Laurence Sterne and the ‘Sociality’ of the Novel
Laurence Sterne and the ‘Sociality’ of the Novel
Abstract and Keywords
The anonymous pamphlet A Funeral Discourse, Occasioned by the Much Lamented Death of Mr Yorick, published in 1761, was but one of the many spoofs and rejoinders which attached themselves to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy throughout the 1760s and 1770s. If we are to recover Sterne's ‘sentimentalism’, we should look at the reception and circulation of his writings, and if we do this we can follow the lead of the pamphleteer. Sterne's fiction is notoriously self-conscious about the modes of a novel's coherence — about the powers of a narrator to convince, to beguile, and to satisfy. It is attentive to its ‘sociality’. Sterne's characters are attached to the world by the metaphors and allusions on which they rely, and which protect them against death, discord, and disaster. They are not mad, first because they are attached to each other by sympathy, and second because they are innocents whose limited ways with words are displayed to a reader who has to be sophisticated to comprehend their transparent instincts.
Tristram is the Fashion.
(Sterne to Catherine Fourmantel, March 1760)1
THE anonymous pamphlet A Funeral Discourse, Occasioned by the Much Lamented Death of Mr Yorick, published in 1761, was but one of the many spoofs and rejoinders which attached themselves to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy throughout the 1760s and 1770s. It imagines Dodsley, Sterne's publisher, telling the novelist that Tristram Shandy ‘is wonderfully suited to the taste of the age; it will tickle the wanton, amuse the unthinking, countenance the profane, and carry-on to perfection that spirit of trifling, that makes such a rapid progress among us’.2 This scores some kind of point by imagining a conspiracy between the bookseller and the novelist—an exploitation of popular taste which is, from the first, a marketing exercise. Not that it reveals a relationship which Sterne attempted to hide: in the first volume of Tristram Shandy he had wryly exaggerated his subordination to Dodsley, requesting any aristocrat willing to pay for ‘a tight, genteel dedication’ (a form which he was in the process of mocking) to give the money to the right person—‘Be pleased, my good Lord, to order the sum to be paid into the hands of Mr Dodsley, for the benefit of the author’(Tristram Shandy, p. 16). Sterne's joke is about the power of the bookseller, a power which the Funeral Discourse sees controlling the success of his novel. This pamphlet represents Tristram Shandy as a symptom of the triumph of the booksellers—men pandering to debased tastes, circulating texts which were to be only marketable commodities. Novels were conceived of as the bookseller's typical wares (detached from (p.148) patronage, collusive with vulgar enjoyments, immorally titillating); Tristram Shandy could be represented as the most opportunistic of all such creations of these entrepreneurs.
Whatever the questionable moralisms of this pamphlet, it recognized that Tristram Shandy (which at the time had only reached Volume iv) was a publishing phenomenon as well as a text—that it was a fashionable object, a triumph of self-promotion. If we are to recover Sterne's ‘sentimentalism’, we should look at the reception and circulation of his writings, and if we do this we can follow the lead of the pamphleteer. For Tristram Shandy was not just an ingenious book; it became a reputation, an object of debate, a proliferation of texts.3 In fact, the writer of the Funeral Discourse was fuelling the notoriety of Tristram Shandy even while he was condemning it—thus Sterne's famous reflection on reading ‘a shilling pamphlet wrote against Tristram’: ‘I wish they would write a hundred such’.4 Sterne boasted that he wrote ‘not to be fed, but to be famous, and for his novel he initially sought publicity before praise.5 Of course, while often claiming, with a disingenuous shrug, to abandon itself to opinion and prejudice, Tristram Shandy worked to embrace and deflate criticism, making it but a symptom of the novel's success. The ‘dear Anti-Shandeans, and thrice able critics’ (III. xx. 193) become shadowy personages in Tristram Shandy, the butt of every fake apostrophe to the nobility or erudition of the text. Even as Sterne's writing generated criticism it exploited it, presuming a reader who would not be a critic.
Ironically, while the Funeral Discourse identified Tristram Shandy as the type of a new, and disreputable, literary commodity, bending only to the currents of the market-place, Sterne's first move as an author was to procure a surreptitious kind of patronage by priming David Garrick with the merits of his novel.6 The book itself, whilst flattering Garrick, debases patronage. Its dedications are either opportunistic (‘To the Right Honourable Mr PITT’) or parodic (‘My Lord, “I Maintain this to be a dedication, notwith-standing (p.149) its singularity in the three great essentials of matter, form and place” ’, I. viii. 15). Sterne was delighted by the attention of aristocrats, but he did not need their imprints upon his text. Lords, like critics, were addressed only to be circumvented. The novel was let loose in the world—subject to no official control. Sterne was happy to pretend that his bookseller was in charge. While Richardson had attempted to exercise strict moralistic control over the interpretation of his novels, distrusting the very literary form that he was using, Sterne was willing to accept fashion as a virtue, trusting to the capacities of the private reader, and making his very life as an author (in the personae of Tristram or Yorick) a fiction to flaunt in the face of his critics.
From the first, some of these critics recognized the truth that Tristram Shandy, from volume to volume over five years, gleefully implied: readers were willing to accept and enjoy what the critics disdained. Tristram Shandy's Bon Mots, Repartees, Odd Adventures and Humourous Stories (1760) makes its gesture of resignation by having the spirits of Swift and Fielding express disgruntlement at the vogue of Sterne's novel. Fielding is made to state the incontrovertible fact of its popularity:
TRISTRAM Shandy I guess you mean—I have been just hearing of it, from a soul which arrived about two hours ago—he tells me that the author is caressed by people of the first fashion—who strive one with each other, for the honour of filling his belly and his pockets—and, withal, that his works are preferr’d beyond any thing which either you or I have written.7
Other pamplets resorted to a moralistic hyperbole that was either incongruous or fatalistically ironic. The Clockmakers Outcry Against the Author of the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760) was driven to describing Sterne as ‘the forerunner of Antichrist (pray heaven that he may not be the real one, of which there is not a little room to suspect when we contemplate his figure, and penetrate into his real sentiments)’ (p. 10). It is as if, with Tristram Shandy, the ritual of condemnation found itself becoming part of the fashion which it attacked. This left only the defensive irony we find in a pamphlet which we can set against the passage above, resorting to the parody of stern strictures on the effects of novels even as it attacked Tristram Shandy. A Genuine Letter from a (p.150) Methodist Preacher, also published as A Letter from the Rev. George Whitefield, B.A. to the Rev. Laurence Sterne, makes Sterne's critic a Methodist fanatic. As Alan Howes says, ‘the attack on Sterne is used as an ironic device for attacking the Methodist as well’.8 The exercise is not far from the rhetoric of the Clockmaker's Outcry:
I cannot conceive how it was possible for a divine of the church of England to write so prophane a book;—a book penned by the Devil himself; and calculated, above all other books, to advance the interests of the Prince of Darkness, to lead mankind astray from the paths of righteousness, and conduct them towards the bottomless pit.9
We get the same tactic in the Funeral Discourse to which I have already referred. The title-page of this declares it to be ‘Preached before a very mixed Society of Jemmies, Jessamies, Methodists and Christians at a Nocturnal Meeting’: even as it sets out to satirize Sterne's achievement, it tries a dig at the most solemn moralizers about the dangers of fiction.
Tristram Shandy provoked more parodies and denunciations than any other novel of the eighteenth century, yet its antagonists were also parasitic upon the fashionable literary phenomenon of its day. Texts purporting to demonstrate its degeneracy attempted to do so by amplifying or explicating the ‘obscenity’ of its innuendo—by being more bawdy than the original. Some of what Howes refers to as the ‘bantering attacks’ on Sterne's novel merely tried to exploit, and not refute, its appeal, recognizing that if it was obscene, obscenity had become a popular mode. John Carr's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760) exemplifies this opportunism: in the feigned apology which is supposed to target Sterne, he concedes to a trend condemned in the paradoxical act of imitation: ‘Whenever then there has been, or may hereafter be found any thing in Tristram Shandy, that gives the feeblest squint towards obscenity; be assured, once for all, that I was drawn into it by a certain oily conformity of temper’ (p. 74). No doubt Sterne did tire of ‘These strokes in the Dark, with the many Kicks, Cuffs & Bastinados I openly get on all sides of me’,10 but these were the sure signs, as well as the price, of fame.
(p.151) Alongside rebukes and travesties, of course, were praise and admiring imitation. When, in 1798, the Manchester physician John Ferriar initiated Sterne scholarship with his Illustrations of Sterne, he prefaced his study with a tribute now no longer paid to the novelist—a tribute which recalled the favoured version of Sterne's appeal in the eighteenth century:
- But the quick tear, that checks our wond’ring smile,
- In sudden pause, or unexpected story,
- Owns thy true mast’ry; and Le Fevre's woes,
- Maria's wand’rings, and the Pris’ners throes
- Fix thee conspicuous on the shrine of glory.11
Ferriar, half uneasy with the borrowings from other writers that he was discovering in Tristram Shandy, needed to show that he was writing as an admirer, and this was the conventional way to do it—deference paid to the pathos of Sterne's texts. Indeed, Ferriar went on to suggest that the novelist's penchant for plagiarism had diverted ‘his own force’—the power of sentimental representation: ‘It may even be suspected, that by this influence he was drawn aside from his natural bias to the pathetic’.12 He was hanging on to the Sterne who was celebrated and preserved in the decades after his death: Sterne the man of sentiment; the writer referred to in The Sentimental Magazine as ‘Laurence Sterne, commonly known by the name of Yorick, and who introduced the present mode of sentimental writing’.13 This comes from the introduction to what the magazine called a ‘Sentimental Biography. The Life of Mr Sterne’, a conflation of his life and his writings which is purely celebratory. This is Sterne not as the merchant of innuendo but as the man of feeling, writing with ‘nerves too fine, that wound e’en while they bless’.14 Fine feeling is to be considered as a characteristic of the texts and their writer: the crowning virtue of both. As the anonymous Yorick's Skull of 1777 puts it, ‘The writings of YORICK bear visible marks of a great natural genius, seasoned with uncommon humour, and adorned with the most exquisite sensibility’.15
Though it was posthumously that this reputation became most secure, even from the beginning some hostile critics were struggling to discover in Tristram Shandy sentimental nuggets. The (p.152) Clockmakers Outcry, for instance, pauses from the anatomizing of indecencies to praise one passage from the first volume of the book: The account of Yorick and his Exit…is well imagined and pathetically written. It has not a little contributed to provoke our indignation against the author, for mispending his time on ridiculous and immoral bagatelles, who seems to be possessed of talents, that, properly employed, cannot fail of penetrating the heart’ (p. 27). While Sterne's putative sentimentalism is rarely more than a parenthesis in modern critical treatments of his writing, in the decades during and after their publication it was seized on as their distinctive merit. A series of lengthy articles in The Monthly Review can serve as an initial guide to the means by which Tristram Shandy was aligned to the image of a dominant literary fashion. It is a guide which is appropriate because The Monthly Review, like its rival Critical Review, was explicitly addressing a novel-buying readership, and could not simply fall back on that high-minded disdain of narrative fiction which was a settled rhetoric in the period.16
The reviewers for the Monthly emphasized both the ‘indelicacies’ of Tristram Shandy and its triumphantly ‘pathetic’ cameos. Two types of reaction to the novel are caught in the ambivalence of these reviews, objecting to volumes ‘interlarded with obscenity’ but declaring that ‘Mr Shandy shows himself a master in the science of human feelings, and the art of describing them’.17 The inconsistency of these readings is not a difference of opinion between the different reviewers writing for the Monthly, it is there in each single review. ‘The fifth and sixth volumes of this work…are not without their stars and dashes, their hints and whiskers’, complained Langhorne in the article that he wrote for the Monthly of January 1762; a few pages later, puzzled by what he saw as the text's moral unevenness, he was writing, ‘Since Mr Sterne published his Sermons, we have been of opinion, that his excellence lay not so much in the humorous as in the pathetic; and in this opinion we have been confirmed by the above story of Le Fever’.18 Ralph Griffiths, reviewing Volumes vii and viii of Tristram Shandy, threw up his hands at its ‘bawdyisms’: ‘Why you might as well write broad Rochester as set down all these obscene asterisms!—setting the reader's imagination to work, and (p.153) officiating as pimp to every lewd idea excited by your own creative and abominable ambiguity.’19 In the same article, commenting on Toby's courtship of Widow Wadman, he was adjusting his exclamations to a different end:
Never was any thing more beautifully simple, more natural, more touching! O Tristram! that ever any grosser colours should daub and defile that pencil of thine, so admirably fitted for the production of the most delicate as well as the most masterly pictures of men, manners, and situations!—Richardson—the delicate, the circumstantial RICHARDSON himself, never produced any thing equal to the amours of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman.
The puzzlement or exasperation recorded in such articles was provoked not so much by the formal audacity of Tristram Shandy as by what was perceived to be its moral unreliability. The novel itself was able to reflect wryly on the official concern of critical readers with the possibility of improper intimations—and to imply in the process their clumsiness as interpreters. One who dresses like a gentleman’ will write like one, suggests Tristram. Therefore, ‘when your honours and reverences would know whether I writ clean and fit to be read, you will be able to judge full as well by looking into my Laundress's bill, as my book’ (Tristram Shandy, IX. xiii. 617). Here, as elsewhere, advantage has been taken of the serial publication of the novel to swipe at those by whom it has been ‘abus’d, curs’d, criticis’d and confounded’, and we might infer that this also enabled Sterne to respond to the critics by providing the sentimental interludes which they craved. Certainly there is something knowing in the way that some such passages are produced—as if they are too heavily marked off for special delectation, too retractable. Griffiths's sense that, even when Tristram Shandy delivers the ‘pathetic’, it can give way to bathos, gave rise, in his review of the final volume of the novel, to a judgement in which the Monthly's ambivalence is summed up. Discussing Tristram's meeting with Maria in Chapter 24, he wrote:
What a pretty, whimsical, affecting kind of episode has he introduced in his chapter entitled INVOCATION!…our readers shall have the chapter entire, except the abrupt transition in the last two lines, which, in our opinion, serve but to spoil all, by an ill-tim’d stroke of levity; like a ludicrous (p.154) epilogue, or ridiculous farce, unnaturally tagged to the end of a deep tragedy, only as it were, to efface every elevated, generous, or tender sentiment that might before have been excited.20
The sentence censored (‘—What an excellent inn at Moulins!’) is the device by which the text parenthesizes the sentimental encounter, returning us to the ‘mirth’ and frivolity of Tristram's travels. It is a device too ambiguous for Griffiths to approve.
