Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) followed up his excellent Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with this slim volume. Unfortunately, its slimness is due primarily to Sterne’s premature death of consumption. But, despite being an unfinished portion of a planned larger work, it stands well enough on its own. The ending is a bit abrupt, but charmingly a propo.
Where Tristram Shandy was one long digression, A Sentimental Journey follows a more traditional narrative path. But A Sentimental Journey was, if anything, more groundbreaking in its time. Sterne may have written his 1768 work in reaction to Tobias Smollet’s Travels Through France and Italy (1766) which is full of condescension towards the locals, contempt for foreign people and culture, and self-congratulatory transcriptions of his conversations setting the natives straight.
Sterne took a radically different approach. A fact the narrator duly notes:
…both my travels and observations will be altogether of a different cast from any of my forerunners…
The narrator, Yorick from Tristram Shandy, lists the different types of travelers, including “Lying Travellers” and “Vain Travellers”, before describing his own type, the “Sentimental Traveller”. In describing these types and throughout the work, Yorick often makes use of the same comedic immodesty Tristram used to such good effect in Sterne’s earlier work. However, this playful arrogance really covers a proud humility and a laudable respect for the French and Italians he encounters.
Yorick, who we know is a country priest from the prior work, arrives in Calais and travels from the English mainland to Calais. In Calais, he meets a fellow Englishman, “[t]he learned Smelfungus”. Smelfungus, Yorick informs us, “set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.” Indeed, Smollett set out on his trip shortly after the death of his fifteen year-old daughter and, therefore, likely was not in the most cheerful disposition during his travels. Sterne, though, apparently could not resist the opportunity for some fun at pride’s expense.
Smelfungus tells Yorick how “he had been flayed alive, and bedevil’d, and used worse than St. Brtholomew, at every stage he had come at.”
I’ll tell it, cried Smelfungus, to the world. You had better tell it, said I, to your physician.
But the book is not all inside jokes and settling literary scores. In fact, that is very little of it. Mostly, it is an amusing tale of a somewhat bumbling traveler’s adventures as he travels through France and Italy, though the Italian part is unfinished.
On these adventures, Yorick does note the customs of the locals and always in an amusing way. In France, he has the opportunity to discuss the three degrees of swearing in French:
Le Diable! which is the first, and positive degree, is generally used upon ordinary emotions of the mind, where small things only fall out contrary to your expectations; such as – the throwing once doublets – La Fleur’s [Yorick’s hired servant’s] being kick’d off his horse, and so forth. – Cuckoldom, for the same reason, is always – Le Diable!
But, in cases where the cast has something provoking in it, as in that of the bidet’s running away after, and leaving La Fleur aground in jack-boots, ’tis the second degree.
‘Tis then Peste!
And for the third –
– But here my heart is wrung with pity and fellow feeling, when I reflect what miseries must have been their lot, and how bitterly so refined a people must have smarted, to have forced them upon the use of it.
Yorick, of course, never tells what that third exclamation is.
The book is not quite as engaging or amusing as Tristram Shandy, but does contain a number of memorable scenes and quotes. In one, Yorick has been done a kindness by a young woman in a shop. He tells her she “must have on of the best pulses of any woman in the world.” She entreats him to feel it at her wrist. He does.
I had counted twenty pulsations, and was going on fast towards the fortieth, when her husband coming unexpected from a back parlour into the shop, put me a little out of my reckoning. – ‘Twas nobody but her husband, she said; – so I began a fresh score.
I find Sterne an excellent wit. I would not recommend this as a starting point, however. While A Sentimental Journey was groundbreaking, extremely popular, and ushered in a new form of travel writing, Tristram Shandy is more relevant today and more consistently funny.
Before I leave off, I should note that Sterne’s friend, John Hall-Stevenson, wrote a continuation of this incomplete book in honor of Sterne. I have not read it, nor am I sure I will. As short and enjoyable as A Sentimental Journey was, I did not really wish for more. It ended nicely and, likely, concluded my investigation of Laurence Sterne’s works, other than a revisit of Tristram Shandy at some later date.