By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
In the first week of October, 1765, or a few days later, Sterne set out on what was afterwards to become famous as the “Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.” Not, of course, that all the materials for that celebrated piece of literary travel were collected on this occasion. From London as far as Lyons his way lay by a route which he had already traversed three years before, and there is reason to believe that at least some of the scenes in the Sentimental Journey were drawn from observation made on his former visit. His stay in Paris was shorter this year than it had been on the previous occasion. A month after leaving England he was at Pont Beauvoisin, and by the middle of November he had reached Turin. From this city he writes, with his characteristic simplicity: “I am very happy, and have found my way into a dozen houses already. To-morrow I am to be presented to the King, and when that ceremony is over I shall have my hands full of engagements.” From Turin he went on, by way of Milan, Parma, Piacenza, and Bologna, to Florence, where, after three days’ stay, “to dine with our Plenipo,” he continued his journey to Rome. Here, and at Naples, he passed the winter of 1765-’66, and prolonged his stay in Italy until the ensuing spring was well advanced. In the month of May he was again on his way home, through France, and had had a meeting, after two years’ separation from them, with his wife and daughter. His account of it to Hall Stevenson is curious: “Never man,” he writes, “has been such a wild-goose chase after his wife as I have been. After having sought her in five or six different towns, I found her at last in Franche Comté. Poor woman!" he adds, “she was very cordial, &c.” The &c. is charming. But her cordiality had evidently no tendency to deepen into any more impassioned sentiment, for she “begged to stay another year or so." As to “my Lydia"–the real cause, we must suspect, of Sterne’s having turned out of his road–she, he says, “pleases me much. I found her greatly improved in everything I wished her.” As to himself: “I am most unaccountably well, and most accountably nonsensical. ’Tis at least a proof of good spirits, which is a sign and token, in these latter days, that I must take up my pen. In faith, I think I shall die with it in my hand; but I shall live these ten years, my Antony, notwithstanding the fears of my wife, whom I left most melancholy on that account.” The “fears” and the melancholy were, alas! to be justified, rather than the “good spirits;” and the shears of Atropos were to close, not in ten years, but in little more than twenty months, upon that fragile thread of life.
[Footnote 1: It was on this tour that Sterne picked up the French valet Lafleur, whom he introduced as a character into the Sentimental Journey, but whose subsequently published recollections of the tour (if, indeed, the veritable Lafleur was the author of the notes from which Scott quotes so freely) appear, as Mr. Fitzgerald has pointed out, from internal evidence to be mostly fictitious.]
By the end of June he was back again in his Yorkshire home, and very soon after had settled down to work upon the ninth and last volume of Tristram Shandy. He was writing, however, as it should seem, under something more than the usual distractions of a man with two establishments. Mrs. Sterne was just then ill at Marseilles, and her husband–who, to do him justice, was always properly solicitous for her material comfort–was busy making provision for her to change her quarters to Chalons. He writes to M. Panchaud, at Paris, sending fifty pounds, and begging him to make her all further advances that might be necessary. “I have,” he says, “such entire confidence in my wife that she spends as little as she can, though she is confined to no particular sum ... and you may rely–in case she should draw for fifty or a hundred pounds extraordinary–that it and every demand shall be punctually paid, and with proper thanks; and for this the whole Shandian family are ready to stand security.” Later on, too, he writes that “a young nobleman is now inaugurating a jaunt with me for six weeks, about Christmas, to the Faubourg St. Germain;” and he adds–in a tone the sincerity of which he would himself have probably found a difficulty in gauging–"if my wife should grow worse (having had a very poor account of her in my daughter’s last), I cannot think of her being without me; and, however expensive the journey would be, I would fly to Avignon to administer consolation to her and my poor girl.”
[Footnote 1: There can be few admirers of Sterne’s genius who would not gladly incline, whenever they find it possible, to Mr. Fitzgerald’s very indulgent estimate of his disposition. But this is only one of many instances in which the charity of the biographer appears to me to be, if the expression may be permitted, unconscionable. I can, at any rate, find no warrant whatever in the above passage for the too kindly suggestion that “Sterne was actually negotiating a journey to Paris as ’bear-leader’ to a young nobleman (an odious office, to which he had special aversion), in order that he might with economy fly over to Avignon."]