Sterne's writings did, though, lend themselves to the processes of selection and citation by which he was eventually construed as the arch-sentimentalist. R.D. Mayo has described how Richardson and Sterne were the novelists most often quoted and imitated in the magazines of the time: ‘the most important reason for their wholehearted reception in the miscellanies was their sentimental philosophy, for in popular magazines from 1760 or 1765 the spirit of sensibility was completely in the ascendant’.21 Sterne's fragmentary texts became famous for a certain kind of fragment. The Monthly Review foreshadowed a trend when, with some relief, it singled out the story of Le Fever for special praise: ‘In the story of Le Fever the old Captain appears in the most amiable light; and as this little episode does greater honour to the abilities and disposition of the Author, than any other part of his work, we shall quote it at large…’22. In the same month, the tale (‘altogether a master-piece in its kind, and does the Writer great credit’) was included in the Gentleman's Magazine.23 It came to be taken as the epitome of, not the exception to, Sterne's style. As The Sentimental Magazine put it, ‘the story of Le Fevre is one of the most highly finished, and masterly examples of true pathos to be found in any language, and would have made its author immortal, though he had never written any thing else’.24 In John Ireland's account of the formation in Bath of a ‘Shandean society’ by the fashionable actor John Henderson, it is this extract from Tristram Shandy that is given as the best example of the readings by which the ‘society’ entertained itself, drawing ‘tears from every eye’: ‘Never shall I forget the effect he gave to the story of Le Fevre. It kindled a flame of admiration, and promoted a proposal to devote a day to the memory of the author, pour a libation over his (p.155) grave, and speak a requiem to his departed spirit.’25 It was taken as a paradigm of sentimental eloquence. By 1787, in the Preface to her Story of Le Fevre, Jane Timbury could be confident that she was versifying a fragment accepted as being of exemplary pathos: ‘Mr Sterne's affecting Story of LE FEVRE has been so much admired by the sentimental part of the literary world’.26
This Story became one of the main elements in the laudatory version of Sterne's writings that was constructed in the eighteenth century. Along with ‘The History of Yorick’ and ‘Maria’ it was the most popular of the extracts reprinted or imitated in magazines ‘groaning under the deluge of sentimental fragments’.27 These extracts were there in The Beauties of Sterne, first published in 1782 and appearing in another dozen editions by the early 1790s. Though later editions of the Beauties were to make some attempt to reconcile the ‘morality’ and the ‘humour’ of Tristram Shandy in particular, the Preface to the first edition admits to the censorship to which Sterne's texts have had to be subjected in order to provide unadulterated ‘pleasure and instruction’. Subtitled ‘Selected for the Heart of Sensibility’, it provides the ‘chaste part of the world’—those who have ‘with some reason’ complained of ‘the obscenity which taints the writings of Sterne’—with a text suited to ‘their rising offspring’.28 This immensely popular compilation perpetuated Sterne-the-sentimentalist, avowing, indeed, that ‘the stories of Le Fever, the Monk [from A Sentimental Journey], and Maria’ would be so poignant for ‘the feeling reader’ that they could not be placed too close together for fear that they might ‘wound the bosom of sensibility too deeply’.29
The sentimental Sterne came to be used as a model of moralizing excellence by natural enemies of the novel. William Enfield, Rector and ‘Lecturer on the Belles Lettres’ at the Warrington Academy for Dissenters, included only Sterne amongst novelists in The Speaker; or, Miscellaneous Pieces, Selected from the Best English Writers (1774). This anthology, produced ‘with a view to facilitate the (p.156) Improvement of Youth in Reading and Speaking’, set extracts from Sterne alongside conventional examples of elegance and pathos: Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Thomson, Gray, and The Spectator. Enfield, more usually a writer of sermons, hymns, and prayers, recruited the ‘pathetic’ elements of Sterne (Toby's reflections on the plight of ‘Negroes’, ‘Yorick's Death’, ‘The Story of Le Fever’) as patterns of moral and stylistic achievement—good fodder for the young.30 Vicesimus Knox did the same thing in his Elegant Extracts, first published in 1783. Knox (schoolmaster, priest, and conduct-book writer) made explicit in his Advertisement the desirable conflation of style and virtue to be taught by his collection, devised so that ‘young persons’ would acquire ‘ideas on many pleasing subjects of Taste and Literature; and, which is of much higher importance, they will imbibe with an encrease [sic] of knowledge, the purest principles of Virtue and Religion.31 Again, Sterne was the only novelist whose works were cited, in company with extracts from the Spectator, Guardian, and Rambler, and from the conduct-books of Watts, Gregory, and Chapone. It is strange enough to find the more lachrymose passages from Sterne's fiction in amongst a host of sober Protestant moralisms, and stranger still given that Knox elsewhere set aside ‘the exquisite touches of nature and sensibility’ he found in Sterne's novels to fulminate against him at full throttle:
the poison he conveys is subtle, and the more dangerous as it is palatable. I believe no young mind ever perused his books without finding those passions roused and inflamed, which, after all that the novelist can advance in their favour, are the copious sources of all human misery. Many a connection, begun with the fine sentimentality which Sterne has recommended and increased, has terminated in disease, infamy, want, madness, suicide, and a gibbet.32
Knox, at least, was not going to forget that only rigorous censorship could produce the instructive, pathetic Sterne.
Sterne's novels were shaken free of a reputation for low innuendo by their reconstitution as ‘elegant extracts’. But aficionados kept (p.157) having to defend him against accusations that, as John Henderson's (eulogistic) ode to Sterne put it,
…he, with all these powers fraught,
Was loose in language, and impure in thought.33
Sterne's role as a literary personality had, thanks to his own efforts, become entangled with his writings, and attacks on the latter were always liable to be ad hominem. The famous objections to his publication of his Sermons as By Mr Yorick were objections to this calculated manipulation of a fictional identity—the use of suspect fame to sell a serious moral text. After his death, Sterne's personality lived on as an issue, given new prominence when the fragments by which he was known came, in the 1770s, to include volumes of letters, some genuine and some forged. Discoverable in these were the usual alternative aspects of his reputation: indecent sugges-tiveness or sentimental delicacy. The reviewer of Letters from Yorick to Eliza (1775) in the Gentleman's Magazine had to equivocate over Sterne's record of his friendship (or was it flirtation?) with Eliza Draper: ‘[the letters] are expressive of the most tender and (we trust) sentimental friendship. But, between married persons, such cicesbeism is always unsafe, and generally suspicious; and, to virtue, prudence, and even sensibility, must give abundantly more pain than pleasure.’34 The author of Letters from Eliza to Yorick, published in the same year, had to secure Sterne's status as a laudably sentimental writer by showing the relationship to have been one of perfect sympathy based on ‘sentiment alone’.35 It offered to prove that ‘Platonism, so much ridiculed, so long thought a chimera, may exist, and even with the strongest sensibility, and warmest imagination’.36 This act of homage showed Eliza weeping and sighing over Sterne's novels, and describing her intimacy with him—for some a scandalous confirmation of the indecency of his writings—as an exemplum of sentimental understanding:
The sympathy of Sentiments bestows the most inexpressible pleasures—such sorrows are sorrows to be coveted—when your page compels the tears from my eyes, and makes my heart throb—I will say, Here my Bramin wept—when he penn’d this passage, he wept—let me catch the (p.158) pleasing contagion from each heart-felt sentence, and bedew the leaf with mutual streaming sorrows.37
This making of Sterne into a Man of Feeling was never completely assured, though—as I shall describe—the publication of A Sentimental Journey was taken to make the task easier. There was always the problem of the suggestiveness of his texts—not just their bawdy, but the half-concealment of that bawdy. No doubt many of the avid readers of Tristram Shandy were less worried than the critics about the novel's supposed improprieties—and Tristram Shandy was adept at holding up the stiff, critical pronouncement for the amusement of a reader always more knowing, more adaptable, than any critic. While the coexistence of sentimentalism and suggestiveness may have been a problem for the critics, it was no accident. The workings of both depended upon that relationship which Sterne elevated above any duty to literature or criticism—the relationship between a text and a private reader flattered to be segregated from ‘the herd of the world’‘. This reader was capable of a private act of inference which would discover the ‘humour’, the insinuations, of the text, but which would also enliven its pathos into an intense, because visceral, experience: ‘a true feeler always brings half the entertainment along with him. His own ideas are only call’d forth by what he reads, and the vibrations within, so entirely correspond with those excited, ‘tis like reading himself and not the book.’38
* * *
There is so little true feeling in the herd of the world, that I wish I could have got an act of parliament, when the books first appear’d, ‘that none but wise men should look into them.
(Sterne to John Eustace, February 1768)39
For Yorick in the Sentimental Journey perfectly intelligible conversation depends on gestures rather than words, on sensitivity to the non-verbal rather than confidence in what can be said:
There is not a secret so aiding to the progress of sociality, as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. For my own part, by long habitude, I do it so mechanically, that when I walk the (p.159) streets of London, I go translating all the way; and have more than once stood behind in the circle, where not three words have been said, and have brought off twenty different dialogues with me, which I could have fairly wrote down and sworn to. (p. 172)
In the end all becomes ‘plain words’—the transcriptions and inferences of a narrative. The ‘progress of sociality’ is the progress of this narrative: ‘sociality’ stands not so much for the relationship between the narrator and those whose ‘looks and limbs’ he describes (he is a distanced connoisseur, an amused translator), as for the relationship between the narrator and those who read, those who are to benefit by the habit and art of his translation. Yorick stands ‘behind in the circle’, not participant but transcriber. Out of his observations of gesture comes ‘sociality’: the sociality of the text. Sterne's coinage refines social understanding to the pact between a knowing narrator and a knowing consumer of novels. ‘Sociality’ is what we are to enter into when we read Sterne's text.
Sterne's fiction is notoriously self-conscious about the modes of a novel's coherence—about the powers of a narrator to convince, to beguile, and to satisfy. It is attentive to its ‘sociality’. Sterne may have made new capital, and a new kind of instant literary fame, out of this self-consciousness, but he was exploiting conventional expectations. In an age in which narrative fiction was suspected by many, even of its more enthusiastic consumers, of being suggestive, improper, promiscuous, novels were thick with descriptions of how narratives should be attended to and interpreted. They constantly concerned themselves, technically and moralistically, with the effects of telling stories. As we have seen, novels of sentiment keenly rehearsed the art of comprehending the pathos of narratives; the capacity to respond with tremulous sensibility to a tale of misfortune was represented as a sufficient sign of virtue. The use of ‘the story of Le Fever’ in Volume vi of Tristram Shandy is a clear enough indication of Sterne's awareness of this genre of the internalized tale, included to demonstrate the sympathies of its auditors. It is a story that comes to us freighted with the responsiveness of Toby and Trim to another's misfortunes; its point is the sympathy of which they are capable. But then sympathy is most graphic when it is not spoken, Toby and Trim not being the most competent handlers of words. It takes Tristram's narrative to describe ‘the several turns of looks and limbs’ that accompany the telling and reception of Le Fever's story: ‘fool that I was! nor can I recollect, (nor perhaps you) without (p.160) turning back to the place, what it was that hindered me from letting the corporal tell it in his own words;—but the occasion is lost,—I must tell it now in my own’ VI. v. 415–16). Narrative has to translate, has to make ‘plain words’ mediate the natural articulacy of feeling. And translation (a metaphor invoked throughout Tristram Shandy) is a matter of inference and induction—a freedom that comes with the acceptance of error. There is the understanding of which the likes of Toby and Trim are capable, signified in their gestures, their sighs, their looks, and there is the sociality of the text—the relationship between narrator and reader—through which that understanding is represented. Richardson attempted to produce the poignancy of sentiment in ‘writing to the moment’, which became writing which threatened to evade moralistic control. Sterne concedes that sentiment can only be glimpsed across the distance between a translator and an ‘original’; that while feeling is supposed to transcend words, it takes words (at once judicious and inaccurate) to translate sentiment. Tristram Shandy is writing away from the moment.
There have grown up literary-critical versions of Tristram Shandy as an anachronism, a modern novel before its time. To represent it as such, however, is to ignore the ways in which the novel's field of play and manoeuvre might have been fitted to the competence of its admiring eighteenth-century readers. ‘I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,—who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you’ (Tristram Shandy, I. iv. 7): Tristram Shandy is always admonishing incompetent or intemperate readers, but that does not mean that it is not colluding with those who are more deft. All those moralisms about the dangers of novels which get repeated through the eighteenth century take reading only for the ‘story’ as the trap into which the unwary fall. Sterne's satire on story-lovers exploits such rhetoric, and presumes a reader who will know better. It is this implied reader with whom Tristram Shandy establishes its sociality, a reader privileged to look down on the possibilities of misinterpret tation which the novel invokes. So the misunderstandings and noncommunications shown in Tristram Shandy are only apparent. Walter and Toby Shandy shake their heads over the behaviour of women in pregnancy, (p.161) but certainly since shaking of heads came into fashion, never did two heads shake together, in concert, from two such different springs.
Unknowing disagreement is resolved into intelligible gesture. Eccentric differences of perception are only eccentric—the accidental crossings of Walter's and Toby's reasonings are comic because the novel can trace the different paths by which they appear to arrive at the same point: ‘He was a very great man! added my uncle Toby; (meaning Stevinus)—He was so, brother Toby, said my father, (meaning Piereskius)’ (VI. ii. 410). Difference is referred to from a vantage-point from which it can be perfectly comprehended. There is nothing shews the characters of my father and my uncle Toby, in a more entertaining light, than their different manner of deportment, under the same accident’ (VIII. xxvi. 578). Helene Moglen is typical of many modern critics in seeing in this play of differences, this entertainment, an admirable pluralism: ‘there is never an absolute truth (only a number of possible points of view which must be balanced against one another)’.40 But although the novel does offer ‘opinions’ rather than truths, most of these come from Toby, Trim, and Walter and are the products of obsession. They are not offered to the reader as if they were adoptable perceptions. What is offered as exemplary, in the usual manner of sentimentalism, is the sympathy that can bridge the gulf between perceptions.
