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. Continue reading “The traveller tempted”

A complete possession

Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)
Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities
Collins Classics 2010 (1859)

History repeats itself, and too often repeats itself in terrible ways. The downtrodden masses of 18th-century France had genuine grievances but when the inevitable reaction came moderation soon gave way to the Reign of Terror between September 1793 and July 1794. So it also was in 20th-century Russia and later in China, and recent years have seen too many other risings with hopes for natural justice being perverted by cruelty, bloody mayhem and corruption.

Dickens’ early years just overlapped the close of the Napoleonic Wars: he was born in the year of the failed French invasion of Russia, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The French Revolution had begun not even a quarter of a century before and so its events were not at all dry-as-dust history for Dickens and his generation, but he does acknowledge a debt to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book” detailing this turbulent period when preparing for his novel, published seventy years after the start of the conflagration. Dickens 1859 preface also tells us that

“A strong desire was upon me then to embody [the main idea of this story]  in my own person … Throughout  its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”

This rather veiled personal admission also furnishes further clues on what motivated Dickens to write this novel, clues which, thanks to the sands of time and Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (now a feature film also called The Invisible Woman) we are better able to unravel from the text. Continue reading “A complete possession”