The traveller tempted

Yorick at the remise door
Yorick at the remise door (wood-engraving by Gwen Raverat)

Laurence Sterne
A Sentimental Journey
through France and Italy

Introduction by G B Harrison
Wood-engravings by Gwen Raverat
Penguin Illustrated Classics 1938 (1768)

L’amour n’est rien sans sentiment. —Yorick

I picked this slim volume — only 182 pages long — on a whim, attracted by the cover illustration. But I also knew that Sterne (d. 1768) was famous as the author of Tristram Shandy under the nom de plume of Mr Yorick — chosen because he was, like his namesake in Hamlet, known as “a fellow of infinite jest”. I’m so glad I opted for this book because it turned out to be all the E’s: excellent, edifying, enjoyable, entertaining, educational and no doubt much else. It purports to be a record of Sterne’s journey through both France and Italy, when the author was seeking relief from consumption by travelling abroad. In truth it is a conflation of two separate sojourns between 1762 and 1765, and stops well before his arrival in Italy; this is a pity as his observations on the inhabitants of Turin, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples would have been enlightening. As it was, the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763, during which France and Britain were officially at loggerheads, caused him some embarrassment and could easily have cut short all travel, denying posterity of A Sentimental Journey.

First, let us deal with the ‘sentiment’ of the title. This makes absolutely clear that this volume is not a travelogue in the Grand Tour tradition but a deeply personal journal about relationships, feelings and perhaps nostalgia. Estranged from his wife he instead directs loving asides to a younger married woman with whom he is infatuated who shared the same name, Eliza, and yet he is not above flirting outrageously with anything in a skirt, from chambermaids to noblewomen.  As the author of Tristram Shandy he is the talk of Paris salons, but while at first enjoys the persiflage he soon tires of false adulation from the nobility. He’s fond of his manservant La Fleur, whom he trusts with his life and whom he spoils with generosity; he delights in a shared love of Shakespeare that he has with the Conte de B__. And so it goes on. People, not places; characters, not things: it becomes clear that A Sentimental Journey is a criticism of Tobias Smollett’s Travels through France and Italy of two years before, where the carping author (called Smelfungus by Sterne) castigated pretty much all foreigners and their institutions. Sterne is the complete opposite: he loves people and gives the benefit of the doubt to the least attractibe personality.

Laurence Sterne (c 1762) in Paris, by Louis Carrogis or 'Louis de Carmontelle'  (Wikipedia Commons
Laurence Sterne (c 1762) in Paris, by Louis Carrogis or ‘Louis de Carmontelle’ (Wikipedia Commons)

But it’s with places that Sterne’s own journal is structured. With little ado he departs on the Dover packet at nine in the morning, sitting down to fricasseed chicken in Calais by three. He feels awful refusing charity to a Franciscan monk (he later makes up for it) before considering a desobligeant, or chaise for one, as a mode of transport. Trying to avoid other compatriot travellers he sits hidden inside an ild chaise and begins a Preface to his journey, making an almost Rabelaisian list of Idle Travellers: those with feeble minds or bodies, those who have been forced to travel, those who seek to save money from journeying abroad and those whom he terms ‘sentimental travellers’. He naturally includes himself in the last group. Of course he omits any mention of his real reason for travelling, his health, but as Sterne is primarily into Gonzo journalism (before the term was invented) he is not really concerned with objectivity in his account, only sentiment.

After thirty-odd pages he has only covered one hour of his time in France, detailing his dalliance with a Flemish gentlewoman, the sister of the Count de L___. At Montriul (modern Montreuil, Pas-de-Calais) he hires La Fleur as manservant or valet for his ‘whole tour of France and Italy’. He shows charity to beggars, perhaps in reparation for his original ungenerosity to the Calais monk, and has empathy for a pilgrim whose donkey has died: “Did we love each other, as this poor soul but loved his ass, ‘twould be something.” This Yorkshire village parson we feel sure is someone whose heart is in the right place.

From Nampont we arrive at Amiens, and already we’re two-fifths of the way through the trip and we’ve barely travelled seventy-five miles. At Amiens La Fleur demonstrates his usefulness by producing a model letter for Sterne to use to write to Madame de L___, who is expecting a billet doux from the traveller as well as the imminent appearance of her protective brother the count. The original is from a drummer in La Fleur’s former regiment to a corporal’s wife, which I’ve here translated from the French that Sterne quotes:

I’m filled with the greatest sorrow, and at the same time reduced to despair by the unforeseen return of the Corporal which makes our evening rendezvous completely impossible. — But long live joy! And all my joy will be in thinking of you. Love is nothing without feeling. And feeling is altogether diminished without love. They say we must never despair. They also say that Monsieur le Coporal is on guard duty on Wednesday: so it’ll then be my turn. Everyone has their turn. In anticipation — Long live love! and long live la bagatelle! I am, MADAM, with the most respectful and tender feelings, completely yours…