‘The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine’ (Tristram Shandy, II. xi. 109): whatever its promises of pluralism, Sterne's novel can only propose a sympathy which overrides monomania because it is authoritative enough to trace obsessions like Walter's and Toby's through their bizarre and specific involutions. The certainty of this legibility allows the narrator of Tristram Shandy ironically to project precisely the promise of pluralism to which I have just referred. For ‘so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the Kings highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind (p.162) him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?’ (I. vii. 13). The text makes much of accepting privatized fixation as an inevitable condition, but the reader of this is safe in the knowledge that obsessions are just private. They are self-containing (‘there is no disputing against HOBBY-HORSES’), and, in this novel, they are brought into the light of day by a narrative which sees them, follows them, socializes them. Sterne pilfered the singular vocabularies which possess members of the Shandy household from encyclopedias and reference books;41 they were intended to be recondite, deracinated, impractical. It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself as a proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand. This is of great use’ (II. xix. 151). The naturalization of monomania here involves the shift from ‘a man’ to ‘you’, a claim for the universality, and thus intelligibility, of obsession. Yet the ‘great use’ to which this form is put in Tristram Shandy necessarily involves the assurance of a distance between reading and the blindness of such obsession. For reading must be allowed to make sense of the differences and limited conflicts which are represented, and those in recent years who have detected the spectre of madness in this novel have failed to recognize how obsession is only introduced with a narrative which absolutely comprehends it, which plays upon it.42 The Hobby-Horse is an impediment to identification: we are to understand, not to share, the odd commitments of characters in Tristram Shandy. And we are to understand, too, that these characters are not quite the slaves of their vocabularies because they are bound together by more than words.
Tristram declares that he believes that
the hand of the supreme Maker and first Designer of all things, never made or put a family together…where the characters of it were cast or contrasted with so dramatic a felicity as ours was, for this end; or in which the capacities of affording such exquisite scenes, and the powers of shifting (p.163) them perpetually from morning to night, were lodged and intrusted with so unlimited a confidence, as in the SHANDY FAMILY, (III. xxxix. 236)
In this family is found the ‘felicity’ of contrast, of comprehensible difference. Scenes in this ‘whimsical theatre of ours’ are ‘exquisite’, a word meaning, in the eighteenth century, esoteric or finely wrought or sensibly felt. Sterne means all these: we are given, as if spectators, the fastidiously drawn drama of inclinations at once ludicrously eccentric and keenly felt. Walter has ‘exquisite feelings’ about noses and names; while these prompt him to reasonings incomprehensible except to him and the reader, they also provoke (with his son's name and nose both botched) the benign sympathy of Uncle Toby for his distress. In this world of obsessions, intense feeling is both ludicrous and admirable.
This is the trick of Sterne's sentimentalism. As the writer of Yorick's Skull (1777) had it, Tristram Shandy should be considered ‘rather as an admirable caricature of history, than an exact portrait of private life’—as a text which works by ‘alluring mankind with flattering deceptions, beyond the bounds of probability’.43 The fellow-feeling of which Walter, Toby, and Trim are capable does redeem the influence of obsession, leading R.F. Brissenden to write that against ‘the isolating and socially disruptive force of the hobbyhorse and the ruling passion Sterne sets the power of sympathy’44But then monomania and sympathy are also inextricable; as exercised in Tristram Shandy, they are equally ‘beyond the bounds of probability’. As Yorick's Skull goes on to say, the bonds of sympathy, like the influences of each hobby-horse, are extrapolated past the ‘usual’: ‘By carrying us beyond our usual feelings, he has taught us, that the human heart is capable of the greatest improvement; and that nature never feels herself more noble and exalted, than in the exercise of benevolence and humanity’.45 The finer feelings illustrated in Tristram Shandy—the tears of Toby or Trim; Walter at his most eloquent when words are not enough—are as whimsical as what passes for conversation or argument in Shandy Hall. Sterne privileges the truths of gesture over those of words, but it is wryly done; characters reveal their better instincts, their ‘benevolence and humanity’, in moments of innocence which are to be approved by a reader who is anything but innocent—a reader (p.164) tutored enough in the ways of narrative to recognize the untutored ‘human heart’.
Thus the use of Locke in Tristram Shandy—referring us to the mingled misunderstandings and sympathies of the Shandy household, but also to the understanding, the contract, between reader and narrator. The ‘sagacious Locke’ is mobilized to draw attention to that ‘fertile source of obscurity’ in Shandy Hall: ‘the unsteady uses of words which have perplexed the clearest and most exalted understandings’ (II. ii. 86). But Locke's concern with the ways in which words can fail, communication go awry, is appropriated by a narrative which can reveal obscurities, explain misunderstandings, show the sympathy that is supposed to transcend speech. References to Lockian epistemology are provided as only sham explanations of the eccentric preoccupations which Sterne describes. It is not necessary to possess a great deal of scholarly knowledge to have doubts about the seriousness with which Sterne does exploit Locke; the very tag ‘sagacious’ should be enough to arouse suspicions when it appears in a text which so satirizes deference to learning and literary precedent. The resources of scholarship can, however, confirm such suspicions. Melvyn New sees the question of the relation between ‘philosophy and literature’ as particularly problematic: ‘That we cannot even settle the most basic problem of whether Sterne agrees or disagrees with Locke is perhaps a strong indication that the question has not yet been asked in a manner that could produce a satisfying answer’.46 As he and Geoff Day have argued, there is little reason to believe that Sterne read Locke diligently; the evidence of specific borrowings suggests that Sterne might have arrived at his knowledge of the philosopher's writings through second-hand sources.47 Tristram, indeed, warns us of the easy availability of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding (misnaming the title in the process): ‘many, I know, quote the book, who have not read it’ (Tristram Shandy, II. ii. 85). Perhaps too few modern commentators have attended to Ferriar's dry remark of the 1790s: ‘It was not the business of Sterne to undeceive those, who considered his Tristram a work of unfathomable knowledge’.48 As Ferriar began to show, Tristram (p.165) Shandy is full of mangled erudition—plagiarisms calculated to make a virtue of the fragmentation of that ‘literature’ defined by Johnson in his Dictionary as ‘learning; skill in letters’. If Tristram Shandy was a newly opportunistic kind of literary commodity whose ideal was fashion, it was appropriate that it should play fast and loose with literary precedents, and improbable that Locke could ever be absolved from this process. Locke is not Sterne's intellectual mentor. His writings are invoked in order to show the superiority to such specialized philosophy of the descriptions that narrative can provide. And Locke is a particularly useful measure of the capacities of Sterne's narrative because, while he theorized the inconsistencies of thought and language, Tristram Shandy sets out to demonstrate how understanding can surmount private fixation and misapplied vocabulary.
Tristram Shandy first refers us to Locke for the description of ‘an unhappy association of ideas which have no connection in nature’ (I. iv. 9); in this case it is Mrs Shandy's association of the winding of the clock with ‘some other little family concernments’. Any editor of the novel will direct the reader to Locke's discussion of the ‘wrong Connexion in our Minds of Ideas in themselves, loose and independent one of another’.49 Locke seems to describe exactly the fixating form of association to which Toby, Walter, and the rest are prey:
Some of our Ideas have a natural Correspondence…Besides this there is another Connexion of Ideas wholly owing to Chance or Custom; Ideas that in themselves are not at all of kin, come to be so united in some Mens Minds, that ‘tis very hard to separate them, they always keep in company, and the one no sooner at any time comes into the Understanding but its Associate appears with it.50
Yet Locke characterizes the resultant ‘Unreasonableness’ as a ‘Madness’ which always threatens discourse, and which, if it prevails, will make ‘a Man…fitter for Bedlam, than Civil Conversation’. There is some kind of distance between this and the hobby-horses harmlessly ridden through the pages of Sterne's novel. What an editorial direction to the relevant passage from Locke's Essay can actually obscure is the bathos of the allusion.
This famous joke about the winding of the clock and the (p.166) associated sex life of Tristram's parents is less at the expense of Mrs Shandy, who after a while cannot dissociate the one from the other, than of her husband, whose ‘extreme exactness…to which he was in truth a slave’ leads to the connection of the two incongruous activities. And what is Walter Shandy but the book's very own ‘philosopher’? Always desiring ‘exactness’, he had ‘an itch in common with all philosophers, of reasoning upon every thing which happened, and accounting for it too’ (III. xviii. 189). It is into his mouth that Sterne puts the book's ‘most extensive borrowing from Locke’,51 the discussion of duration and its simple modes begun in Volume iii, Chapter 18. But we can scarcely take too seriously any explanation that he would repeat so religiously. And the narrative does not allow us to follow it seriously: his argument terminates only in Toby's complete failure to understand him. Though Walter is ‘in one of his best explanatory moods’, nothing is explained. He is brought up short in his ‘eager pursuit of a metaphysic point into the very regions where clouds and thick darkness would soon have encompassed it about’; Toby associates his brother's words with the military terminology on which he so often relies. The very process of habitual association on which Locke has commented has been set in motion to interrupt the paraphrase of Locke which Walter is producing. Not just bathos, but the matter of philosophical explanation made to frustrate its style. But then the authority of the philosophical text is constantly undermined by being tested against the special propensities of the members of the Shandy household. Locke's analysis of ‘the great and principal act of ratiocination in man’ is brought forward to explain Toby's strange ‘deportment’ as he listens to Walter's lecture on ‘his systems of noses’ (III. xl. 237–8). In fact, it can explain no such thing. Toby's ‘fancy’ is in excess of any thesis offered by the ‘great reasoner’. In a parody of Locke's warnings about the dangers of metaphorical language, Toby is shown transforming Walter's figures of speech according to the dictates of his own obsessions. The customary errors against which Locke so seriously warned intervene to upset the application of his analysis of measurement and judgement. Examples of how parts of Locke's Essay are deflated by their introduction into Tristram Shandy are many and various, and almost all of them (as above) refer the reader to the explanation of misunderstanding and miscommunication. (p.167) The Essay concerning Human Understanding is used as if it will clarify failed acts of speech or interpretation; in fact, it falters before them.
There is one point at which the rejection of Locke as a proper guide to thought and language is made quite explicit. The ‘Author's Preface’ which appears half-way through Volume iii of Tristram Shandy promises that the book will provide ‘all the wit and judgment (be it more or less) which the great author and bestower of them had thought it fit originally to give me’ (III. xx. 193): ‘wit and judgment in this world never go together; inasmuch as they are two operations differing from each other as wide as east is from west.—So, says Locke,—so are farting and hickuping, say I.’ Locke had argued that ‘judgment’, which involved the careful discrimination of ideas, was incompatible with ‘wit’, which was defined as lying most in the assemblage of Ideas, and putting those together with quickness and variety, wherein can be found any resemblance or congruity, thereby to make up pleasant Pictures, and agreeable Visions in the Fancy’.52 Wit’ should be dissociated from ‘judgment’ because the former involved ‘Metaphor and Allusion’ which might provide ‘entertainment and pleasantry’ but which were not ‘conformable’ to the ‘Rules of Truth, and good Reason’.53 Locke characterized ‘Figurative Speech’ as ‘an Abuse of Language’,54 a succumbing to opportunistic association which could only corrupt proper communication. In order to assert that ‘wit and judgment’ are ‘indubitably both made and fitted to go together’, Tristram Shandy contradicts Locke in the manner of its explanation, reflecting at inordinate length on an improbable analogy between these faculties and the ‘curious’ but symmetrical ‘ornaments’ on the back of the chair ‘I am this moment sitting upon’ (III. xx. 200–1). As it pursues the metaphor over several paragraphs, the text does not just contradict Locke, it also refuses to obey the Lockian stipulations for a reasonable discourse. This over-insistent pursuit, like most of the text's engagements with Locke, directs us to an anxiety which runs through Book III of the Essay concerning Human Understanding. Whimsically applied metaphor is one example of the unreasonable or eccentric association of ideas against which Locke wished to guard. For rrim, words should be tethered to the (p.168) privately conceived ideas that they were to recreate in the mind of another:
To make Words serviceable to the end of Communication, it is necessary…that they excite, in the Hearer, exactly the same Idea, they stand for in the Mind of the Speaker. Without this, Men fill one another's Heads with noise and sounds; but convey not thereby their Thoughts, and lay not before one another their Ideas, which is the end of Discourse and Language.55
Of course, inappropriate ideas are always being excited in each other's minds by the inhabitants of Shandy Hall. But this is demonstrated not to confirm but to relieve Locke's worries about the inconsistencies of words. Sterne's characters can rely on bonds of unspeakable sympathy; the reader of Tristram Shandy can rely on the ability of the narrative to reveal the pressures of fixation and the paths of misunderstanding which are special to the enclosed world of ‘Shandyism’.
Walter, Toby, and Trim are not inhabiting some Lockian nightmare of unmeaning ‘noise and sounds’. In their odd, but intelligibly consistent, customs of conversation they point up the incapacities of Locke's theory of language. A contemporary philosopher puts the obvious objection to Locke like this:
Since thoughts cannot be formulated whether inwardly or outwardly unless there are ways of formulating them, that is, unless a language is already presupposed, it follows that Locke's epistemological units must already be functioning as crypto-linguistic units before he comes formally to consider language at all. His official account of language is thus in a way redundant.56
Sterne's characters are indeed incapable of thoughts which are not fixed to particular, if strange, vocabularies. They are attached to the world by the metaphors and allusions on which they rely, and which protect them against death, discord, and disaster. They are not mad, first because they are attached to each other by sympathy, and second because they are innocents whose limited ways with words are displayed to a reader who has to be sophisticated to comprehend their transparent instincts.
