on August 6, 2002
Laurence Sterne's 1768 novel, "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy," is a strange and largely plotless book - less the recounting of a journey than of Parson Yorick's ramblings. Following the wildly successfuly, and no less diffuse "Tristram Shandy," Sterne crafts a much smaller, but no less intense work, recounting the misadventures of Parson Yorick, himself a character in the earlier novel. Labelling himself a 'sentimental traveler,' Yorick's account of his travels is not descriptive, but emotive, revealing his conflicted, if warm-hearted psychology.
The novel begins abruptly in the middle of a conversation between Yorick and his servant over a French policy in the eighteenth century of seizing the property of a foreigner who dies in France. Eager to discover the truth of the matter, Yorick impulsively throws a few shirts in a bag and before the next day ends, lands in Calais, France. Upon his arrival, his initial purpose, like many which he determines on in the course of the book, is forgotten, as his mind drifts from topic to topic as things and people happen to cross his sight. What remains of the novel are a series of pathetic and amorous adventures, in which Yorick's senses of morality, propriety, and common sense are brought into constant conflict with his impetuous nature and good humored guile.
Sterne is too intelligent and expert a writer to allow sentiment, what we might call sappy nonsense, to rule the day in his novel, and the scrapes Yorick get himself into are as much a critique of pure sentiment as an exploration of the uses and practicality of human sympathy. Sterne is playing with a recent tradition of moral philosophy, including the likes of such authors as Shaftesbury and Adam Smith, the latter of whose "Theory of Moral Sentiments" (1759) was at the forefront of popularizing and pragmatizing fellow-feeling. Sterne uses the excitable and impulsive Yorick to play with these ideas, along with those of his acquaintance, David Hume, whose notions of moral aesthetics marked a radical departure from the aforementioned predecessors. Out of all of these high flown philosophical traditions, Sterne fashions a witty and clever series of scenarios - from eating with peasants, bantering with a monk, flirting with a married woman while her husband indifferently watches, and nearly getting thrown in the Bastille - all display a very human look at the world.
Encounters between Yorick and various classes and characters in France illustrate the distance between theory and practice in terms of implementing any kind of systematic philosophy - even, and especially for a man of the cloth, like our protagonist. Yorick means well most of the time, which makes his faults and foibles all the more endearing and amusing. By his own admission, Yorick is constantly falling in love, perhaps to give his bachelor life some sense of chivalric purpose, but when he starts falling in love with every chamber-maid and noblewoman in France, we begin to question, not only his sincerity, but the capacity of his sexual and emotional appetites. It makes for hilarious episodes, especially when his French servant, La Fleur, is dragged into the middle of them.
A forerunner of the focused genre of sentimental fiction like Mackenzie's "The Man of Feeling" and the more refined imaginative sensibilities of many Romantic Era authors, Sterne's little novel, along with "Tristram Shandy" made immediate cultural impact, not only in England, but throughout Europe. Sometimes confusing, often amusing, reading Sterne's "Sentimental Journey" is a great way to while away a summer afternoon.