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Published: 25-12-2019

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Feelings in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy

Travel literature became, after the novel, the most well-known literary genre in the eighteenth century. Thanks to the geographical discoveries created by critical navigators of that time, enlightened individuals ultimately could explore with their imagination a ‘new World’. Inevitably, the expanding interest in being aware of the other lands brought men and women to travel around the globe not only for health motives, but also for pleasure and to full their cultural education – this was named by the British, Grand Tour, and it became really popular especially amongst the leisured classes. In this way, people travelled and recorded their personal experiences in their books, becoming then travel literature extremely useful to those who wanted to know some thing about the globe out of Britain. Nevertheless, travel books had some critical rules that writers must observe: firstly, they have to supply a detailed description of costumes and traditions of the visited countries and secondly, travel’s records need to be objective – no space for the author’s impressions. Nonetheless, a real change was taking place in the second half of the century concerning the ‘sentimental novel’, and it was created just by Laurence Sterne who wrote his books with ‘feeling’.

Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy was published in 1768, and it wants to be a satire of classic travel books in which objectivity was the only protagonist. In truth, in this book the author presents to us a new protagonist, that is, the traveler’s feeling even though he is travelling around the world. The author as a result focuses his attention on traveller’s sensibility and impressions during his journey by way of France and Italy.

In the very first volume Yorick, the protagonist, says that travelers belong to diverse ‘Heads’, so that we can uncover ‘idle travelers’, ‘proud travelers’, ‘travelers of necessity’ and so forth. He belongs, nonetheless, to none of these classes due to the fact he is a “[…] Sentimental Traveler who have travelled, […] as considerably out of necessity, and the besoin de Voyager”, and that his travel’s accounts will be various from the others. Consequently, he foregrounds his impressions and sensations received for the duration of his journey from individuals, saying that “an English man does not travel to see English men”, and focusing then on human relationships originated from his meetings with men and women of ‘France and Italy’ – it is not then primarily based on ‘practical aspects’ of a country that had characterized most classic travel books. In this way, Sterne disrupts novel’s traditional rules providing also a new which means to the word ‘sentimental’ and to Eros idea in basic.

“But what have been the temptations, (as I write not to apologize for the weaknesses of my heart in this tour, – but to give an account of them) – shall be described with the very same simplicity, with which I felt them”: Sentimental Journey is full of this veiled Eros produced by double meanings, which creeps into book’s pages and also into our imagination. This was strongly in contrast “con l’esaltazione della castit? e della ‘delicatezza’ predicate come essenziali in un particolare contesto culturale”nevertheless, it is just this type of slyness that appealed to most readers of that time.

“Disguise thyself as thou wilt, nevertheless slavery! – nonetheless thou art a bitter draught, and even though thousands in all ages have been created to drink of thee, thou art no significantly less bitter on that account”: this is Yorick’s thinking about slavery, one of the most crucial topics for the duration of Enlightenment. He exclaims these words in the Starling episode, in which he is interrupted by the ‘voice’ of a starling who desires to get out of the cage while he is generating one of his soliloquies. He then tries to cost-free him in vain, and this leads the protagonist to imagine a slave locked up in a prison with no getting the courage to go on because, as Yorick himself says, “I burst into tears – I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn”.

To conclude, Sentimental Journey is a real journey into Yorick’s feelings and impressions, but he is various from the other “enlightened British […] shocked by the misery they met” on Grand Tour, due to the fact he reacts to each and every aspect of the World with smile, feeling and above all sensibility, so that he can actually learn one thing from his sentimental knowledge.


Bertinetti, Paolo (2000) (a cura di) Storia della letteratura inglese, Vol. 1, Torino, Einaudi (Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi Nuova Serie), pp. 373-375

Outram, Dorinda (2006) L’illuminismo. Trad. di G. Arganese. Bologna, Il Mulino [tit. orig. The Enlightenment], pp. 65-79

Porter, Roy (2001) Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern day World, London, Penguin Books, pp. 1-23
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