The reader is constituted as knowledgeable not by any deep familiarity with learned texts, but simply by complicity with the (p.169) narrative's confidences—by the sociality of the novel. One of the effects, in fact, of the rhetoric of the narrative is to subvert pretensions to the knowledge that is erudition:
You see as plain as can be, that I write as a man of erudition;—that even my similes, my allusions, my illustrations, my metaphors, are erudite,—and that I must sustain my character properly, and contrast it properly too,—else what would become of me? Why, Sir, I should be undone;—at this very moment that I am going here to fill up one place against a critick,—I should have made an opening for a couple. (Tristram Shandy, II. ii. 85)
The irony is signalled by having this addressed to ‘Sir Critick’, for the understanding reader is anybody but one of the pedants whom the text treats with mock deference: ‘Gentlemen, I kiss your hands’ (p. 84). It is the ‘Critick’ who is invited to consider the relevance of Locke's Essay, and given enough to compose a pretence of erudition: ‘It is a history-book, Sir, (which may possibly recommend it to the world) of what passes in a man's own mind; and if you will say so much of the book, and no more, believe me, you will cut no contemptible figure in a metaphysic circle.’ It is the ‘Gentle critick’ who is told of Locke in order to be shown what ‘the confusion in my uncle Toby's discourse…did not arise from’ (p. 86):
THERE is nothing so foolish, when you are at the expence of making an entertainment of this kind, as to order things so badly, as to let your criticks and gentry of refined taste run it down: Nor is there any thing so likely to make them do it, as that of leaving them out of the party, or, what is full as offensive, of bestowing your attention upon the rest of your guests in so particular a way, as if there was no such thing as a critick (by occupation) at table, (p. 84)
The ‘critick’ is the representative of pedantic (and probably scanty) learning, and the moralizer on narrative impropriety; in later volumes ‘he’ is also to be quite specifically the hostile reviewer or lampooner of Tristram Shandy. The knowledgeable reader has to be somebody else.
Locke put into the hands of the ‘critick’ is never going to reveal much. But then it takes the critick to believe that Locke could be a sufficient guide. The reader who is not the critick will trust more to Tristram's ability to demonstrate the commitment to saving metaphors which qualifies the inhabitants of Shandy Hall as innocents. This narrator tells us of a world in which confusion reigns (p.170) but is also contained. Locke's scheme is implied when we are told of Uncle Toby's problem—"Twas not by ideas,—by heaven! his life was put in jeopardy by words’ (II. ii. 87)—but the hyperbole of this signals the reader's innoculation against the same confusions. The cadence of mock-concern defuses Lockian regrets because it is a reminder of the distance between Toby's simple, ingenuous ‘perplexities’ and the knowing confidences and nudges which pass from narrator to reader. It is this distance which allows another rebuff to Locke, the production of feeling, sentiment, that which can hardly be spoken, as a criterion of unanimity. For it is unworldliness, artlessness, that gives rise to overflowing sentiments, eloquent gestures, fraternal sympathy. Walter scorns Toby's hobbyhorse, his innocent obsession, only to succumb to fellow feeling:
[Uncle Toby] look’d up into my father's face, with a countenance spread over with so much good nature;—so placid;—so fraternal;—so inexpressibly tender towards him;—it penetrated my father to his heart: He rose up hastily from his chair, and seizing hold of both my uncle Toby's hands as he spoke:—brother Toby, said he,—I beg thy pardon;—forgive, I pray thee, this rash humour which my mother gave me. (ii. xii. 115)
Walter's association of his ‘rash humour’ with his mother is not arbitrary: fellow-feeling is largely a male prerogative in this novel. Tristram Shandy is punctuated by these rushes of sentiment, restoring a harmony which words have supposedly unsettled; the harmony is of a rather special kind—men neutered, segregated from women, the door closed behind them.
They depend on words, of course, but also on the meaningful look or the eloquent tear: the currency of sentimentalism. It is when they are silent that they best communicate. Trim, in his attempt to read out a sermon, is drawn into the story of his brother's fate at the hands of the Inquisition: ‘—The tears trickled down Trim's cheeks faster than he could well wipe them away.—A dead silence in the room ensued for some minutes.—Certain proof of pity!’ (II. xvii. 125). Stricken by the disaster of the crushing of his son's nose, which is also an irony at the expense of his ‘philosophy’ of noses, Walter eventually looks up from the bed where he has lain ‘as if the hand of death had pushed him down’, to see the silent Toby: ‘My father, in turning his eyes, was struck with such a gleam of sun-shine in his face, as melted down the sullenness of his grief in a moment’ (IV. ii. 274). Toby's vocabulary may be restricted, but he does not have to rely on words:
(p.171) There was a frankness in my uncle Toby,—not the effect of familiarity,—but the cause of it,—which let you at once into his soul, and shewed you the goodness of his nature; to this, there was something in his looks, and voice, and manner, superadded, which eternally beckoned to the unfortunate to come and take shelter under him. (VI. x. 426)
The very impediments to speech, Toby's lack of talents ‘that way’, allow, so the story goes, for a more fundamental communication. And that communication is ever-visible: ‘My uncle Toby stole his hand unperceived behind his chair, to give my fathers a squeeze’ (VII. xxxiii. 586). The benevolent gaze, the clasping hand, the moistening eye: these are not just ready defences when words fail; they are more poignant communications than words can possibly manage.
But then there is an irony in this, which can be stated with reference to Yorick's characterization, in A Sentimental Journey, of a communication deeper than can be accomplished by speech:
There are certain combined looks of simple subtlety—where whim, and sense, and seriousness, and nonsense, are so blended, that all the language of Babel set loose together could not express them—they are communicated and caught so instantaneously, that you can scarce say which party is the infecter. I leave it to your men of words to swell pages about it. (p. 168)
The rhetorical suggestion is that the signifier (the look, the gesture) can exist in all innocence, detached, for a special moment, from the words which hamper expression. An irony of Tristram Shandy is that Tristram is one of these ‘men of words’ (though the words are often jolted from other contexts, other commentators). Much in Tristram Shandy, like the uncomprehending gesture which Toby offers Mrs Wadman when she asks about the location of his wound, ‘requires a second translation’, showing ‘what little knowledge is got by mere words—we must go up to the first springs’ (IX. xx. 624). Sterne's narrator provides translations, decoding obsessions and gestures. His narrative, his garrulous commentary, lets the reader into the secret of expressions which defy words, and can do so because these expressions are the prerogative of those who are (admirably and ludicrously) innocent. The text eludes questions about whether its sentimentalism is ‘sincere’ or not by exploiting (and not, like Richardson, agonizing over) the distance between the reader it presumes and the paragons of feeling it describes. This means that Sterne has shrugged off the usual duty of sentimentalism: (p.172) the teaching of virtue. ‘Nasty trifling’, F.R. Leavis called it;57 given his belief in the moral duties of literature, the description is not so far from the mark.
Those who feel most strongly, and weep most readily, are Toby and Trim: The heart, both of the master and the man, were alike subject to sudden overflowings’ (VIII xix. 568). Such overflowings mean that the ‘story of the king of Bohemia’, which they interrupt, gives way unfinished to the account of Trim's war wound, but, as they disrupt the anecdote, they seal the consanguinity of reciprocal ‘feeling’. More than a preoccupation with the stories of regiments and sieges, ‘the master and the man’ have in common the willingness to shed a sentimental tear. The thought that they might provide for ‘poor Le Fevers son’ finds in the’m the same unrestrained instinct: ‘A tear of joy of the first water sparkled in my uncle Tobys eye,—and another, the fellow to it, in the corporal's’ (VI. v. 415). This sets up the story of Le Fever, Sterne's celebrated ‘beauty’, which illuminates the shared feeling of Toby and Trim:
I never in the longest march, said the corporal, had so great a mind to my dinner, as I had to cry with him for company:—What could be the matter with me, an please your honour? Nothing in the world, Trim, said my uncle Toby, blowing his nose,—but that thou art a good natured fellow, (vi. vii. 420)
There is something staged about this, but then Sterne was happy to take credit for a description of artlessness which testified to his artful abilities. He wrote, early in 1762, to a ‘Lady D—‘:
‘Le Fever's story has beguiled your ladyship of your tears’, and the thought of the accusing spirit flying up heaven's chancery with the oath, you are kind enough to say is sublime—my friend, Mr Garrick, thinks so too, and I am most vain of his approbation—your ladyship's opinion adds not a little to my vanity.58
The ascription of meaning to innocent experiences of feeling is a matter for the sophisticated, not the ingenuous, novelist.
Complimented warmly by Toby in the midst of his story of his brother Tom, Trim's speech falters:
The Corporal blush’d down to his fingers ends—a tear of sentimental bashfulness—another of gratitude to my uncle Toby—and a tear of sorrow (p.173) for his brother's misfortunes, started into his eye and ran sweetly down his cheek together; my uncle Toby's kindled as one lamp does at another; and taking hold of the breast of Trim's coat (which had been that of Le Fevre's) as if to ease his lame leg, but in reality to gratify a finer feeling—he stood silent for a minute and a half. (IX. v. 605)
The narrative here ascribes impossibly precise significance to each tear, making what is not spoken attain an articulacy beyond Trim's powers of speech. It makes it plain that it is telling us what Trim could not tell us himself. But this excess of interpretation can hardly be taken as a satire upon sentimentalism. Trim's tears accompany the story of his brother's imprisonment by the Inquisition, a story that he has been struggling to tell throughout the novel, and that has been reliably reducing him to tears each time. On the first occasion, much to the chagrin of Dr Slop, it prepares Trim's audience for his oration of a sermon which attacks the ‘Romish church’, and which is punctuated by Trim's expressions of anguish at his brother's fate: ‘My father's and my uncle Toby's hearts yearn’d with sympathy for the poor fellow's distress, —even Slop himself acknowledged pity for him’ (II. xvii. 138). Biography tells us not only that the anti-Catholic implications of Trim's emotional reading are at one with Sterne's own politics, but also that the sermon which triggers Trim's tearful story of his brother was one which Sterne himself delivered to a large congregation in York Minster.59 The story of Trim's brother, and the servant's tears, are allowed to make more affecting one of Sterne's own sermons: 1 should have read it ten times better, Sir, answered Trim, but that my heart was so full.—That was the very reason, Trim, replied my father, which has made thee read the sermon as well as thou hast done’ (II. xvii. 140–1). As one critic puts it, Trim does not get anything out of the text that was not put there by Sterne. His sentimental reaction emphasizes the sentimental aspect of what he reads.’60
To read is not necessarily to cry with Trim. The ability to weep that he demonstrates is praised by Toby—Tears are no proof of cowardice, Trim.—I drop them oft-times myself, cried my uncle Toby’ (IV. iv. 275)—but the readiness proceeds from an innocence (p.174) which the text exploits rather than shares. The delivery of the sermon, republished in The Sermons of Mr Yorick of 1766, is a nice illustration. Trim is permitted reactions sparked by Sterne's serious, didactic composition, but reactions which could never have been part of the original delivery of that sermon. This does not mean that either Trim's reading or the content of the sermon is degraded; Trim's is a proper response, but an untutored one. Significantly, The Monthly Review praised the strategy whereby the sermon and the response were incorporated into Tristram Shandy: The address with which he has introduced an excellent moral sermon, into a work of this nature (by which expedient, it will probably be read by many who would peruse a sermon in no other form) is masterly.’61 It is of Sterne's design that Trim and Toby should be foolish and yet capable of sentimental articulacy. Certainly, eighteenth-century readers found it easy enough to admire them—not as models of attainable virtue, but as examples of how an elegant text could reach to the heart of simple and unpolished feeling.
Sterne is cannier than any other sentimentalist about acknowledging the gap between the artlessness of his protaganists and the sophistication that he presumes in his reader. He looks to gesture as an instinctually communicative act, but he surrounds it with allusions to theories of gestural representation. In Tristram Shandy, the body's eloquence, in which the novel of sentiment always puts its trust, comes wrapped in references to other writings on painting, oratory, or drama. Some of these secondary discourses come in for satire—in particular the criticism that would reduce communication to a grammatical system. So one of the roles played by the ‘Excellent critic’ sardonically invoked throughout the novel is that of the obtusely attentive analyst who is insensitive to eloquence. Flattering his sponsor and newly acquired friend into the bargain, Sterne gives the reader this version of a criticism incapable of the act of interpretation:
—And how did Garrick speak the soliloquy last night?—Oh, against all rule, my Lord,—most ungrammatically! betwixt the substantive and the adjective, which should agree together in number, case and gender, he made a breach thus,—stopping, as if the point wanted settling;—and betwixt the nominative case, which your lordship knows should govern the verb, he suspended his voice in the epilogue a dozen times, three seconds and three (p.175) fifths by a stop-watch, my Lord, each time.—Admirable grammarian!—But in suspending his voice—was the sense suspended likewise? Did no expression of attitude or countenance fill up the chasm?—Was the eye silent? Did you narrowly look?—I look’d only at the stop-watch, my Lord.—Excellent observer! (Tristram Shandy, III. xii. 180).
Sterne credited Garrick with ‘some magick, irresisted power’ released ‘feelingly’ on stage with the vibrations of ‘every Fibre about your heart’;62 he is the standard for the gesture which touches ‘the nerves’,63 the meaning that the critic cannot perceive.
He is also, however, the standard for the elusiveness of gesture. When Walter Shandy strikes an explanatory posture for the benefit of Toby, the first reference is to painting: ‘My father instantly exchanged the attitude he was in, for that in which Socrates is so finely painted by Raffael in his school of Athens; which your connoisseurship knows is so exquisitely imagined, that even the particular manner of the reasoning of Socrates is expressed by it’ (IV. vii. 278). The excessively grand comparison (Walter Shandy is, after all, reflecting on the importance of noses) leads to an invocation which is not just flattery: ‘—O Garrick! what a rich scene of this would thy exquisite powers make!’ The novel can make a ‘rich scene’ only by bathetic analogy. ‘Nature…by an instantaneous impulse, in all provoking cases, determines us to a sally of this or that member—or else she thrusts us into this or that place, or posture of body, we know not why’ (IV. xvii. 293): the ‘impulse’ which possesses Walter is given as allusive parody—a moment at which the text undermines the ideal of that meaning which is immediate, artless, from the body. As if as a reminder that the clarity of gesture which Sterne's characters occasionally discover is as improbable and inimitable as the obsessions which regulate their speech, it is entangled with the methods and examples that others have used to describe expressiveness. Tristram Shandy is thick with reflections on the means by which wordless expression has been mediated, theorized, and put into words upon words.
The comparison between Walter's posture and that of Socrates in Raphael's painting is addressed to ‘your connoisseurship’, and it is the ‘connoisseur’, ‘befetish’d with the bobs and trinkets of criticism’, who is imagined applying his ‘rules and compasses’ to Garrick's (p.176) soliloquy. The reader is presumed to know better than this pedant, blinded by a language of rules and precedents. Yet Sterne needs his own precedents: his attack on the ‘Admirable connoisseur’, practitioner of ‘the cant of criticism’ (III. xii. 182), is lifted from Joshua Reynolds's essay in The Idler of September 1759.64 Both Reynolds and Hogarth, the other contemporary painter whose writings Sterne cites, use the ‘connoisseur’ as the model of a debased critic, their reliance upon the ‘remembrance of a few names of painters, with their general characters’ denying them ‘any pleasure from the polite arts’.65 Sterne is not expelling theories of visual representation from his text; he is using one theory to satirize others.
