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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1363

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...

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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 disjointed phrases, the apostrophes to the absent lady, the potent emotional effects of everyday objects characterize the style of the entire journal. The work abounds in tears. Yorick weeps over his dinner, over Eliza’s picture, over dreams of her; he joins their friend Mrs. James in lamenting his pale, wan countenance, and he sobs with his maid, Molly, who comments emotively on how much Mrs. Draper is missed. Sterne is a master of the language of overwrought emotions, and it is not surprising that some readers have taken him completely seriously.

There are, however, clues along the way that suggest that Yorick’s laments are not quite what they seem. It is typical that the writer who filled Tristram Shandy with bawdy double entendres should make much of the fact that Yorick’s illness, brought on by grief at Eliza’s leaving, has been diagnosed as venereal disease. He protests vehemently “’tis impossible, at least to be that, replied I—for I have had no commerce whatever with the Sex—not even with my wife, added I, these 15 years.” This is not the kind of comment one expects to find in a truly “sentimental” work. Yorick’s apology for bringing up the subject simply enhances the humor of the situation: “’Tis needless to tell Eliza, that nothing but the purest consciousness of Virtue, could have tempted Eliza’s friend to have told her this Story—Thou are too good my Eliza to love aught but Virtue—and too discerning not to distinguish the open character, which bears it, from the artful and double one which affects it.” Immediately after this statement, Sterne the novelist comes to the fore: “This, by the way, would make no bad anecdote in T. Shandy’s Life.” Other references to his writing later in the journal provide reassuring intervals of everyday life in the morass of sentiment.

Yorick begins his journal in April, and the entries for that month are long and impassioned. Sterne evidently became less interested in his romance in May; the daily comments are briefer and more perfunctory, although there is an occasional burst of emotion: “Laid sleepless all the night, with thinking of the many dangers and sufferings, my dear Girl! that thou art exposed to—.” At the end of the month, Yorick records his journey from London to his country cottage, where he nurses himself, fancies Eliza beside him in every picturesque spot in his garden, and daydreams of a sequence of events that would allow them to marry.

The entries for early June initiate a new autobiographical episode that is the chief focus of the rest of the journal. Yorick receives a letter from his daughter Lydia announcing that she and her mother, who is throughout the book referred to as Mrs. Sterne, will visit him to discuss financial arrangements to enable them to retire to France permanently. The monetary details, discussed at length, are probably fairly accurate, as is the resentment with which Yorick predicts that the ladies will carry off all his household possessions: “In short I shall be pluck’d bare—all but of your Portrait and Snuff Box and your other dear Presents.” It is, perhaps, significant of Sterne’s state of mind that the entries for the month after the receipt of Lydia’s letter are much longer and more emotional than those that preceded it. There is considerable discussion about the happy expression of concern about the forthcoming visit, and one is tempted to speculate that Sterne is using the journal less as a literary game and more as a means of putting his mind at ease. In any case, he seems finally to have grown tired of the project toward the end of the summer. The July entries are fond but increasingly less frequent, and, on August 4, Yorick writes that his family is soon to arrive and that their presence will put an end to his diary. A single paragraph, dated November 1, concludes the work. Mrs. Sterne is to retire to France with an annuity of 300 guineas a year, and Yorick is free to think again of Eliza: But What can I say,—What can I write—But the Yearnings of heart wasted with looking and wishing for thy Return—Return—Return! my dear Eliza! May heaven smooth the Way for thee to send thee safely to us, and joy for Ever.

The Journal to Eliza has attracted considerable attention as a biographical document, though it is one of somewhat dubious value, and as a work illustrating eighteenth century sentimental writing. It falls far below Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, however, in literary interest; the unceasing protestations of love, grief, and despair inevitably become monotonous, as Sterne himself seems to have discovered. Readers will, however, continue to turn to the journal for the insights it gives into the author’s peculiar genius.

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