Les Egarements in a 1779 edition
Les Egarements in a 1779 edition

Sterne comments, “It was but changing the Corporal into the Count and saying nothing about mounting guard on Wednesday,” and voilà, the billet is despatched. And then he is off to Paris in his desobligeant, with the lead horse again ridden by La Fleur. Near his hotel on the Paris Left Bank he’s at his usual pastime, this time flirting with a shopkeeper’s wife, feeling her pulse, buying her gloves. In another aside to the reader he recalls flirting with a noblewoman in her carriage in Milan; and after a visit to the Opéra Comique (another touching episode) he flirts with a young woman who’s just acquired a romantic novel The Wanderings of the Heart and Mind from a bookshop. Back in his hotel he later has a serious moment of temptation with the same young woman (who, coincidentally, is the chambermaid of Madame de R___, a possible patron), but sensibly draws back from the brink.

Does it seem extraordinary that a clergyman should be a self-confessed flirt? Here is the gist of his apologia: he argues that when he flirts he feels good in himself and has no desire to do wrong; but when he feels bad he is more likely to sin; hence to him it does no harm to anyone to flirt, but gives much pleasure. He virtually defies us to fault his argument. “Wherever thy providence,” he asks God, “shall place me for the trials of my virtue, whatever is my danger, whatever is my situation, let me feel the movements which rise out of it, and which belong to me as a man—and if I govern them as a good one, I will trust the issues to thy justice: for thou hast made us, and not we ourselves.”

Now we get a bit serious. Sterne has neglected to travel with a passport, and the authorities have caught up with him — a risky business as Britain is at war with France. He is at first blasé about the threat of spending time in a Châtelet prison or even the Bastille, but as we know from history and from A Tale of Two Cities a spell in either is not a picnic. Luckily he finds an ally at Versailles: he meets up with fellow Shakespeare enthusiast the Conte de B___ who, on hearing that Sterne is Monsieur Yorick is agreed that Un home qui rit ne sera jamais dangereux. A passport is soon issued, directing all to give Mr Yorick, the king’s jester, and his baggage, let to travel.

Not all episodes are concerned with dalliances. Sterne displays his sentiment in empathising with a dwarf who finds his enjoyment at the Opéra Comique curtailed, is moved by the case of a Chevalier de St Louis reduced to selling pies at Versailles, and is frustrated (as are we) by a scrap of parchment only telling part of an intriguing story about a notary.

Finally, after three weeks of being lionised by society he escapes, heading for Italy via Moulines (another touching moment here) and approaching Lyons, near where he is forced to share a room with a gentlewoman and her maid, leading to some amusing scenes where everyone attempts to retain their modesty. Many years ago I was a schoolboy studying the play Arms and the Man (1894) which had one of Shaw’s detailed stage directions that had all the class sniggering. One of the protagonists has the slightly ambiguous instruction ‘Stretches her hand affectionately across the table to squeeze his’. I was reminded of this by the notorious final line of A Sentimental Journey, so much so that I wonder if Shaw had Sterne’s work in mind:

So that when I stretched out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s—-

Sterne’s lively account is interrupted here. Did he intend to produce a second volume? Will we ever know? Less than a month after seeing A Sentimental Journey through the press Sterne was dead, taken away by a lung infection, leaving us with one of those minor ‘what-if’s of literature.

This Penguin illustrated classic has lively wood engravings by Gwen Raverat. She studied at the Slade before the Great War and though self-taught as a wood engraver was well-known as such in her time. The daughter of Sir George Darwin, Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and the grand-daughter of Charles Darwin, she was also an art critic, painter and scenery designer. Her illustrations add immeasurable charm to Sterne’s text and ensure that this a copy I’ll not be in a hurry to part with.

* * *

Feeling a little cheated by there being no journey through Italy, I consoled myself with Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower, the Hungarian’s account of his three week stay in Italy before the Second World War. Rather different from Sterne’s sentimental approach…

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5 thoughts on “The traveller tempted

  1. It would seem he made good use of his diminishing time on this mortal coil.
    It is, perhaps, a pity that he did not give equally detailed accounts of his sojourn in prison.

    1. I was a little ambiguous — nay, unclear — about the threat of prison for Sterne, and I’ve now amended that. He was summoned to Versailles to explain himself but bureaucracy being what it was he was luckily able to short-circuit the process of acquiring a passport. Thanks for drawing attention to that, Col, and giving me a chance to clarify.

    1. It is certainly quite accessible, Lory, but now I have a copy of Tristram Shandy I feel more able to tackle that having read the other first! The Gwen Raverat illustrations are delightful, certainly.

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