What Sterne exploits is a tactic common to the writings of both Reynolds and Hogarth. Reynolds lambasts the ‘cant of criticism’ and the slavish addiction of the ‘connoisseur’ to the norms which criticism has dictated, but his contempt is not for rules and precedents as such. In his artistic practice, as well as in his later Discourses, he dedicated himself to the justification and revivifying of classical models. Hogarth, although commonly supposed to have been Reynolds's theoretical antagonist (the passage from the Idler which Sterne lifts contains a veiled attack on Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty),66 shares the habit of constituting a viewer unburdened by precepts as the best kind of reader of his theory. In The Analysis of Beauty of 1753, to which Sterne explicitly refers in Tristram Shandy, Hogarth declares that ‘those, who have no bias of any kind, either from their own practice, or the lessons of others, are fittest to examine into the truth of the principles laid down in the following pages’.67 His purpose is to ‘teach us to see with our own eyes’,68 though it takes his expertise to achieve it—only one endowed with ‘a practical knowledge of the whole art of painting’ is fitted to pursue an enquiry into the ‘grace and beauty’ of pictorial representation.69 The aspiration of sophisticated, opinionated theory and practice is to teach a supposedly unbiased vision, and theory becomes necessary to debunk what is falsely theoretical. It is a useful ideal for Sterne, for he is trying to create his own unbiased reader, assured of (p.177) being judicious by not being the ‘connoisseur’. Falsely learned criticism is always going to be the guarantee of the novel's ‘sociality’ with a desirably unprejudiced reader.
This does not mean that the references to Reynolds or Hogarth are given as unironical guidance. William Holtz has argued that Sterne refers to Hogarth's analysis in a spirit of ‘genial criticism’—though ‘genial’ is what it has to be, as Sterne still persuaded Hogarth to provide two illustrations for his novel.70 Holtz identifies, rightly, the inappropriateness of applying Hogarth's theory of pictorial composition to the postures of the likes of Trim, the point of which is their spontaneity; he detects ‘Sterne's suspicion of Hogarth's theories’, and of their pretensions ‘to reduce nature to rules’.71 It is true, as another critic has put it, that ‘Sterne's main concern is not to create a visual effect but to play with a fashionable jargon’,72 but this is not simply to satirize that ‘jargon’. Tristram Shandy cannot mimic the innocent spontaneity of its characters. Their gestures are swaddled in allusion and analogy because they are not immediately available; the devices which concentrate our minds on the dispositions of their bodies remind us that these come mediated by expertise which the inhabitants of Shandy Hall can never possess. The expertise may be questionable, but the innocence which allows the body to speak is unattainable. Thus it is that Sterne uses Hogarth unlike any of his contemporaries. Hogarth is referred to in the novels of Fielding and Smollett, but it is his art and not his theory that is used. In Tom Jones, for example, Fielding writes of Miss Bridget:
The Lady, no more than her Lover, was remarkable for Beauty. I would attempt to draw her Picture; but that is done already by a more able Master, Mr Hogarth himself, to whom she sat many Years ago, and hath been lately exhibited by that Gentleman in his Print of a Winters Morning, of which she was no improper Emblem.’73
In contrast, Sterne cites Hogarth the theoretician: not the pictorial equivalent to a verbal description, but the discourse which distances and abstracts the visual even as it attempts to define it.
(p.178) In the Analysis, Hogarth's expertise is devoted to the representation of what is natural—an ideal for pictorial art, but an impossible one: ‘Who but a bigot, even to the antiques, will say that he has not seen faces and necks, hands and arms in living women, that even the Grecian Venus doth but coarsely imitate?’74 The artist is to strive, never with complete success, to reproduce naturally eloquent forms, an example of which is, significantly, taken to be the woman's body. When Sterne's search for natural gesture is pursued into his Sentimental Journey, that ‘quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE’ (p. 219), ‘NATURE’ is found in the untutored serving-women. The discovery produces an odd drama of erotic encounter, and I will return to this. It also extends Tristram Shandy's provision of gestural expression as the prerogative of those who know no better: in A Sentimental Journey, the ‘children’ of ‘Labour’ (p. 268); in Tristram Shandy, the ingenuously speech-befuddled members of the Shandy household. If Sterne exploits Hogarth's Analysis wryly, it is because he shares Hogarth's perception of natural eloquence as that appreciated by those (not connoisseurs, but unbiased viewers) who know too much to be able simply to reproduce it. Spontaneity has to be constructed; the body's unlaboured attitudes take much labour to describe.
Tristram Shandy is not a text to aspire to pictorial immediacy. Everywhere it parodies the conventions of what B. Rogerson has called ‘the pathetic style’, ‘an elaborate theory of the representation of the passions by their outward visible or audible signs’.75 We can be sure that any such theory is at least questionable because it is the recourse of Tristram's father when he comes to reflect, with the usual displays of obscure and inappropriate learning, on the nature of the proper tutor for Tristram. In selecting the best candidate, he tells Toby and Yorick, he will look for ‘a certain mien and motion of the body and all its parts, both in acting and speaking, which argues a man well within’ (VI. v. 414). ‘There are a thousand unnoticed openings, continued my father, which let a penetrating eye at once into a man's soul; and I maintain it, added he, that a man of sense does not let lay down his hat in coming into a room, —or take it up in going out of it, but something escapes, which discovers him.’ He (p.179) goes on to list all the bodily movements and facial expressions that he will not accept in the governor of his son, and Toby's response is for once appropriate: ‘Now this is all nonsense again, quoth my uncle Toby to himself’ (p. 415). Walter takes his specifications to an eccentric extreme, but he pursues a tendency which the text has already parodied when it has pretended to an impossible precision. ‘[Sterne's] technique verges on parody by virtue of its extreme movement towards the pictorial ideal. Detail is piled upon detail as Tristram makes discrimination after subtle discrimination, and the whole approaches unintelligibility’76
The best-known example of what Holtz calls ‘mock pictorial’ delineation is the description of the attitude that Trim adopts to read Yorick's sermon77—what Brissenden refers to as ‘the excessively detailed account’ of his ‘oratorical stance’.78 As is the way of this text, the description is not just given, it is addressed to those too ignorant or pedantic to expect any irony:
He stood before them with his body swayed, and bent forwards just so far, as to make an angle of 85 degrees and a half upon the plain of the horizon;—which sound orators, to whom I address this, know very well, to be the true persuasive angle of incidence;—in any other angle you may talk and preach;—‘tis certain,—and it is done every day;—but with what effect,—I leave the world to judge! (II. xvii. 122)
The text purports to explain ‘The necessity of this precise angle of 85 degrees and a half to a mathematical exactness’, though it cannot explain how Trim could have enacted eloquence so perfectly: ‘so swayed his body, so contrasted his limbs, and with such an oratorical sweep throughout the whole figure,—a statuary might have modelled from it’ (p. 123). The scene of Trim's oration was one of those illustrated by Hogarth, who could not have felt that the fact of Trim's adventitiously falling into an attitude ‘within the limits of the line of beauty’ (a phrase taken from his Analysis) was too mocking of his theory. After all, the passage makes its jokes out of a gap between the natural and the pictorial that Hogarth acknowledges. The description is a parody of pictorial precision, but this is parody to which Sterne is committed. If there is no original moment of unmediated demonstration—of gesture exactly transcribed—then parody is what is left.
(p.180) Tristram Shandy makes an offer that only the self-regarding ‘sound orator’ or the bungling ‘connoisseur’ would be foolish enough to accept. It offers to freeze and make formulaic the gesture that it tells us is spontaneously eloquent. The irony of this offer is not usually to be discovered in novels of sentiment, which in even their less imitative versions precisely seek to make gesture repeatable and dependable—to make formulaic a symptom which can be recognized and translated. Even in the most whimsical liberties that it takes, Sterne's novel cannot pretend quite to capture the significance of what is without words. The drawing of Trim's ‘flourish with his stick’ (IX. iv. 604) is a moment of textual extravagance which seems appropriately to reflect the expansiveness of the gesture, but it is also an uncontrived, impromptu, simply momentary movement stopped and made reproducible. It looks like a sign of the inadequacy of words, but words (the concentrated premonitions of Toby and Trim about the effects of marriage) surround it and give it its meaning—‘A thousand of my father's most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy’. We can refer to Hogarth again for an idea of how lines like the one Trim is supposed to create can be eloquent: ‘having formed the idea of all movements being as lines, it will not be difficult to conceive, that grace in action depends upon the same principles as have been shewn to produce it in forms’.79 Here he makes action and representation one, but Trim's flourish can be taken to show the impossibility of this conflation. It is not made according to ‘principles’. The pictograph is Sterne's flourish, but it is a sign that gesture is unreachable and inimitable.
Sterne might derive humour from the non-fulfilment of a promise of meaning immediately available in a gesture, but this is fatalism rather than a destruction of the ideal of the sentiment which the body might speak. Where the failed attempt to make meaning visible is knowingly ludicrous, it also strives for poignancy. Again we have the running paradox: the bearers of feeling—Trim, Toby, Walter, even Yorick—are imagined as at once absurd and admirable. Take another example of ‘the corporal's eloquence’. Upon the news of the death of Bobby, Tristram's permanently invisible brother, we are given the response of the servants—the tableau in the kitchen which echoes that in the parlour. At its centre is Trim, and his speech and (p.181) gestures. Trim enacts the terrible truism of mortality by dropping his hat to the ground: “Twas infinitely striking!” (V. vii. 361). His fellow servants burst into tears. We may suspect that those who weep are more ingenuous than we can be, but also that eighteenth-century readers willing to cherish the tale of Le Fever would not have found the tableau ridiculous. Indeed, the passage in which it is described was given in Enfield's The Speaker as another of those elegant (because sentimental) extracts that he took from Sterne.80 What Enfield did not cite was what follows—the narrator's explanation of the impact of the ‘eloquence’ he has described. This explanation is in the habitual style of mock elucidation which is applied to pictorial detail elsewhere in the novel, and as such deflates the pathos of the scene. But it also implies its own inability to catch the gesture that signifies common mortality, and thus, in the very midst of comic deflation, discovers another kind of poignancy. Trim is supposed to be eloquent about loss, and the narrative has lost even the impression of that eloquence.
To be clear, here is the beginning of that reflection on the manner and effects of Trim's oratory:
Now as I perceive plainly, that the preservation of our constitution in church and state,—and possibly the preservation of the whole world—or what is the same thing, the distribution and balance of its property and power, may in time to come depend greatly upon the right understanding of this stroke of the corporal's eloquence—I do demand your attention, —your worships and reverences, for any ten pages together, take them where you will in any other part of the work, shall sleep for it at your ease. (v. vii. 361)
The hyperbole of this, and the mock solemnity of its address to ‘your worships and reverences’, encourage the discovery of bathos in the scene: Trim, ‘falling instantly into the same attitude in which he read the sermon’, is perhaps acting out a part which his fellow servants cannot see through. The discovery seems complete if we recognize that the exaggerated claims of this explanation echo those made by the fashionable lecturer on oratory Thomas Sheridan, whose theoretical writings were designed to puff his own lectures, and to assert that ‘oratory’ and ‘elocution’ were vital ‘to the support of our constitution, both in church, and state’.81 The text admits that there (p.182) is ‘nothing’ in Trim's words:’ “Are we not here now, —and gone in a moment?”—There was nothing in the sentence—‘twas one of your self-evident truths we have the advantage of hearing every day; and if Trim had not trusted more to his hat than his head—he had made nothing at all of it’ (v. vii. 362) But if there is something that makes the sentence mean more than its words, the achievement of that meaning (to which the text sardonically directs the attention of ‘Ye who govern this mighty world and its mighty concerns with the engines of eloquence’) is still elusive. The narrative keeps repeating Trim's sentence, exhausting it in the apparent search for significance.
—‘Are we not here now’—continued the corporal, ‘and are we not’— (dropping his hat plum upon the ground—and pausing, before he pronounced the word)—‘gone! in a moment?’ The descent of the hat was as if a heavy lump of clay had been kneaded into the crown of it. —Nothing could have expressed the sentiment of mortality, of which it was the type and forerunner, like it, —his hand seemed to vanish from under it, —it fell dead, —the corporal's eye fix’d upon it, as upon a corps,—and Susannah burst into a flood of tears? (v. vii. 362)
The gesture is supposed to be sufficiently articulate, yet, in the narrative's usual mode of descriptive detail excessively or obstructively provided, it is characterized by not being one of a sequence of unimaginable alternatives (‘had he dropped it like a goose—like a puppy—like an ass’). Its ‘effect upon the heart’ could be laughable; perhaps Trim's fellow servants are too easily coerced—‘driven, like turkeys to market’. But it is rather the tyranny of explanation that is mocked, while, in the process, the ideal of expressing ‘the sentiment of mortality’—that fact to which Trim at least has some response—slips away.
With all its layers of rhetoric—of pretended deference or implied confidentiality—Tristram Shandy can invite ‘close reading’; it also, famously, parodies the complacent pedantry of commentators and critics. Even as the narrative lingers on the fall of Trim's hat, perhaps I have lingered on it too long. The ironies of the episode are, though, a guide to the ways in which the ‘sociality’ of this novel is used, and to the distinctiveness of Sterne's version of sentiment escaping words. In the introduction to his edition of the Sentimental Journey, Gardner Stout writes of Tristram Shandy that ‘Walter, Toby, and (p.183) the reader speak languages which are largely foreign to one another, but they do succeed in communicating their sensations out of their own spheres, largely through the mysterious operation of intuition and sympathy, aided by look and gesture.’82 The ‘operation of intuition and sympathy’ is indeed a narrative necessity, but Tristram Shandy has to take on the cadences of parody (over-explanation, redundant analysis) to provide what is not spoken. Sentimental writing of the period typically employs a repertoire of signs: tears, sighs, blushes, the clasping of hands, the benevolent gaze. With the dropping of Trim's hat, or the waving of his stick, Tristram Shandy goes beyond the conventional deployment of gestures. The novel has accepted that the processes by which the characters can be thought to communicate with each other, and those by which the text communicates with its reader, must be incommensurable.