The necessity for this flight, however, did not arise. Better accounts of Mrs. Sterne arrived a few weeks later, and the husband’s consolations were not required.
Meanwhile the idyll of Captain Shandy’s love-making was gradually approaching completion; and there are signs to be met with–in the author’s correspondence, that is to say, and not in the work itself–that he was somewhat impatient to be done with it, at any rate for the time. “I shall publish,” he says, “late in this year; and the next I shall begin a new work of four volumes, which, when finished, I shall continue Tristram with fresh spirit.” The new work in four volumes (not destined to get beyond one) was, of course, the Sentimental Journey. His ninth volume of Tristram Shandy was finished by the end of the year, and at Christmas he came up to London, after his usual practice, to see to its publication and enjoy the honours of its reception. The book passed duly through the press, and in the last days of January was issued the announcement of its immediate appearance. Of the character of its welcome I can find no other evidence than that of Sterne himself, in a letter addressed to M. Panchaud some fortnight after the book appeared. “’Tis liked the best of all here;” but, with whatever accuracy this may have expressed the complimentary opinion of friends, or even the well-considered judgment of critics, one can hardly believe that it enjoyed anything like the vogue of the former volumes. Sterne, however, would be the less concerned for this, that his head was at the moment full of his new venture. “I am going,” he writes, “to publish A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. The undertaking is protected and highly encouraged by all our noblesse. ’Tis subscribed for at a great rate ’twill be an original, in large quarto, the subscription half a guinea. If you (Panchaud) can procure me the honour of a few names of men of science or fashion, I shall thank you: they will appear in good company, as all the nobility here have honoured me with their names." As was usual with him, however, he postponed commencing it until he should have returned to Coxwold; and, as was equally usual with him, he found it difficult to tear himself away from the delights of London. Moreover, there was in the present instance a special difficulty, arising out of an affair upon which, as it has relations with the history of Sterne’s literary work, it would be impossible, even in the most strictly critical and least general of biographies, to observe complete silence. I refer, of course, to the famous and furious flirtation with Mrs. Draper–the Eliza of the Yorick and Eliza Letters. Of the affair itself but little need be said. I have already stated my own views on the general subject of Sterne’s love affairs; and I feel no inducement to discuss the question of their innocence or otherwise in relation to this particular amourette. I will only say that were it technically as innocent as you please, the mean which must be found between Thackeray’s somewhat too harsh and Mr. Fitzgerald’s considerably too indulgent judgment on it will lie, it seems to me, decidedly nearer to the former than to the latter’s extreme. This episode of violently sentimental philandering with an Indian “grass widow” was, in any case, an extremely unlovely passage in Sterne’s life. On the best and most charitable view of it, the flirtation, pursued in the way it was, and to the lengths to which it was carried, must be held to convict the elderly lover of the most deplorable levity, vanity, indiscretion, and sickly sentimentalism. It was, to say the least of it, most unbecoming in a man of Sterne’s age and profession; and when it is added that Yorick’s attentions to Eliza were paid in so open a fashion as to be brought by gossip to the ears of his neglected wife, then living many hundred miles away from him, its highly reprehensible character seems manifest enough in all ways.
