’s encounters and exploits as he travels south from Calais and over the Alps. Both poignant and droll, it presents an eccentric type of travel – almost an anti-Grand Tour – in which standard tourist attractions are put to one side as Yorick, the protagonist-narrator, focuses his attention on the minutiae of human interaction and on the feelings that arise within him in response to the characters he meets along his way. Yorick, in his own words, is engaged upon ‘a quiet journey of the heart’; he moves within geographical space but more important to him is the ensuing tour around his emotions. The journey is also a highly erotic one for Yorick, although he is coy about admitting as much – indeed, one of the pleasures of reading the work lies in observing how the first-person narration betrays desires that Yorick is reluctant to own up to openly.</p><p>It is an unfinished work. Sterne had planned four volumes but he died shortly after the first two were published in February 1768, leaving Yorick on the brink of Italian adventures that would never be written – at least not by Sterne himself. In writing the two volumes that he did finish, Sterne was fictionalizing aspects of his own travels in Europe earlier in the decade, and he was also drawing upon his previous fiction, <i>Tristram Shandy</i> (1759-67). Sterne had experimented with fictional travel writing when he sent Tristram on a tour of Europe in Volume VII of that work, published in 1765, but he had also already established Yorick as a character – a waggish clergyman – and thereafter as a public persona. Sterne had employed Yorick as a type of personal alter-ego in society and also, controversially, when publishing his own sermons as <i>The Sermons of Mr. Yorick</i> – a ploy decried as scandalous by critics for whom homiletic writing was not a matter for jesting. In <i>A Sentimental Journey</i>, Sterne deployed the character again and by promoting him to the position of first-person narrator he allowed for the development of a complex personality which is barely glimpsed from the perspective afforded by Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s final fiction, then, had its origins in <i>Tristram Shandy</i> but it was also a significant departure and development from it.</p><p><i>A Sentimental Journey</i> was also a departure in moral terms – at least superficially. Facing criticism for the lewdness of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, Sterne promoted <i>A Sentimental Journey</i> as a purer, more spiritual meditation on life – it was, he told one fellow author, his ‘<i>Work of Redemption</i>’ (Howes, 185). That claim may have been sincere, at least in part, and many readers have enjoyed the work as an affecting fictional examination of benevolence, good will and Christian charity – of the power of ‘sentiment’. But Sterne did not <i>only</i> offer those sanitary pleasures in <i>A Sentimental Journey</i>. He rather produced a work filled with playful ambiguities and passages in which the clean and the coarse are subtly intertwined. As he has Yorick observe of the realities of earthly life, ‘there is nothing unmix’d in this world’.</p><p>It proved to be an influential work. The word ‘sentimental’ was used considerably more frequently after 1768, and around a dozen works of fiction with the subtitle ‘<i>A Sentimental Novel</i>’ were published in the two decades following Sterne’s work. Fiction that may be termed ‘sentimental’ predated Sterne’s literary career, but <i>A Sentimental Journey</i> undoubtedly popularised a type of writing that pulled hard on the heart strings, and there are numerous maudlin works of fiction that reveal a debt to Sterne without making explicit reference. At the same time, <i>A Sentimental Journey</i> inspired numerous works which were more explicit about their inspiration and which may be firmly placed within the category of Sterneana. <i>Yorick’s Sentimental Journey, Continued … by Eugenius</i>, published in 1769, was one of the earliest and most substantial of a stream of overt spin-offs, and it points clearly to one of the major prompts for imitative authors: the fact that Sterne had not lived to finish <i>A Sentimental Journey</i>. The absence of Volumes III and IV (for which Sterne had actually sold subscriptions) presented an obvious gap that authors such as ‘Eugenius’ could readily take as an invitation for their own literary efforts. But as significant as that gap is the way in which A Sentimental Journey presented an inspiring way of looking at the world – with a focus on the small and the fleeting – which was seen to be worthy of imitation. Works such as <i>Sentimental Journey to Bath, Bristol, and their Environs</i> (1778) and <i>Reveries of the Heart during a Tour through Part of England and France</i> (1781) are revealing of Sterne’s influence not only upon fiction but also upon an attitude to the wider world when travelling and upon a sentimental way of writing about travel, about displacement and about encounters with the unfamiliar. The idea of Yorick as a lewd and light-hearted jester was able to exist alongside this more gentle strain of Sterneana, and joke books such as <i>Yorick’s Jests: Or, Wit’s Common-Place Book</i> (1783) provide good evidence of the fact many readers and reader-authors still saw Sterne as firstly a type of Rabelais for the modern age. That more boisterous version of Sterne had gained cultural prominence with <i>Tristram Shandy</i>. What A Sentimental Journey did was cement another, more delicate version of Sterne – one that was evident in <i>Tristram Shandy</i> but compromised by the comic energies of the work as a whole – and that more fully evolved idea of Sterne as sentimentalist proved to be deeply inspiring for numerous authors who placed themselves in Sterne’s wake.</p><p>Paul Goring</p></p>

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