Tristram Shandy has other ways of distancing its reader from the displays of feeling that it presents. Like every novel of sentiment, it creates a special domain in which ‘intuition and sympathy’ can operate. It is conventional in the literature of the period for those possessed of sensibility to seek (usually rural) retreats, havens in which they can try to live on vegetables and sentiment. Tristram Shandy also idealizes a space in which sympathy can work, though it takes the idealization to the verge of absurdity. The bowling-green where Toby and Trim obsessively act out their war games is emblematic of the space that Sterne has created for his ‘whimsical theatre’: conflict innocently parodied and domesticated behind the yew-hedge. This conflict made harmless is surprisingly, fruitfully metaphorical. The language of the bloodless enactment of the War of the Spanish Succession becomes also the language of the courtship of Toby and the Widow Wadman, with her dangerous eye ‘exactly like a cannon’ (VIII. xxv. 577). Her ‘attack’ upon uncle Toby, like his upon the model of Dendermond, is a parody of ruses and battles which take place elsewhere—for Toby's wound and his innocence exclude even desire. In Toby's domain, innocence is the rule. He is safe from ‘the world’: ‘The world is ashamed of being virtuous—My uncle Toby knew little of the world’ (VIII. xxvii. 580). Even obsession and misunderstanding safeguard him and his fellows: what struggles can there be if each is content riding a different hobby-horse? Shandy Hall is where battles are always being parodied. Thus the (p.184) importance of symbolic male impotence (‘nothing was well hung in our family’). A major conflict in the novels of Richardson, Mackenzie, and the rest is between the representatives of feeling and of desire. The formula is repeated in many of Sterne's letters, like that written to William Stanhope in September 1767: ‘praised be God for my sensibility! Though it has often made me wretched, yet I would not exchange it for all the pleasures the grossest sensualist ever felt.’83 What Tristram Shandy does is to exclude sensuality, and to emphasize the innocence, and so the inimitability, of those who can feel.
‘The world’ is that of which Toby knows little; it is also that to which Sterne's novel rhetorically abandons itself. When, in Chapter xx of the third volume of Tristram Shandy, we are belatedly provided with its ‘preface’, it commences thus: ‘No, I’ll not say a word about it,—here it is;—in publishing it,—I have appealed to the world,—and to the world I leave it;—it must speak for itself’ (III. xx. 192). We know from biography, and many of Sterne's eighteenth-century readers would have known from reputation, that if ‘the world’ be the realm of fashion, prejudice, and prestige, the act of abandonment was neither ingenuous nor fatalistic. Even by the third volume (which meant the second instalment), the book had become a fashionable object. It was part of ‘the world’. But ‘the world’ is a convenient fiction: it is everybody except the particular reader; it is critics and connoisseurs. Toby does not have to enter ‘the world’, and, by another act of exclusion, neither does the sympathetic reader. To read properly, cleverly (it is implied) is not to be one of those obtuse judges that the text invokes:
As for great wigs, upon which I may be thought to have spoken my mind too freely,—I beg leave to qualify whatever has been unguardedly said to their dispraise or prejudice, by one general declaration—That I have no abhorrence whatever, nor do I detest and abjure either great wigs or long beards…peace be with them…I write not for them. (pp. 202–23)
The absorption of and satire on antagonistic readings of his novel was the means by which Sterne fought a campaign against the critics. It is also a device for the text's coherence; the ‘sociality’ of reader and text is implied in the address to those for whom the book is not written.
The ways in which a reader of Tristram Shandy is cajoled, (p.185) informed, or flattered need to be considered if Sterne's sentimentalism is to be understood as something more subtle than a pandering to the requirements of moralistic reviewers. Sterne's liking for sentimental cameos has too often been seen by literary critics as a weakening in the face of a vogue, a conventional insincerity. The suspicion that in Tristram Shandy an eighteenth-century reader might have found performers whom, as John Traugott says, ‘no one would emulate, least of all Sterne’ is well grounded,84 but then Sterne makes room for a reader who is expected to be too knowing to suppose that emulation is an option. So it would be equally misleading to characterize his sentimentalism as (unfortunately, naïvely) sincere—a puzzle to be solved by the biographer. We should be sceptical of attempts to discover in his supposedly ‘private’ writings the trace of an emotionalism which would explain the sentimental representations in his novels. Indeed, his Letters and his Journal to Eliza are as liable to the accusation of ‘insincerity’ as either of the novels. Throughout L.P. Curtis's notes to his edition of Sterne's Letters we find charted the borrowings, repetitions, and opportunistic embellishments whereby Sterne trades on his literary notoriety or adopts his declarations to one female admirer to suit another. In the Journal the separation of private feeling from deftly manipulated literary formula is, as Ian Jack suggests, scarcely possible.85 In the Journal, Sterne observes that since Eliza's departure his only pleasure has been in ‘writing’: ‘The Observation will draw a Sigh, Eliza, from thy feeling heart—and yet, so thy heart would wish to have it—‘tis fit in truth We suffer equally’.86 The production of all this ‘emotion’—whether sincere or not, whether for public or private consumption—depends on the same conventional ideals as are exploited in his fiction: the community of sentiments, the integrity of the ‘feeling heart’, the sensibility whose privilege is both pleasure and pain. It all has to be a kind of fiction—a ‘pleasure’ found best in ‘writing’, a satisfying ‘sympathy’ created in the composition of the Journal itself. In Eliza's absence, mere ‘conversation’, Sterne writes, is insubstantial compared to the ideal communion enacted in the Journal; but then (p.186) the Journal is a monologue, and its satisfactions those which Sterne offers to himself. It seems to have been the case that the impossible Journal was only abandoned, and then hastily, when the project of the Sentimental Journey arose to displace it. It would be appropriate that this supposedly private and infatuated writing be brought to an end not by any identifiable crisis in Sterne's emotional life but by another, and more captivating, kind of writing.
For it is writing, rather than the experience that it purports to record, that is truly ‘affecting’ for Sterne in his Journal:
I gave a thousand pensive penetrating Looks at the Arm chair thou so often graced on those quiet, sentimental Repasts—and Sighed and laid down my knife and fork, and took out my handkerchiff, clapd it across my face, and wept like a child—I shall read the same affecting Account of many a sad Dinner which Eliza has had no power to taste of.87
The question as to whether these tears be ‘genuine’ does not have an answer. The claim that the Journal keeps making is to the integrity not of an experience but of a kind of writing—a style which, in its recourse to sentimental sighs and tears, can transform the banal or the ordinary into the significant. Conveniently, of course, it was a text used by eighteenth-century admirers of Sterne to prove that his fiction must have been well-intentioned—that he was not a purveyor of smut but a man of sensibility. But then Sterne's smartest use of fiction was always in the creation of his reputation, and the Journal could hardly be a better-calculated gift to posterity. Such a stylized exercise tells us about a writer whom Sterne fabricated, not about the original emotional condition of the person who wrote Tristram Shandy.88
The fabrication of a writer is the most complex effect of Tristram Shandy. Tristram, the narrator of his ‘Life’, writes from outside the household whose idiosyncrasies constitute the bulk of the narrative. Sterne has created a translator for us (‘we must go up to the first springs’), and a persona who can rehearse the power of a sentimental episode to transport and possess. Via this writer, the effects of feeling are given as already vicariously experienced:
For my uncle Toby's amours running all the way in my head, they had the same effect upon me as if they had been my own—I was in the most perfect (p.187) state of bounty and good will; and felt the kindliest harmony vibrating within me, with every oscillation of the chaise alike; so that whether the roads were rough or smooth, it made no difference; every thing I saw, or had to do with, touch’d upon some secret spring either of sentiment or rapture. (IX. xxiv. 629)
This passage introduces the encounter with ‘poor Maria’ and ‘the full force of an honest heart-ache’ (p. 630), one of those ‘beauties’ so admired by eighteenth-century critics. Sterne did try to provide the blend of ‘pathos, refined sentiments, and chaste humour’ which, as Gardner Stout writes, readers were coming to require;89 but each sentimental episode comes via Tristram, a narrator willing, as the description of the ‘state of bounty’ induced by the story of Toby's ‘amours’ indicates, to be susceptible when the occasion is right. Feeling has already been mediated; the reader scarcely needs to be transported by empathy when the narrator that Sterne has created is quite capable of experiencing ‘vibrations’ on the reader's behalf.
Scenes of sentiment received few retorts from Sterne's audience, but the construction of a knowing and complicit reader could still provoke protests. The kind of objections mounted in the Monthly Review were to what Tristram Shandy compliments itself on as ‘that ornamental figure in oratory, which Rhetoricians stile the Aposiopesis (II. vi. 100). The impressive name is given to the device by which the text leaves the reader ‘something to imagine’—the authoritative innuendo to which the critics objected. Walter and Toby discuss Mrs Shandy's antipathy to Dr Slop, the male midwife who comes on Walter's recommendation: ‘—My sister, I dare say…does not care to let a man come so near her ****. I will not say whether my uncle Toby had completed the sentence or not;—‘tis for his advantage to suppose he had, —as, I think, he could have added no ONE WORD which would have improved it’ (ibid.). Toby's pipe snaps and (perhaps) finishes his sentence for him. As so often, the marked omission which is the novel's pretence of tact actually compels the reader to supply the meanings it never quite specifies. This is not just suggestiveness, it is also the affectation of delicacy. It is hardly surprizing that the critics were exasperated; the novel does not just indulge in improprieties, it mocks the reader who might be determined not to find them.
I define a nose, as follows, —intreating only beforehand, and beseeching my (p.188) readers…to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil, and suffer him by no art or wile to put any other ideas into their minds, than what I put into my definition.—For by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, —I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less. (III. xxxi. 218)
Vocabulary in Tristram Shandy is as if over-determined by its suggestive capabilities,90 for words and things are made into symbols of the sexual activity in which the Shandy males cannot engage successfully. For the reader, there is ‘a game of sexual discovering, recovering, uncovering’,91 yet Tristram Shandy is a text which avoids the dramas of passion and desire conventional in eighteenth-century novels. In Richardson's more dismissive phrase, it is ‘too gross to be inflaming’.92
The suggestiveness of parts of Tristram Shandy binds the discriminating, private reader more thoroughly to the text's ‘sociality’ and parodies debates about how to read a narrative morally. It also enacts that avoidance of completion or fulfilment whose larger patterns run through the novel (from mis-conception to misconception). The novel that tried to be utterly, exhaustively moral (Clarissa is the model) was always striving for completion. Its ideal was that of the achievement of instructive intent, the reader who had been taught to read properly. Sterne, on the contrary, exploits the incompleteness that demands the reader's inferences. Which does not mean that these inferences are not already determined; the problem of Sterne for the reviewers is that he takes his reader to be able and willing to supply them. ‘Hast thou not played with sounds, and equivocal significations of words, ay, and with Stars and Dashes, before those whom thou oughtest to reverence?’ asked the Monthly Review.93 The likes of Richardson and Johnson worried about a reader who would know too little not to succumb to the false allurements of ‘romance’; Sterne, as the reviewers realized, presumes a reader who will know too well not to provide the meanings which the text facetiously fancies itself too discreet to explicate. As the Clockmakers Outcry had it: ‘If authors be answerable, (p.189) as they certainly are, for the libidinous images which they excite in the minds of readers, how large must the author of TRIST-RAM's account be!94 The problem for such protestors was that the suggestive and the sentimental were next to each other; both types of representation in Tristram Shandy presume the same kind of reader.
* * *
I carry on my affairs quite in the French way, sentimentally.
(Sterne to John Wodehouse, August 1765).95
In A Sentimental Journey Sterne takes this further and conflates the suggestive and the sentimental. The Sentimental Journey goes out of its way to find scenes of erotic encounter, and thus seems to risk the production of outrage. It does this by interposing a body—the body of the narrator—whose sentimental whims sanction its erotic encounters. The eroticism of this body is at once innocent and knowing, coy and garrulous. It is a body which gauges sensibility, and whose vibrations register the pleasures of benevolence and of flirtation. Alone in a room with ‘the fair fille de chambre,’ Yorick claims to feel ‘a sort of a pleasing half guilty blush, where the blood is more in fault than the man’, a ‘sensation…delicious to the nerves’ (Sentimental Journey, p. 234): ‘But I’ll not describe it.—I felt something at first within me which was not in strict unison with the lesson of virtue I had given her the night before’ (p. 235). Through this body throb the vibrations of a finally conquerable erotic temptation—but also of benevolence, affection, sympathy. The pleasure of flirtation can be recorded because the body is taken to experience sentiments—fellow-feelings—which transcend ‘carnality’. The presentation of each of Yorick's encounters as ‘sentimental’ renders it innocent, whatever our post-Freudian indictments might be. The Sentimental Journey produces its body not as a residue of desires but as a register of ‘affections’—of ‘feeling’ refined by one who is determined to be a specialist in such matters. The contradiction taken to its logical conclusion in Clarissa was that the body was both ‘sensible’ and sexual; Sterne escapes the contradiction by making his narrator confess an utter susceptibility to feeling—by creating a narrator who can interpet every vibration as the symptom of a finally innocent sensibility.
The Sentimental Journey supplies ‘pathetic’ episodes, but always (p.190) as part of Yorick's chronicle of his body's pulsations. He writes out his ‘sensations’, greeting the overflowing of sentiment with what Gardner Stout calls ‘manifest self-approval’ and what others have seen as a self-corrosive complacency:96 ‘I burst into a flood of tears—but I am as weak as a woman; and I beg the world not to smile, but pity me’ (p. 103). This self-dramatization may now look to some as if intended to deflate sentimentalism, but it was not taken to do so by its eighteenth-century readers. (In popularizing publications like the Sentimental Magazine or the Lady's Magazine, the Sentimental Journey came to be taken as the ur-text for sentimental fiction.97) The confessional theatricality of Yorick's narrative undermines the interpretation of the Sentimental Journey as ‘a text-book on feeling, an exposition of how, in any given set of circumstances, to behave in a sentimental and civilized mode’;98 it also obstructs the reader determined to find satire at the expense of sentimentalism. Yorick's capacities for feeling are refined beyond the possibilities of prescription or practicability, and his ‘self-approval’ is the means by which the novel allows its reader to recognize this. In a development of the narrative technique of Tristram Shandy, Yorick's body, one of the main topics of the Sentimental Journey, is made to get in the way of the story even as it communicates the effects of every episode: it is an instrument tuned to the influences of feeling; it is specialized to this purpose, defying the reader's identification with its extraordinary, private susceptibility.
