Twentieth century British novelist Virginia Woolf, commenting on the style of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, wrote:The very punctuation is that of speech, not writing, and brings the sound, the associations, of the speaking voice with it. The order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature. There is a privacy in this intercourse which allows things to slip out unreproved that would have been in doubtful taste had they been spoken in public. . . . We are as close to life as we can be.
These comments, which could apply to Tristram Shandy as well, underline Sterne’s relationship to the stream-of-consciousness style that Woolf, Irish novelist James Joyce, and others would develop and perfect a century and a half later. Sterne did not set out to develop a style, but in A Sentimental Journey the combination of urgent delight in the flight from morality and easy familiarity with a specific readership create the immediate and intimate style that Woolf describes.
In volume 7 of Tristram Shandy, Tristram recounts his trip through France to escape illness; A Sentimental Journey, in a similar vein, is Parson Yorick’s account of his travels. Sterne’s book is at once a response to contemporary travel books—Tobias Smollett’s had appeared two years before—that criticize the host culture and a burlesque of the Grand Tour of Europe that was a...
Mr. Yorick feels no kinship with all the different kinds of travelers—the Idle Travelers, the Inquisitive Travelers, the Travelers of Necessity, the Simple Travelers, and the rest. He is a Sentimental Traveler. As such, he collects sentimental adventures as other tourists collect postcards of the points of interest they visit. Mr. Yorick had started his journey because a man had asked him, with a sneer, if he had ever been in France. Yorick had just made some statement on the French and did not like being answered so tartly merely because he did not have firsthand experience. That same evening, he packed some clothes and left by boat for Calais.
While Yorick is having supper at an inn in Calais, a poor monk approaches him and begs alms for his monastery. Yorick rebuffs him with caustic and witty remarks. Later, Yorick sees the monk talking with an attractive woman who is also staying at the inn. Afraid the monk might tell her how rudely he has behaved, Yorick approaches the couple, apologizes to the monk, and offers his shell snuffbox to him as a peace offering. Now that Yorick has made friends with the monk and the lady, he plans to ask the lady to travel with him to Paris. He learns that her name is Madame de L——.
Proposing to make the trip to Paris in a private carriage, Yorick invites the lady to go with him to look over some of the vehicles for sale in a nearby courtyard. Their admiration of each other grows with unusual rapidity. Before Yorick has a chance to ask her to travel with him, however, she is called away by a message that her brother, Count de L——, has arrived. He has come to take her back to Belgium with him. Yorick is brokenhearted. In parting, Madame de L—— asks Yorick to visit her in Belgium if he passes through that country. She also gives him a letter of introduction to a good friend in Paris, Madame de R——.
The next day, Yorick sets off in a small carriage for Paris. His baggage falls out of the chaise several times, and he has an uncomfortable trip to Montriul. There, an innkeeper suggests he needs a servant, and Yorick sees that the man is quite right. He hires a young boy named La Fleur, whose greatest accomplishments are playing the flute and making love to the girls. La Fleur is delighted at the prospect of traveling around Europe with a generous and unpredictable English milord; he is only sad to have to say goodbye to all of his village sweethearts. Yorick is pleased with the lad’s quickness and wit, and he is sure that the young Frenchman will be able to deal with any emergency arising along the way.
The first problem the travelers meet on their journey is a dead ass lying in the middle of the road. The horses refuse to pass the carcass, and La Fleur’s horse throws him and runs away. Proceeding to the next town, they meet and talk with the owner of the poor dead animal. The owner had taken the ass with him from Germany to Italy and is very unhappy at its death, not so much because it had been a help to him but because he felt sure that the ass had loved him dearly and had been a good friend to him for many years.
In Paris, Yorick goes to the opera. A quotation from William Shakespeare pops into his mind, and he suddenly decides to go and buy the works of that writer. He enters a bookstore and finds a set on the counter. The books, however, are not for sale, having been sent to be re-bound for Count de B——, a great lover of English authors and Englishmen. In the shop, Yorick sees an attractive young girl who, he decides, must be a...