The full title Lawrence Sterne gave his unconventional mixture of autobiography, travel impressions, and fiction—A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy—is misleading. Sterne told of his travels through France, but he died of tuberculosis before writing the Italian section of his narrative. Sentimental, outrageous, and eccentric in its humorous effects, the novel is replete with delightful accounts and observations of whatever came into the author’s mind. Like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), the book broadened the scope of prose fiction for later writers by demonstrating that form and unified plot are not necessary for a successful novel.
In form and apparent subject, A Sentimental Journey follows in the tradition of the grand-tour novel. The depictions of scenes and persons, of escapades on the road, of the cultural adjustments required of an Englishman abroad, and of the things to be learned and the places to be visited were common, enjoyable reading matter for an eighteenth century audience. Sterne’s grand tour, however, sports a delightful touch of irreverence. Its hero, Yorick, is not a typical young gentleman matriculating into a peripatetic finishing school but a low-key picaro buffeted by impulse and whimsy. Therefore, his “traveling” seems random. Unplanned, untimed, it accords perfectly with his sole principle, which, it seems, is to have no principle whatever except obedience to natural affections, to his growing sensibility, and his often unseemly passion. He prefers filles de chambre to cathedrals and a pretty face to a gallery portrait. Given his free-flowing nature, he does not seek to improve himself in accordance with a travel plan; he prefers to stumble over it in following his heart. The point Sterne makes is that a benevolent nature can be trusted not to err in promoting human goodness.
“Sentiment” and a host of such attendant words as “good nature,” “sensibility,” and “affections” were all terms with particular significance in Sterne’s day. The doctrine of sensibility, popularized by the late seventeenth century Latitudinarian divines, urged an inherent goodness in human beings, a“sense” of moral absolutes that expresses itself in acts of charity and social benevolence. Championed philosophically by the third earl of Shaftesbury (in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times, 1711) and in fiction by Henry...
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