We certainly cannot take it for granted that the vibrations and impulses of Yorick's body provide a consistent guide to any ethical model of action, though the benevolence which is a value in the Sentimental Journey is to be physically felt. On his first night in France, Yorick satisfies himself that he is well-disposed towards the French and their King:
—No—said I—the Bourbon is by no means a cruel race: they may be misled like other people; but their is a mildness in their blood. As I acknowledged this, I felt a suffusion of a finer kind upon my cheek—more warm and (p.191) friendly to man, than what Burgundy (at least two livres a bottle, which was such as I had been drinking) could have produced, (p. 68)
Yorick himself provides the evidence for those who might want to attribute his ‘suffusion’ to a cause less noble than fellow-feeling, but then this is also, disarmingly, ‘the evidence that he observes himself with comic detachment’99 —the device by which Sterne's narrator is a move ahead of criticisms which could be directed at him. Yorick is not an unreliable narrator; on the contrary, he can be relied upon to draw attention to the irony of sensibility becoming a private experience. Having toasted the King of France, he contemplates dispensing the contents of his purse to some suitable ‘object’ of charity: ‘I felt every vessel in my frame dilate—the arteries beat all cheerily together, and every power which sustained life, performed it with so little friction, that ‘twould have confounded the most physical precieuse in France: with all her materialism, she could scarce have called me a machine—‘(pp. 68–9). But this supposed instinct to benevolence is then thrown into relief by his failure to give generously to a mendicant monk until shamed into doing so by the presence of the lady from Brussels. An erotic attachment (The pulsations of the arteries along my fingers pressing across hers, told her what was passing within me’—p. 97) corrects Yorick's sentiments. With this kind of attachment, the body is wholly given over to feeling, and churlish inclinations are conquered; the attachment is excusable because it is a matter of sentiment, of an innocent impulse which needs no greater satisfaction than two hands touching.
It is no doubt true that Sterne argued for the (limited) possibility of a life of benevolence. Certainly, in his Sermons, he opposes those (unidentified) ‘moralisers’ who contend that ‘man is altogether a selfish creature’ (though even here he sets against them the possibility not of an unproblematic benevolence but of a restrained practice of thrift and self-denial within the confines of the family).1 But the self-induced throb which, in the Sentimental Journey, is the sign and pleasure of benevolence cannot easily be identified with any set of practical precepts or social obligations. Sterne's latitudinarian pronouncements as a preacher are not an immediate guide to the (p.192) mingled self-attention and benevolent impulse that distinguish Yorick. In fact, Sterne encounters problems in his Sermons because, for didactic purposes, he has to attempt to project benevolence as a general human faculty. In the Sentimental Journey he avoids the difficulty of this by making it a minority experience. Many of the jokes in the novel, as well as the puzzling oscillation between the vanity and the self-deprecation of the narrator, stem from the fact that this has become a minority of one: Yorick experiencing benevolence through the very fibres and arteries of his body. He is a ‘Sentimental Traveller’ and writes against ‘the whole circle of travellers’; his ‘travels and observations will be altogether of a different cast from any of my forerunners’ (pp. 81–2). His experience of the thrill of benevolence is, like the journey itself, sui generis.
Unlike the sermon, the novel can address its reader as if confidentially or exceptionally. When Yorick regrets his previous lack of charity, and the monk and the lady assure him that he is not one to act ‘unkindly’, we are told, ‘I blush’d in my turn; but from what movements, I leave to the few who feel to analyse—’ (p. 100). In this appearance of licence is a nice paradox. The text constitutes all who read as those who ‘feel’, those who are admitted to a complicity with the body's spontaneity, and are fitted to translate the vibrations of sentiment. Cleverly, as if a block to any who might want to find Yorick's record of his reactions ludicrously self-regarding, the text prompts us to infer Yorick's shame and his previous failures of benevolence. To understand all this is to be able to ‘feel’. Yet the readers who can do this are also posited as ‘the few’, the exceptional. This is flattery of the polite (because inferential) reader, of course, a tactic which exploits the (not necessarily optimistic) association of sentiment and feeling with a quite uncommon refinement. But it is more than this. To feel is to enter into a special relationship with a narrative—to be a special kind of reader. The relationship between reader and text (that ‘sociality’) works because it can purport to be unique, and unrealizable outside the confines of the closet in which the book is read.
Sympathy as depicted by Sterne is not a model for behaviour; it is most likely to be an unusual and momentary privilege. It is not what Hume tried to make it: the natural pattern of a general principle. The novel and the moral philosophy are only directly comparable at the point at which both forms encounter the impossibility of generalizing sympathy and sociability—the unlikeliness of (p.193) benevolence. ‘Sterne's Sentimental Journey…made literary material of the concept of sympathy’, says one critic;2 on the contrary, the ‘literary material’ elaborates a sympathy confessed to be aberrant and eccentric—not the proof of a universal propensity, but the enjoyment of an unprecedented talent. Fewer writers than one might expect have discussed the relationship between sympathy as a term in moral and social philosophy of the period, and the sentimental representations in novels. When they have done so there has been a tendency to equate too easily the operations of the two kinds of text. John Traugott characterizes the tenets of what he calls sentimentalism thus:
By sensory apprehension of the behavior of other persons and by comparing that behavior by an association of ideas with our own, we conceive a sympathy with other persons…the concept ranged from the puerile elevation of vague benevolist feelings to a religious principle to Hume's carefully defined doctrine of sympathy.3
The congruence of philosophical doctrine and narrative preoccupation is taken for granted. But in novels which rely on the depiction or demonstration of sentiment, sympathy is not that which is always and everywhere given. In the Sentimental Journey, it is the singular capacity of the ever-tearful Yorick and his blissfully responsive body. What could be an only self-regarding account is made communicative by the compliance of a reader, but this reader is made to realize that feeling is whimsical, quixotic, and simply unusual. It is not the currency of the world.
When Yorick contemplates, how seriously it is difficult to say, the possibility of his being imprisoned for not having a passport, it is an occasion for the conjuring of an idea of sympathy. Yorick begins to ‘figure’ to himself ‘the miseries of confinement’ and give ‘full scope’ to his ‘imagination’:
I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting the picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitude of sad groups in it did but distract me,—
This imaginary constitution of sympathy is finally Yorick's sympathy for himself, and comes through being ‘in a right frame’. It is an exercise in ‘feeling’ and in the powers of ‘imagination’, which produce the ‘affecting’, out of nothing, as an intelligible and conveniently illustrative ‘picture’. A modern reading tends to balk at this type of manipulation, this eliciting of the sentimental tears which close the exercise. But this is a sympathy which is not necessarily narcissistic and indulgent; it confesses itself to be inventive and purposeful: a necessary fiction. It confesses also that even the fiction requires the idea of a particular sympathy—that an undifferentiating fellow-feeling is scarcely imaginable. It is a resort to sympathy which has much more in common with the knowing and controlling strategy of Smith's Theory than with the absolute mutuality defined by sympathy in Hume's Treatise. For Sterne, as for Smith, pain can become a perfect pleasure, can serve as the necessary origin for the scenario of feeling. Sterne is not alone in the period in manipulating images of misfortune to provide an occasion for the display of sentiment; much literature of the eighteenth century reaches, as Maren-Sofie Rostvig writes, ‘the paradoxical conclusion that happiness is to experience another's woe’.4 But Sterne's (Yorick's) is an explicitly fictional act, and it is as such that sympathy can work. ‘I burst into tears—I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn’ (p. 203): the text is mawkish here, certainly—although progressive on the question of slavery by the standards of Sterne's culture—but it is subtle about its own indulgence. It admits itself powerless to imagine benevolence as a general standard or experience it in a pressing and immediate form.
Yorick's journey, parodying the usual reports of foreign lands and avoiding the usual landmarks, is one which only a narrative can undertake. It is a journey to find the elision of the sentimental and the erotic. On Yorick's parting from Madam de L***, whose hand he has held for so long in the courtyard at Calais, he receives a letter promising to tell him ‘her story…if my rout should ever lay through Brussels’. The promise evokes this exclamation, this fantasy:
(p.195) with what a moral delight will it crown my journey, in sharing in the sickening incidents of a tale of misery told to me by such a sufferer? to see her weep! and though I cannot dry up the fountain of her tears, what an exquisite sensation is there still left, in wiping them away from off the cheeks of the first and fairest of women, as I’m sitting with my handkerchief in my hand in silence the whole night besides her. (pp. 145–6)
The prospect has to be withdrawn for the sake of ‘the pure taper of Eliza’ (p. 147), but not before the ‘moral delight’, an almost erotic frisson, has been represented as the hearing of a particular narrative, a ‘tale of misery’. Yorick's provision of himself as the perfectly sentimental, and perfectly excited, auditor, his entertainment and then retraction of the prospect, uses the titillating idea of a woman's pathos as another opportunity for the validation of sentiment. He gives himself, echoing a phrase from Tristram Shandy, an ‘exquisite sensation’: it is both explicitly far-fetched (it is all bizarrely, if keenly, imagined) and productive of a peculiar pleasure (conceived in the present tense, as if actually enjoyed). Listening to a story is the highest imaginable sympathetic pleasure. But the prospect is retracted; ‘There was nothing wrong in the sentiment’, but as ‘sentiment’, and not something more reproachable, it must remain. As long as the imagination is corrected, there can be no blame, and the wry justification of the whole episode can be a kind of boast: ‘In transports of this kind, the heart, in spite of the understanding, will always say too much’ (p. 148).
Yorick is after that moment of contact which sets the heart beating but is taken no further. ‘He accepts in passing all the pleasures the ladies offer him, in the delicate shape of preludes to an always unfulfilled love which gets all its pleasure from the fleeting sensations of an awakening heart’.5 Feeling triumphs in that suspended prelude: flirtatious and still polite; knowing, but innocently so. The text entertains the possibility of things going further in order to defeat it; true bliss is in the tiny yet suffusing warmth—the contact of hands—which restraint allows. In the face of the French count's ‘indecent suggestion’ that he might be interested in ‘the nakedness…of our women’, Yorick declares that he wishes only to ‘spy the nakedness of their hearts’: ‘I have something within me which cannot bear the shock of the least indecent insinuation’ (p. 217). This is ironical enough given not just the use of ‘insinuation’ (p.196) in Tristram Shandy, but the proximity of innuendo in this novel: it ends, after all, with the most inciting example of ‘that ornamental figure…the Aposiopesis’—‘I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's’ (p. 291). But it is not marked down as a sham. Unalloyed sentiment cannot be enjoyed by those ignorant of its nearness to something improper; to guard against, and protest against, anything ‘indecent’ must be to know that it is always there—a temptation to be transcended.
Yorick tells the Count that his is ‘a quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE, and those affections which rise out of her, which make us love each other—and the world, better than we do’ (p. 219). It leads him ‘through the Bourbonnois…in the hey-day of the vintage’, and becomes ‘a journey through each step of which music beats time to Labour, and all her children are rejoicing as they carry in their clusters’ (p. 268). The pleasures of feeling are always liable to be enjoyed most readily with those untutored in the ways of sophisticated, unsympathetic society. The identification of labour and those who perform it as joyfully (and fortunately) innocent is a common enough ideological move in the eighteenth century, but here it is not quite repeated in the usual way. For it is only the ‘sentimental traveller’ who has access to such harmony, to such natural ‘rejoicing’. It is only he who travels, unlike the conventional chronicler of names, dates, and places, ‘with my affections flying out, and kindling at every group before me’ who can finally join the dance in which ‘simple jollity’ is seen ‘mixing’ with ‘Religion’. This traveller looks for neither ‘foreign knowledge’ nor ‘foreign improvements’ (p. 84). He says of the Paris salons, ‘the better the Coterie—the more children of Art—I languish’d for those of Nature’ (p. 266); his is a grand tour in search of innocence.
It is as if the Sentimental Journey, most graphically in the act of omission with which it concludes, dares its reader to find anything except innocence in its thrills and encounters. As Sterne declared to an admiring, aristocratic reader, ‘If it is not thought a chaste book, mercy on them that read it, for they must have warm imaginations indeed!’6 Attuned to contemporary ideas of reading as a moral (or immoral) activity, Sterne produces a narrative which ‘is all quite innocent provided one takes it so’.7 The sensitivity of a readership to (p.197) the notional suggestiveness of a novel is used to deflect attention on to the power of feeling to sanction pleasure and fantasy. In this sense, Sterne's fiction shows itself concerned with the moral implications of narratives. Yet his novels are not morally tendentious in the same way as Richardson's; they do not attempt to teach virtue by associating it with the capacity for feeling. In the writings in which he did tackle the relationship between this capacity and actual models of behaviour (the Sermons) there is an altogether less secure faith in the influences of sentiment and sympathy. When it comes to didacticism, and although Sterne wishes to avoid ‘running into any common-place declamations upon the wickedness of the age’,8 ‘generosity’ and ‘the tear of tenderness’ cannot be proclaimed universal. The Sermons do trust to
something in our nature which engages us to take part in every accident to which man is subject…to find in such calamities…something then so truly interesting, that at the first sight we generally make them our own…from a certain generosity and tenderness of nature which disposes us for compassion, abstracted from all considerations of self.9
But alongside these are less optimistic perceptions. The parable of the Good Samaritan, on which the passage above is a commentary, illustrates a capacity for sympathy which is but rarely fulfilled.