No sooner, however, had the fascinating widow set sail, than the sentimental lover began to feel so strongly the need of a female consoler, that his heart seems to have softened, insensibly, even towards his wife. “I am unhappy,” he writes plaintively to Lydia Sterne. “Thy mother and thyself at a distance from me–and what can compensate for such a destitution? For God’s sake persuade her to come and fix in England! for life is too short to waste in separation; and while she lives in one country and I in another, many people will suppose it proceeds from choice"–a supposition, he seems to imply, which even my scrupulously discreet conduct in her absence scarcely suffices to refute. “Besides"–a word in which there is here almost as much virtue as in an “if"–"I want thee near me, thou child and darling of my heart. I am in a melancholy mood, and my Lydia’s eyes will smart with weeping when I tell her the cause that just now affects me.” And then his sensibilities brim over, and into his daughter’s ear he pours forth his lamentations over the loss of her mother’s rival. “I am apprehensive the dear friend I mentioned in my last letter is going into a decline. I was with her two days ago, and I never beheld a being so altered. She has a tender frame, and looks like a drooping lily, for the roses are fled from her cheeks. I can never see or talk to this incomparable woman without bursting into tears. I have a thousand obligations to her, and I love her more than her whole sex, if not all the world put together. She has a delicacy," &c., &c. And after reciting a frigid epitaph which he had written, “expressive of her modest worth,” he winds up with–"Say all that is kind of me to thy mother; and believe me, my Lydia, that I love thee most truly.” My excuse for quoting thus fully from this most characteristic letter, and, indeed, for dwelling at all upon these closing incidents of the Yorick and Eliza episode, is, that in their striking illustration of the soft, weak, spiritually self-indulgent nature of the man, they assist us, far more than many pages of criticism would do, to understand one particular aspect of his literary idiosyncrasy. The sentimentalist of real life explains the sentimentalist in art.
In the early days of May Sterne managed at last to tear himself away from London and its joys, and with painful slowness, for he was now in a wretched state of health, to make his way back to Yorkshire. “I have got conveyed,” he says in a distressing letter from Newark to Hall Stevenson–"I have got conveyed thus far like a bale of cadaverous goods consigned to Pluto and Company, lying in the bottom of my chaise most of the route, upon a large pillow which I had the prévoyance to purchase before I set out. I am worn out, but pass on to Barnby Moor to-night, and if possible to York the next. I know not what is the matter with me, but some derangement presses hard upon this machine. Still, I think it will not be overset this bout"–another of those utterances of a cheerful courage under the prostration of pain which reveal to us the manliest side of Sterne’s nature. On reaching Coxwold his health appears to have temporarily mended, and in June we find him giving a far better account of himself to another of his friends. The fresh Yorkshire air seems to have temporarily revived him, and to his friend, Arthur Lee, a young American, he writes thus: “I am as happy as a prince at Coxwold, and I wish you could see in how princely a manner I live. ’Tis a land of plenty. I sit down alone to dinner–fish and wild-fowl, or a couple of fowls or ducks, with cream and all the simple plenty which a rich valley under Hamilton Hills can produce, with a clean cloth on my table, and a bottle of wine on my right hand to drink your health. I have a hundred hens and chickens about my yard; and not a parishioner catches a hare, a rabbit, or a trout but he brings it as an offering to me.” Another of his correspondents at this period was the Mrs. H. of his letters, whose identity I have been unable to trace, but who is addressed in a manner which seems to show Sterne’s anxiety to expel the old flame of Eliza’s kindling by a new one. There is little, indeed, of the sentimentalizing strain in which he was wont to sigh at the feet of Mrs. Draper, but in its place there is a freedom of a very prominent, and here and there of a highly unpleasant, kind. To his friends, Mr. and Mrs. James, too, he writes frequently during this year, chiefly to pour out his soul on the subject of Eliza; and Mrs. James, who is always addressed in company with her husband, enjoys the almost unique distinction of being the only woman outside his own family circle whom Sterne never approaches in the language of artificial gallantry, but always in that of simple friendship and respect. Meanwhile, however, the Sentimental Journey was advancing at a reasonable rate of speed towards completion. In July he writes of himself as “now beginning to be truly busy” on it, “the pain and sorrows of this life having retarded its progress.”
[Footnote 1: To this period of Sterne’s life, it may here be remarked, is to be assigned the dog-Latin letter ("and very sad dog-Latin too”) so justly animadverted upon by Thackeray, and containing a passage of which Madame de Medalle, it is to be charitably hoped, had no suspicion of the meaning. Mr. Fitzgerald, through an oversight in translation, and understanding Sterne to say that he himself, and not his correspondent, Hall Stevenson, was “quadraginta et plus annos natus,” has referred it to an earlier date. The point, however, is of no great importance, as the untranslatable passage in the letter would be little less unseemly in 1754 or 1755 than in 1768, at the beginning of which year, since the letter is addressed from London to Hall Stevenson, then in Yorkshire, it must, in fact, have been written.]
