A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy was written by Irish-born English novelist Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768) and was initially published in 1768 as Sterne was nearing death. Sterne is today best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, reportedly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite work. While A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is today not as read or studied as Tristram Shandy, it has always been popular and remains influential in the genre of travel writing.
A Sentimental Journey differed from earlier works of this genre in emphasizing sentiment, subjective elements of personal taste, manners and morals rather than the more traditional approach of writing and pontificating about visits to the main sights or gallivanting with the local elite. Those of you familiar with Sterne’s eccentric writing style and wit in Tristram Shandy are in for an easier time with A Sentimental Journey. With this later novel, you get the wit in a much smaller, easier to read, and less eccentric presentation.
The best way to be introduced to Sterne and a work like this is simply to digest some morsels of his thinking and writing, to whet your appetite for more. With that in mind, what follows is a series of my favorite snippets from this novel.
When a man is at peace with man, how much lighter than a feather is the heaviest of metals in his hand!
This is surely something we should all keep in mind as we approach the holiday season. Life is so much easier when you are at peace, with yourself, your friends, your family, your world. Speaking of the holiday season, keep the following in mind as you remember those less fortunate:
…heaven be their resource who have no other but the charity of the world, the stock of which, I fear, is no way sufficient for the many great claims which are hourly made upon it.
Sterne devotes much of his wit to love and the pursuit thereof, this being one example:
That grave people hate Love for the name’s sake—
That selfish people hate it for their own___
Hypocrite’s for heaven’s—
And that all of us, both old and young, being ten times worse frighten’d than hurt by the very report—
When he talks about travel itself, and every hour that one spends in new environments, he hits the nail on the head when he reminds the reader of opportunities to be grasped:
What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in every thing, 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.
My fiancé has been a great influence on me in the above regard. She embraces everything in travel, approaching new cultures and places with an open heart, open mind and open arms. When we travel, we embrace what the locality has to offer and try to go off the beaten path.
The man who either disdains or fears to walk up a dark entry, may be an excellent and good man, and fit for a hundred things; but he will not do to make a good sentimental traveller. I count little of the many things I see pass at broad noonday, in large and open streets.—Nature is shy, and hates to act before spectators; but in such an unobserved corner you sometimes see a single short scene of hers, worth all the sentiments of a dozen French plays compounded together…
Speaking of travel, Sterne reminds us about tipping and dealing with the poor you run across in your travels:
When all is ready…there is always a matter to compound at the door, before you can get into your chaise, and that is with the sons and daughters of poverty, who surround you. Let no man say, ‘let them go to the devil’—’tis a cruel journey to send a few miserables, and they have had sufferings enow without it: I always think it better to take a few sous out in my hand; and I would counsel every gentle traveler to do so likewise; he need not be so exact in setting down his motives for giving them—They will be registered elsewhere.
Travel also allows us to become more well rounded, more apt to understand others and less prejudicial. As Sterne says:
…there is balance of good and bad everywhere; and nothing but the knowing it is so, can emancipate one-half the world from the pre-possession which it holds against the other—that the advantage of travel was by seeing a great deal both of men and manners; it bought us mutual toleration; and mutual toleration taught us mutual love.
Back to love, one cannot love a woman without loving the entire set of them:
…of women—God bless them all! There is not a man on earth who loves them as much as I do: after all the foibles I have seen, and all the satires I have read against them, still I love them; being firmly persuaded that a man, who has not a sort of an affection for the whole sex, is incapable of ever loving a single one as he ought.
How to win their heart? Easy, flattery; of which he says:
Delicious essence! how refreshing art thou to nature! how strongly are all its powers and all its weaknesses on thy side! how sweetly dost thou mix with the blood, and help it through the most difficult and tortuous passages to the heart!
Sterne talks about handling passion for another when promised to someone else.
I had sworn to her eternal fidelity–she had a right to my whole heart–to divide my affections was to lessen them–to expose them, was to risk them: where there is risk, there may be loss:–and what wilt though have, to answer a heart so full of trust and confidence–so good, so gentle and unreproaching!
A positive outlook on life always comes across in Sterne. Only an optimist can say with such passion:
Hail ye small sweet courtesies of life, for smooth do ye make the road of it! like grace and beauty which beget inclinations to love at first sight: ’tis ye who open this door and let the stranger in.
Even when things are not going well, he knows the trick to remain happy, which literature lovers can well grasp. The secret is immersing yourself in great works that can take you away from your present troubles, give you wisdom, strength and diversion.
Sweet pliability of man’s spirit, that can at once surrender itself to illusions, which cheat expectation and sorrow of their weary moments!
As an aside, one reason for me to like Sterne is the example he set. He began writing as a profession at 46, which is currently my age. Usually, we read about what past greats accomplished by the time they were 25; for us older folks, that can be depressing! Sterne gives us hope that it is not too late, that great American novel still exists within me!
About the Edition
In fine shape, this Limited Editions Club edition from 1935 is fantastic, with a somewhat daring design by Gill, simply fantastic paper (see the texture in the pictures below), wonderful type designed by Gill, nice size, and decent (good, not overly great) whimsical illustrations. To get a 76 year old book of this quality for what it can be had for in today’s market is amazing, especially one signed by Gill who, dog as he was (no pun intended for those who know about Gill’s personal ‘flaws’), is a major figure in type and book design in the early twentieth century.
- Designed by Eric Gill, pages composed by hand using a new type (Bunyan) created by him expressly for this edition
- Illustrations are etchings by Denis Tegetmeier
- Introduction by Wilbur L. Cross
- Full tan buckram, stamped in blue, red and gold
- Printing is done by Hague & Gill, High Wycombe, England
- Edition signed by Gill and Tegetmeier
- Limited to 1500 copies, mine is #1164