CHARLIE CONNELLY on a long-forgotten work which captured the thrill of exploring Europe, while also creating a proto-Brexiteer for whom travel is hardly worth the bother
In 1759 Laurence Sterne was a consumptive 45-year-old clergyman living in the village of Sutton-on-the-Forest a few miles north of York and trapped in a bored obscurity at least as unhappy as his marriage. Within a year he’d become one of the most famous names in the land, frequenting the best London clubs and coffee houses and counting the likes of Joshua Reynolds and David Garrick among a wide group of influential friends who actively sought his company and wit.
Behind this startling transformation was the publication of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Sterne’s sprawling, riotous, bawdy beast of a novel that would eventually run to five volumes published over several years. The book purports to relate the life story of its eponymous hero in his own words but its rambling, hilarious stream of consciousness is so packed with digressions and diversions that he doesn’t even get around to his birth until volume three.
‘Digressions are the life, the soul of reading!’ Tristram insists. ‘Take them out of this book and you might as well take the book along with them.’
Tristram Shandy was a sensation, the parochial vicar whose only previous writing experience outside sermons had been a brief and unhappy crack at political commentary being catapulted to the pinnacle of English literary society, feted by Goethe as ‘the most beautiful spirit ever active; anyone who reads him immediately feels free and beautiful’.
‘Tristram is the fashion!’ crowed Sterne as it became clear the book whose first edition he had paid to be published himself was turning into something very special indeed, freely admitting that his literary endeavour was motivated neither by avarice nor the pure pleasure of writing but the desire for recognition.
‘I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous,’ he told a correspondent, an ambition fulfilled to such an extent that when his body was stolen from its London grave by bodysnatchers and delivered to a Cambridge surgeon for dissection the anatomist recognised his literary cadaver and dispatched it straight back to the capital.
Whatever Sterne’s motivation the boost to his clergyman’s salary freed him to travel to London and beyond and shell out for an ecclesiastical stand-in to cover his parish duties. In 1762 he made his first visit to continental Europe reaching as far south as Marseille. Having suffered with consumption for his entire adult life it’s likely the trip was designed to benefit his health; it was one he enjoyed enough to make a longer journey to Naples three years later.
These travels inspired his second book, a volume that inevitably hasn’t received as much attention as its mighty predecessor but which was just as revolutionary in style, format and subject matter and deserves equal billing.
Two hundred and fifty years ago this year Sterne published A Sentimental Journey, a fictional realisation of the author’s travels written as the parson Yorick, who also appears in Tristram Shandy.
Sterne’s blurring of fact and fiction was way ahead of its time (when he published a volume of his sermons he did so under the name ‘Yorick’) while A Sentimental Journey is also notable for being about people, their interactions, thoughts, opinions, emotions and jokes, when most travel narratives of the day were dispassionate, descriptive accounts of buildings and landscapes with barely a whiff of character or wit.
As well as being a rambling, tangent-indulging, hilarious read in its own right, A Sentimental Journey is also fascinating when viewed through the prism of our current relations with the rest of Europe.
‘It is an age so full of light that there is scarce a country or corner of Europe whose beams are not crossed and interchanged with others,’ says Yorick as he ponders the journey ahead. It’s a sentiment that resonates today, and one that hits even harder when you consider that for most of the second half of the 18th century Britain and France were either at war with each other, preparing for war with each other or tidying up after a war with each other.
Despite the brittle nature of prevailing international relations A Sentimental Journey is shot through with open-minded optimism, healthy curiosity and the sense that people of different nations aren’t very different from each other and shouldn’t be defined by nationalities and borders.
Sterne’s narrator is keen to learn and willing to immerse himself in the people, cultures and habits of the places in which he finds himself. Granted he frequently becomes carried away to the extent that his immersion crosses into the sexual (some of the innuendo lacing his descriptions of encounters with women can make Carry On films seem art house), but at its heart the book thrums with a refreshingly inclusive curiosity.
‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life by him that interests his heart in everything,’ gushes Yorick, barely an hour after arriving in Calais, ‘and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.’
It seems remarkable today given our current climate but Yorick manages to travel as far as Paris without a passport, let alone any kind of immigration checks. Borders were much more porous in the late 18th century, indeed, British travellers to France were only required to carry a passport because the French said so.
The documents were issued by the French consulate in London and were so informal you could acquire one in a matter of minutes and didn’t even have to attend in person, anyone could pick one up for you.
Despite this laissez-faire attitude to official documentation there was nothing like freedom of movement either: if you arrived in Calais even with a passport you needed the permission and stamp of the local directeur before you could leave the walled town and continue your journey.
As there was no enforceable extradition agreement between Britain and France until 1870 this meant that for much of the 18th and 19th centuries Calais’ population was swelled by English migrants and refugees, debtors fleeing creditors (Beau Brummell spent many years stranded in Calais) and illicit lovers fleeing aggrieved spouses stuck in a permanent bureaucratic limbo.
Somehow Yorick evades the burghers of Calais and only acquires the necessary paperwork when he learns the Paris police are looking for him (linguistic confusion leads the French to believe he’s the actual Yorick from Shakespeare and his occupation is hence recorded solemnly as ‘the King’s jester’).
Immigration issues aside, perhaps the strongest indicator of the contrasting attitudes to Europe in Britain today lies in the character of Smelfungus, an English gentleman Yorick once met on his travels and holds up as an example of all that’s wrong with the British abroad.
‘The learned Smelfungus travelled from Boulogne to Paris, from Paris to Rome and so on,’ he writes, ‘but he set out with the spleen and jaundice, and every object he pass’d by was discoloured or distorted. He wrote an account of them, but ’twas nothing but the account of his miserable feelings.’
We’ve all met a Smelfungus or several, but the original was actually a thinly disguised caricature of Sterne’s fellow novelist Tobias Smollett, best known today as the author of The Expedition Of Humphry Clinker. Sterne had run into Smollett on his travels in Marseille and found him the most disagreeable example of the Brit overseas: sneering, snooty, xenophobic, whiny and gruffly dismissive of almost everything he saw.
In Rome Yorick had happened to bump into Smelfungus coming out of the Pantheon and asked his opinion. ”Tis nothing but a huge cock pit,’ he grumbled.
‘He had travell’d straight on, looking neither to his right hand or his left, lest love or pity should seduce him out of his road,’ said Yorick of his nemesis, but this is clearly Sterne describing Smollett. In fact the ‘account of his miserable feelings’ Yorick refers to was Smollett’s book Travels Through France And Italy, published in 1766 two years before Sterne’s novel.
Indeed Sterne’s original title was A Sentimental Journey Through France And Italy, a titular custard pie pushed right into Smollett’s grumpy face.
The truncated name by which we know Sterne’s book today is because the narrative never got as far as Italy. Originally planned as four volumes, Sterne had published the first two when he died at his lodgings on Old Bond Street, London, in the spring of 1768, a victim of the tuberculosis that plagued him for decades.
‘I went into the room and he was just a-dying,’ said a footman serving one of Sterne’s friends sent to check on his health who happened to arrive just as the writer was nearing the end. ‘I waited ten minutes; but in five he said: ‘Now it is come.’ He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.’
Laurence Sterne is not the household name today he perhaps should be. In Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey he produced two ground-breaking, game-changing works of fiction whose influence is still felt today. Not bad for an obscure clergyman who didn’t write his first book until deep into middle age.
A Sentimental Journey is not his best known work, indeed, it’s barely half-finished, but the book’s account of a journey into Europe at a time of great political tension manages to be warm, open, non-judgemental and agreeably curious in a way that serves as a lesson for our own troubled times. In a nation of Sternes and Smolletts I know exactly whose side I’m on.
A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne is published by Penguin Classics, price £5.99