His wife and daughter were about to rejoin him in the autumn, and he looked forward to settling them at a hired house in York before going up to town to publish his new volumes. On the 1st of October the two ladies arrived at York, and the next day the reunited family went on to Coxwold. The meeting with the daughter gave Sterne one of the few quite innocent pleasures which he was capable of feeling; and he writes next day to Mr. and Mrs. James in terms of high pride and satisfaction of his recovered child. “My girl has returned," he writes, in the language of playful affection, “an elegant, accomplished little slut. My wife–but I hate,” he adds, with remarkable presence of mind, “to praise my wife. ’Tis as much as decency will allow to praise my daughter. I suppose,” he concludes, “they will return next summer to France. They leave me in a month to reside at York for the winter, and I stay at Coxwold till the 1st of January.” This seems to indicate a little longer delay in the publication of the Sentimental Journey than he had at first intended; for it seems that the book was finished by the end of November. On the 28th of that month he writes to the Earl of –– (as his daughter’s foolish mysteriousness has headed the letter), to thank him for his letter of inquiry about Yorick, and to say that Yorick “has worn out both his spirits and body with the Sentimental Journey. ’Tis true that an author must feel himself, or his reader will not” (how mistaken a devotion Sterne showed to this Horatian canon will be noted hereafter), “but I have torn my whole frame into pieces by my feelings. I believe the brain stands as much in need of recruiting as the body; therefore I shall set out for town the 20th of next month, after having recruited myself at York.” Then he adds the strange observation, “I might, indeed, solace myself with my wife (who is come from France), but, in fact, I have long been a sentimental being, whatever your Lordship may think to the contrary. The world has imagined because I wrote Tristram Shandy that I was myself more Shandian than I really ever was. ’Tis a good-natured world we live in, and we are often painted in divers colours, according to the ideas each one frames in his head.” It would, perhaps, have been scarcely possible for Sterne to state his essentially unhealthy philosophy of life so concisely as in this naïve passage. The connubial affections are here, in all seriousness and good faith apparently, opposed to the sentimental emotions–as the lower to the higher. To indulge the former is to be “Shandian,” that is to say, coarse and carnal; to devote oneself to the latter, or, in other words, to spend one’s days in semi-erotic languishings over the whole female sex indiscriminately, is to show spirituality and taste.
Meanwhile, however, that fragile abode of sentimentalism–that frame which had just been “torn to pieces” by the feelings–was becoming weaker than its owner supposed. Much of the exhaustion which Sterne had attributed to the violence of his literary emotions was no doubt due to the rapid decline of bodily powers which, unknown to him, were already within a few months of their final collapse. He did not set out for London on the 20th of December, as he had promised himself, for on that day he was only just recovering from “an attack of fever and bleeding at the lungs,” which had confined him to his room for nearly three weeks. “I am worn down to a shadow,” he writes on the 23rd, “but as my fever has left me, I set off the latter end of next week with my friend, Mr. Hall, for town.” His home affairs had already been settled. Early in December it had been arranged that his wife and daughter should only remain at York during the winter, and should return to the Continent in the spring. “Mrs. Sterne’s health,” he writes, “is insupportable in England. She must return to France, and justice and humanity forbid me to oppose it.” But separation from his wife meant separation from his daughter; it was this, of course, which was the really painful parting, and it is to the credit of Sterne’s disinterestedness of affection for Lydia, that in his then state of health he brought himself to consent to her leaving him. But he recognized that it was for the advantage of her prospect of settling herself in life that she should go with her mother, who seemed “inclined to establish her in France, where she has had many advantageous offers.” Nevertheless “his heart bled,” as he wrote to Lee, when he thought of parting with his child. “’Twill be like the separation of soul and body, and equal to nothing but what passes at that tremendous moment; and like it in one respect, for she will be in one kingdom while I am in another.” Thus was this matter settled, and by the 1st of January Sterne had arrived in London for the last time, with the two volumes of the Sentimental Journey. He took up his quarters at the lodgings in Bond Street (No. 41), which he had occupied during his stay in town the previous year, and entered at once upon the arrangements for publication. These occupied two full months, and on the 27th of February the last work, as it was destined to be, of the Rev. Mr. Yorick was issued to the world.
