Laurence Sterne was dying of consumption, the polite yet dramatic term that people used to employ for pulmonary diseases, especially tuberculosis. He had contracted it by 1740, when he was still in his 20s, and he fought for his every breath for his remaining three decades of life.
In 1765, he left England in search of better breathing, and he traveled abroad to France and Italy. He was a surprise best-selling author by this point, a clergyman who had decided on a whim to start telling the life story of a character but by not telling it in a straightforward manner, to comically digress his way through “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” One of the earliest novels in English or any language, “Shandy” was an instant success when its first two volumes started appearing in 1759.
The genre we call “travel writing” was not as common in the 1760s as it is now, and most works in that genre at that time were quite unsentimental: verbal pictures of natural phenomena and wonders of the man-made world and warnings-slash-complaints about the foreignness of foreigners on their strange home turf. In his 1765 journey, Sterne encountered fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, and the stern, dry Smollett left such an impression on the always amused Sterne that in his book, “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,” he based a character named “Smelfungus” on Smollett. Nice revenge.
“A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy” is a novelization of Sterne’s travels: he calls himself “Yorick,” which was the nickname he gave himself and was the name of a minor character in “Shandy”: Parson Yorick. (Sterne was an Anglican clergyman by trade and calling.) It is sentimental in that Sterne-Yorick tells us what it is like to be on the road in France and Italy in the early 1760s and we meet everyone he meets; he also falls in love quite easily and frequently.
Each shop girl he meets, each “grisette,” is beautiful, is “handsome.” In one scene, Yorick is buying a pair of gloves and he realizes that the grisette there has quoted him a fair price. “I was sensible the beautiful grisette had not asked above a single livre above the price.—I wish’d she had asked a livre more, and was puzzling my brains how to bring the matter about.”—he wants her to give him something to haggle over in order to continue the moment alone with her. Every human being can probably remember a similar moment in a store.
We have all run into the socially awkward moment of arriving at a spot at the same time as someone else and both you and the other person moving in the same direction to let the other pass first, then moving back and forth together in a silent dance. Here is Sterne/Yorick turning this moment into another flirtation:
I was going one evening to a concert at Milan, and, was just entering the door of the hall, when the Marquisina di F— was coming out in a sort of a hurry:—she was almost upon me before I saw her; so I gave a spring to once side to let her pass.—She had done the same, and on the same side too; so we ran our heads together: she instantly got to the other side to get out: I was just as unfortunate as she had been, for I had sprung to that side, and opposed her passage again.—We both flew together to the other side, and then back,—and so on:—it was ridiculous: we both blush’d intolerably: so I did at last the thing I should have done at first;—I stood stock-still, and the Marquisina had no more difficulty. I had no power to go into the room, till I had made her so much reparation as to wait and follow her with my eye to the end of the passage. She look’d back twice, and walk’d along it rather sideways, as if she would make room for any one coming up stairs to pass her.
I ran and begg’d pardon for the embarrassment I had given her, saying it was my intention to have made her way. She answered, she was guided by the same intention towards me;—so we reciprocally thank’d each other. She was at the top of the stairs; and … I begg’d to hand her to her coach;—so we went down the stairs, stopping at every third step to talk of the concert and the adventure.—Upon my word, Madame, said I, when I had handed her in, I made six different efforts to let you go out.—And I made six efforts, replied she, to let you enter.—I wish to heaven you would make a seventh, said I.—With all my heart, said she, making room.—Life is too short to be long about the forms of it,—so I instantly stepp’d in, and she carried me home with her.—And what became of the concert, St. Cecilia, who I suppose was at it, knows more than I.
That would be Parson Yorick, international playah.
Readers in 1768, when “A Sentimental Journey” was published, were charmed, and Sterne had another hit on his hands. The book ends in the middle of a sentence, implying that more, much more, was to come, but Sterne was dead within a month of the novel’s publication.
As he does in “Tristram Shandy,” Sterne seems to enjoy playing with his manner of story-telling as much as telling his stories: “A Sentimental Journey” ends with the “The End” that appears at the end of every book playing a part as if it is a character in the tale.
In the moment at the end of the novel, Parson Yorick must share a room for a night with a lady and her chambermaid, her “fille de chambre,” and the two spend several pages negotiating a treaty to govern the proper behavior between a gentleman and lady sharing a dark room at night. Yorick is under orders to stay in his bed and not utter a sound, but he finds that he can not fall asleep, so he tosses and turns and finally cries out, “O, my God!” The French woman declares, “You have broke the treaty, Monsieur!” and remonstrates him. In the pitch-dark room, the fille de chambre silently makes her way between their beds to negotiate a new peace treaty, but she is too quiet and so is unheard. The novel ends:
But the fille de chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet, and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into the narrow passage which separated them, and had advanced so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me:—
So that when I stretch’d out my hand I caught hold of the fille de chambre’s—
END OF VOLUME II
He caught hold of the fille de chambre’s … end? If it is not open for interpretation, it is slightly ajar for interpretation.
And so ends “A Sentimental Journey,” Sterne’s career, and his life, all on a cute multi-level pun.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 27 asks us to reflect on the word, “Unfinished.”
The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 7 asks us to reflect on the word, “Sentimental.”
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