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. . . .
(The entire section is 1363 words.)