Its success would seem to have been immediate, and was certainly great and lasting. In one sense, indeed, it was far greater than had been, or than has since been, attained by Tristram Shandy. The compliments which courteous Frenchmen had paid the author upon his former work, and which his simple vanity had swallowed whole and unseasoned, without the much-needed grain of salt, might, no doubt, have been repeated to him with far greater sincerity as regards the Sentimental Journey, had he lived to receive them. Had any Frenchman told him a year or two afterwards that the latter work was “almost as much known in Paris as in London, at least among men of condition and learning," he would very likely have been telling him no more than the truth. The Sentimental Journey certainly acquired what Tristram Shandy never did–a European reputation. It has been translated into Italian, German, Dutch, and even Polish; and into French again and again. The French, indeed, have no doubt whatever of its being Sterne’s chef-d’oeuvre; and one has only to compare a French translation of it with a rendering of Tristram Shandy into the same language to understand, and from our neighbours’ point of view even to admit, the justice of their preference. The charms of the Journey, its grace, wit, and urbanity, are thoroughly congenial to that most graceful of languages, and reproduce themselves readily enough therein; while, on the other hand, the fantastic digressions, the elaborate mystifications, the farcical interludes of the earlier work, appear intolerably awkward and bizzare in their French dress; and, what is much more strange, even the point of the double entendres is sometimes unaccountably lost. Were it not that the genuine humour of Tristram Shandy in a great measure evaporates in translation, one would be forced to admit that the work which is the more catholic in its appeal to appreciation is the better of the two. But, having regard to this disappearance of genuine and unquestionable excellences in the process of translation, I see no good reason why those Englishmen–the great majority, I imagine–who prefer Tristram Shandy to the Sentimental Journey should feel any misgivings as to the soundness of their taste. The humour which goes the deepest down beneath the surface of things is the most likely to become inextricably interwoven with those deeper fibres of associations which lie at the roots of a language; and it may well happen, therefore, though from the cosmopolitan point of view it is a melancholy reflection, that the merit of a book, to those who use the language in which it is written, bears a direct ratio to the persistence of its refusal to yield up its charm to men of another tongue.
The favour, however, with which the Sentimental Journey was received abroad, and which it still enjoys (the last French translation is very recent), is, as Mr. Fitzgerald says, “worthily merited, if grace, nature, true sentiment, and exquisite dramatic power be qualities that are to find a welcome. And apart,” he adds, “from these attractions it has a unique charm of its own, a flavour, so to speak, a fragrance that belongs to that one book alone. Never was there such a charming series of complete little pictures, which for delicacy seem like the series of medallions done on Sèvres china which we sometimes see in old French cabinets.... The figures stand out brightly, and in what number and variety! Old Calais, with its old inn; M. Dessein, the monk, one of the most artistic figures on literary canvas; the charming French lady whom M. Dessein shut into the carriage with the traveller; the débonnaire French captain, and the English travellers returning, touched in with only a couple of strokes; La Fleur, the valet; the pretty French glove-seller, whose pulse the Sentimental one felt; her husband, who passed through the shop and pulled off his hat to Monsieur for the honour he was doing him; the little maid in the bookseller’s shop, who put her little present à part; the charming Greuze ’grisset,’ who sold him the ruffles; the reduced chevalier selling patés; the groups of beggars at Montreuil; the fadeCount de Bissie, who read Shakespeare; and the crowd of minor croquis–postilions, landlords, notaries, soldiers, abbés, précieuses, maids–merely touched, but touched with wonderful art, make up a surprising collection of distinct and graphic characters.”