So, in the Sermons, Sterne complains, as he never needs to in the novels, of the absence of moral standards from public life, especially ‘amongst those whose higher stations are made a shelter for the liberties they take’.10 So he hopes for a condition of ‘society’ different from the ‘present state of vice’,11 and even lectures on the fate of a ‘sinful people’ which, ambiguously, may either be England as it is or England as it would be if it were not for ‘the blessing of a protestant king’.12 He is ready to talk not of public redemption but of the ‘honest tear shed in private’; it is the most that can be expected.13 The last three volumes of the Sermons were published posthumously in order to pay off some of Sterne's debts, and they certainly seem, in Brissenden's terms, less ‘optimistic’ than those which he himself prepared for publication. Sterne, of course, played his market for all it was worth, and no doubt realized that the easy lessons of his earlier sermons (though these were not necessarily written any earlier than (p.198) those in the last three volumes) would prompt a more enthusiastic response among those who would expect the affability of address of the author of Tristram Shandy. But perhaps he also sensed that the closer his writings approached to prescription and prognosis—which is to say, the closer they approached to religion— the less able they would be actually to envisage benevolence or the society of sentiments. In the last sermons in the collection benevolence becomes a wishfully conceived vision. Could it prevail ‘the world would be worth living in’:14 a conditional which is almost withdrawn as it is stated. The preacher who has to recommend, predict, or judge is not quite the comfortable latitudinarian often described; for him fellow-feeling is a less than tangible ideal.
Under the influence of R. S. Crane's essay on the ‘Genealogy of the “Man of Feeling” ‘, sentimentalism in eighteenth-century novels has often been linked by critics to the habits of latitudinarian teaching, and both have been taken to articulate an ‘optimistic’ view of the sociable capacities of human beings. Indeed, the misnomer of optimism has been a reason for the comparative lack of interest shown, by literary histories at least, in the fashion for narratives of overpowering feeling and tremulous sensibility. Not to be the reader who can share such a putatively complacent view of social being is to begin to detect in the texts whimsicality, banality, or worse. Sentimentalism gets represented as a scarcely explicable foible of ‘major’ writers, and a paralysing obsession of ‘minor’ ones. But this version of the ‘doctrine’ behind the fiction is misleading. Sterne's, uses of sentiment might equally well be taken to be fatalistic, atavistic, defensively playful. He does not describe a sociability that could ever be a practical model of being in society. His fiction substitutes its own ‘sociality’, its relationship with a knowing and exceptional reader, for any version of a wider social harmony. It is this retreat into the text's ‘sociality’ which is enough to align Sterne in critical canons with ‘modern’ novels: he becomes ‘an inexplicable anachronism’,15 or his writings ‘are perhaps better understood in some ways today than at any time since they first appeared’.16 In fact, his interrogation of habits of reading is rooted in his own time and culture; his writing career is a series of confrontations with contemporary moral demands made of narratives, and the strictures of criticism provide him with crucial material.
(p.199) The Sentimental Journey takes its narrator's adventures to the brink of the immorality which critics and novelists condemned, but always to insist on the innocence of the sentimental inclination which leads him to each of his encounters. One of these is Yorick's meeting with the ‘fille de chambre’ on a Paris street:
‘Tis sweet to feel by what finespun threads our affections are drawn together.
We set off a-fresh, and as she took her third step, the girl put her hand within my arm—I was just bidding her—but she did it of herself with that undeliberating simplicity, which shew’d it was out of her head that she had never seen me before. For my own part, I felt the conviction of consanguinity so strongly, that I could not help turning half round to look in her face, and see if I could trace out any thing in it of a family likeness—Tut! said I, are we not all relations? (Sentimental Journey, p. 190).
Clarissa hoped but forlornly that the world might be like a family; the members of the Grandison household tried to behave as if they were one large extended family; Yorick appropriately asserts his whimsical sociability in his ability to enjoy a mildly titillating acquaintanceship as if it is familial. We have learned to doubt the innocence of familial relationships, but the Sentimental Journey is particularly well adapted to the deflection of such scepticism. It substitutes feeling for desire, a scenario of gestures for any sexually provocative act. Where Tristram Shandy provoked its readers, and most of all its critics, with innuendo, the Sentimental Journey is knowing enough to provide episodes which only those with immoral intention would translate into ‘carnality’.
Twentieth-century readers of the novel cannot be entirely willing to comply with Sterne by accepting the separation of sentiment from ‘carnality’, Eighteenth-century readers, more willing to find plausible the image of a sociability founded on feeling, made few objections, As Gardner Stout indicates, the book was ‘generally praised’ in ‘fashionable circles’ on its publication ‘even by some who had consistently disparaged Tristram Shandy’.17 The sanctioning of erotic encounter as sentimental innocence was generally acceptable to readers of the text in the eighteenth-century, despite contemporary concerns with the propriety of narratives. Aside from the Critical Review, which was perhaps smarting from Sterne's attack upon its former editor, Smollett, via the depiction of (p.200) Smelfungus, all the extant reviews of the Sentimental Journey greet the work with approbation. The Political Register of May 1768 praises the work particularly for ‘the moral and the pathetic’ instruction of ‘our passions’,18 but perhaps the most telling reaction is that of Ralph Griffiths, the same reviewer who had previously bemoaned the indecency of much of Tristram Shandy, Writing in the Monthly Review, he delights to find most of the Sentimental Journey to be in the ‘pathetic vein’ which is his own preference. Commenting on the chapter in which Yorick has the pleasure of being accosted by the fille de chambre in the street, and declares the pleasure to be that of ‘consanguinity’, he exclaims: ‘What delicacy of feeling, what tenderness of sentiment, yet what simplicity of expression are here! Is it possible that a man of gross ideas could ever write in a strain so pure, so refined from the dross of sensuality!’19 Aware of the possibility of ‘gross ideas’ (he laments that Sterne's novel ends ‘with a dash of somewhat bordering rather on sensuality than sentiment’) Griffiths remains willing to take Yorick at his word. He, like others, is always ready to read ‘for the sentiment’.
The frisson and the privilege of sentiment have become, with Sterne's final work, self-sustaining. The Sentimental Journey is sensitized to moralisms, but it does not strive, like Richardson's fiction, to outline a capacity for sentiment which is to be a model of moral responsibility. It does not even really celebrate a type of social being, but falls back on the invented voice of one dedicated to a specialized and eccentric experience of society. Sterne is no more an optimist than Richardson; he does not hold out a life of sentiment as a practical way of being in society. The gestures by which feeling is communicated are, in his fiction, the prerogative of those who cannot be imitated because innocence is inimitable. Sterne's fiction offers each exceptional reader the opportunity to recognize and approve the instincts in which such feeling originates, but its ‘sociality’ is always with this exceptional reader. This ‘sociality’ is its limit as well as its opportunity.
(1) Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. L.P. Curtis (Oxford, 1935), 102.
(1) Laurence Sterne, The Sermons of Mr Yorick (7 vols. London, 1760–9), Sermon VII. ii. 12.
(2) A Funeral Discourse, Occasioned by the Much Lamented Death of Mr Yorick (London, 1761), 24–5.
(2) K. MacLean, ‘Imagination and Sympathy: Sterne and Adam Smith’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10 (1949), 399.
(3) Any account of Sterne's use at the hands of critics and imitators would owe much, as mine does, to A. Howes's Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputation in England 1760–1868 (New Haven, Conn., 1958). I have also exploited J.C.T. Oates, Shandyism and Sentiment (Cambridge, 1968).
(3) J. Traugott (ed.), Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays, Introduction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968), 4.
(4) Letter to Stephen Croft, May 1760 (Letters, 107).
(4) M.-S. Rostvig, The Happy Man (Oslo, 1958), ii. 244.
(5) Letter [to Dr Noah Thomas?], Jan. 1760 (Letters, 90).
(5) H. Fluchere, Laurence Sterne: From Tristram to Yorick, trans. B. Bray (London, 1965), 387.
(6) See W.D. Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne (3rd edn., New Haven, Conn., 1929), Ch. 8; and Letters, 83–8.
(6) Letter of Nov. 1767: Letters, 403.
(7) Tristram Shandy's Bon Mots, Repartees, odd Adventures, and Humorous Stories; All Warranted Originals (London, 1760), 67.
(7) Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, 461.
(8) Howes, Yorick and the Critics, 29.
(8) Sermons, i, Sermon V. 131.
(9) A Genuine Letter from a Methodist Preacher in the Country, to Laurence Sterne (London, 1760), p. vii.
(10) Letter to the Bishop of Gloucester, June 1760: Letters, 116.
(11) John Ferriar, Illustrations of Sterne (London, 1798), Preface.
(13) The Sentimental Magazine (Jan. 1774), 4.
(13) Sermons, iii, Sermon II. 50.
(15) Yorick's Skull; or, College Oscitations (London, 1777), 34.
(15) Traugott, Critical Essays, 1.
(16) See R.D. Mayo, The English Novel in the Magazines (Oxford, 1962), 190–208.
(16) Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, 188.
(17) The Monthly Review, 26 (Jan. 1762), and 32 (Feb. 1765).
(17) Stout, 21–2
(18) Howes, Sterne: The Critical Heritage, 201.
(20) The Monthly Review, 36 (Feb. 1767), 99.
(21) Mayo, The English Novel, 325.
(22) The Monthly Review, 26, p. 32.
(23) The Gentleman's Magazine, 32 (Jan. 1762), 28–32.
(24) The Sentimental Magazine (Jan. 1774), 6.
(25) John Ireland, Letters and Poems of the Late Mr John Henderson: With Anecdotes of his Life (London, 1786), 30.
(26) Jane Timbury, The Story of Le Fevre (London, 1787), 5.
(27) Mayo, The English Novel, 339; for the importance of Sterne in the magazines, see pp. 336–46.
(28) The Beauties of Sterne (London, 1782), p. vii.
(30) William Enfield (ed.), The Speaker; or, Miscellaneous Pieces, Selected from the Best English Writers (London, 1774).
(31) Vicesimus Knox (ed.), Elegant Extracts (2nd edn., London, 1784), p. iii.
(32) From Essays Moral and Literary; cited in Howes, Sterne: The Critical Heritage, 251.
(33) Ireland, Letters and Poems of the Late Mr John Henderson, 36.
(34) Cited in Howes, Sterne: The Critical Heritage, 221.
(35) Letters from Eliza to Yorick (London, 1775), 39.
(37) Letters from Eliza to Yorick, 34–5.
(38) Letter from Sterne to Dr John Eustace, Feb. 1768 (Letters, 411).
(40) H. Moglen, The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne (Gainesville, Fla., 1975), 5.
(41) See New's Introduction in Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. M. New, R. A. Da vies, and W.G. Day (3 vols., Gainesville, Fla., 1984), vol. iii, ‘the Notes’, 24–9. This edition is henceforth referred to as Florida Edition.
(42) Max Byrd, Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century (Columbia, SC, 1974), 114, and Michael DePorte, Nightmares and Hobby-horses: Swift, Sterne, and Augustan Ideas of Madness (San Marino, Calif., 1974), 116.
(43) Yorick's Skull, 34–5.
(44) Brissenden, Virtue in Distress, 194.
(45) Yorick's Skull, 35–6.
(46) Florida Edition, Introduction, iii. 17.
(48) Ferriar, Illustrations, 5.
(49) John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (1975; rpt. Oxford, 1979), II. xxx. 397.
(51) See Day, ‘Locke May Not Be the Key’.
(52) Locke, Essay, n. xi. 156.
(55) Locke, Essay, ill. ix. 478.
(56) R.F. Holland, ‘Epistemology and Education’, in Against Empiricism: On Education, Epistemology and Value (Oxford, 1980), 15.
(57) F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (1948; rpt. Harmondsworth, 1977), 10.
(58) Letters, 150.
(59) See Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, 87, and Florida Edition, ii. 946: ‘all the materials for Trim's passionate response to the torments of the Inquisition are in the original version’.
(60) M. Loveridge, Laurence Sterne and the Argument About Design (London, 1982), 162.
(61) Monthly Review, 21 (Dec. 1759), 568.
(62) Letter to David Garrick, 1765: Letters, 236.
(63) See letter to David Garrick, Mar. 1762: Letters, 157.
(64) See Sir Joshua Reynolds, The Idler, No. 76 (29 Sep. 1759), in The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, vol. ii (New Haven, Conn., 1963), 236–7.
(66) See W. V. Holtz, Image and Immortality: A Study of Tristram Shandy (Providence, RI, 1970), 30–3.
(67) William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty (1753; rpt. Menston, Yorkshire, 1971), 6.
(70) Holtz, Image and Immortality, 27.
(72) R. F. Brissenden, ‘Sterne and Painting’, in John Butt (ed.), Of Books and Humankind (London, 1964), 94.
(74) Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 66.
(75) B. Rogerson, ‘The Art of Painting the Passions’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 14 (1953), 70.
(76) Holtz, Image and Immortality, 59.
(78) Brissenden, ‘Sterne and Painting’, 100.
(79) Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 140.
(80) so Enfield, The Speaker, 243–4.
(81) I owe this gloss entirely to the Florida Edition, iii. 355–6, which cites this phrase from Sheridan's Course of Lectures on Elocution and a similarly parallel passage from his Discourse…Introductory to His Course of Lectures on Elocution, and which suggests that ‘Sterne's readers may well have found the present passage an obvious allusion to Sheridan’.
(82) A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy by Mr Yorick, ed. G. Stout (Los Angeles, 1967), Introduction, 35.See also Holtz, Image and Immortality, 72–80.
(83) Letters, 396.
(84) J. Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1954), 75.
(85) Sterne, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy By Mr Yorick to which are added the Journal to Eliza and A Political Romance, ed. I. Jack (London, 1968), Introduction.
(86) Journal, in the above edition, 145.
(87) Journal, 137.
(88) The Journal is treated as emotional revelation by Cross; see, for example, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne, 460.
(89) Sentimental Journey, ed Stout, Introduction, 10.
(90) For a discussion of this phenomenon, see J. Berthoud, ‘Shandeism and Sexuality’, in Myer (ed.), Laurence Sterne: Riddles and Mysteries, 24–38.
(92) Cited in Howes, Yorick and the Critics, 32. See Carroll, 341.
(93) Monthly Review, 24 (Feb. 1761), 103.
(94) Clockmakers Outcry, 15.
(95) Letters, 256.
(96) Sentimental Journey, ed. Stout, 25. For a version of the Sentimental Journey as a satire upon sentimental self-regard, see E. Dilworth, The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne (Morningside Heights, NY, 1948), and R. Putney, ‘The Evolution of A Sentimental Journey’, Philological Quarterly, 19 (1940), 349–69.
(97) See Mayo, The English Novel, 341–5.
(98) P. Quennell, Four Portraits: Studies of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1945), 183, cited in Sentimental Journey, ed. Stout, 26.
(99) Sentimental Journey, ed. Stout, 27.