Journal to Eliza Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Laurence Sterne’s Journal to Eliza has been considered by unsuspecting readers as conclusive evidence that its author was a lachrymose sentimentalist. Yet anyone familiar with Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) will recognize touches of that humorous view of eighteenth century sentimentalism that makes Sterne’s novels so appealing.

Sterne was neither a parodist nor a satirist in the usual sense. He seems, in fact, to have enjoyed dramatizing his emotions on numerous occasions, and he could not have created some of his finest fictional scenes without real sensitivity to nuances of feeling. Nevertheless, an ironic humorist always occupied one corner of his mind, ready to appear at any moment to undercut the effect of a particularly touching episode. He was always aware of the ridiculous aspects of human behavior, and he appropriately adopted the name of one of literature’s most famous jesters for his alter ego. It is as Parson Yorick that he sheds copious tears over the departure of his beloved Eliza and, in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, invokes her name to protect him from the amorous intrigues that await him at every coach station.

The Journal to Eliza is not an easy work to analyze; numerous readers have puzzled over its tone. Is it to be considered an autobiographical document, a purely literary creation, or something between the two? Sterne met Eliza Draper, the wife of an employee of the East India Company, in 1767, the year before his death. Extant letters suggest that he fancied himself in love with her, while she regarded him as a friend but no more. It was not out of character for Sterne to indulge himself in a literary romance that existed primarily in his imagination. Some of the letters he wrote his wife before their marriage are almost identical to the effusions of his journal, and he later addressed other ladies who struck his fancy in similar terms. Whatever his feelings may have been, Sterne was the same man who was composing the brilliantly witty A Sentimental Journey during the last months of his life, and it is difficult to believe that he did not perceive the essential absurdity of some of his outpourings of emotion in the Journal to Eliza.

Yorick’s diary, which is really an extended letter, begins just after Eliza has left for India with her husband. He has promised his “Bramine” that he will record his activities and his feelings every day, and he begins with extravagant protestations of grief at her departure. Few external events find a place in the journal; Yorick visits friends, travels from London to his country home, and, in the latter part of the book, anticipates a visit from his estranged wife and their daughter, but most of the pages are filled with accounts of the parson’s illness and the torments of his sorrowing soul.

His laments over a solitary dinner are typical of the ludicrous sentimentality of the work: I have just been eating my Chicking, sitting over my repast upon it with Tears—a bitter Sause—Eliza! but I could eat it with no other—when Molly spread the Table Cloath, my heart fainted within me—one solitary plate—one knife—one Glass! O Eliza; ’twas painfully distressing. . . .

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Journal to Eliza Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Anderson, Howard. “Sterne’s Letters: Consciousness and Sympathy.” In The Familiar Letter in the Eighteenth Century, edited by Howard Anderson, Philip B. Daghlian, and Irvin Ehrenpreis. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1966. While this study focuses primarily on Sterne’s letters, Anderson also considers the Journal to Eliza, analyzing Sterne’s literary style.

Cash, Arthur H. “Eliza: 1766-1767.” In Laurence Sterne: The Later Years. London: Methuen, 1986. Volume 2 of this two-volume critical biography describes Sterne’s love for the married Eliza Draper and interprets his motives for writing the journal. Contains several passages from the work, with biographical details explaining them.

Keymer, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Collection of specially commissioned essays analyzing all of Sterne’s works and their key issues of sentimentalism, national identity, and gender. Some of the essays consider Sterne’s life, milieu, literary career, and his subsequent influence on modernism.

Kraft, Elizabeth. Laurence Sterne Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1996. Provides a short biography and then devotes individual chapters to specific works, including Journal to Eliza. The final chapter assesses Sterne’s changing critical reputation.

Madoff, Mark S. “’They Caught Fire at Each Other’: Laurence Sterne’s Journal on the Pulse of Sensibility.” In Sensibility in Transformation: Creative Resistance to Sentiment from the Augustans to the Romantics, edited by Syndy McMillen Conger. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. Examines Sterne’s treatment of the eighteenth century idea of sensibility.

Ross, Ian Campbell. Laurence Sterne: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A thorough and well-researched biography. Includes information on Sterne’s relationship with Eliza Draper and the circumstances that produced the journal.

Thomson, David. Wild Excursions: The Life and Fiction of Laurence Sterne. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972. Examines how Sterne’s life and his relationship with Eliza Draper, evidenced by the Journal to Eliza, show him to be a modern figure struggling with good nature, animal appetite, and intellectual detachment. Includes illustrations.

Van Leewen, Eva C. Sterne’s “Journal to Eliza”: A Semiological and Linguistic Approach to the Text. Tübingen, Germany: Narr, 1981. Although some of the material in this study is geared to specialists, there is much for the general reader, and the thorough table of contents makes it easy to select useful sections, such as those on genre.