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Saturday, April 23, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings by Laurence Sterne

A Sentimental Journey and Other Writings
 by Laurence Sterne
Oxford World's Classic Edition
p. 2003

   Sterne is best known for his Rabelaisian tour-de-force Tristam Shandy, a novel which I had the "pleasure" to struggle through for the best part of a year back in 2008.  Shandy is a sprawling, discursive comic masterpiece which has more in common with novels of the 20th century then those which followed it in the 19th.  But Sterne also wrote another, minor, classic,  A Sentimental Journey.  First published in 1768, six months before the author's death, A Sentimental Journey was one of the first "novels of sentiment and sensibility" a genre which rose and fell by the turn of the 19th century, but one which would have a decisive impact on the Brontean/Austen wave of fiction which would define the 19th century.
       Sterne's A Sentimental Journey was published three years before Henry MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling.  Man of Feeling was in instant hit, selling out within two months and being reprinted six time in the following decade.  Both novels echo the on-going debate in 18th century about the impact of modernity on the nature of man.  As G.J. Barker-Benfield persuasively argued in his book, The Culture of Sensibility, "popular novels written by men in the 1760s and 1770s were preoccupied with the meanings of sensibility for manhood...and the ambiguity we now tend to read into the novels of Laurence Stern or Mackenzie reflects this contemporary ambivalence."
       Regardless of how one interprets the underlying debate OR the role of the "novels of sentiment" in the 18th century, it's clear that these tales had an audience.  Of course, in light of the rise of female novelists in the 19th century,  I am left wondering who was buying all the copies of MacKenzie's The Man of Feeling.  Was it men, interested in getting a fix on their identity in a rapidly changing world?  Or was it largely women, interested in men who were depicted behaving in a traditionally "feminine" manner?
      Sterne's Sentimental Journey is a clear way-station on the way to MacKenzie's mincing, sobbing Man of Feeling.  Unlike MacKenzie, Sterne is a comic genius, and his book is filled with episodes of satire and wit that are sorely missing in Man of Feeling.  There is also an element of bawdiness in A Sentimental Journey that is so clearly an element of Sterne's Rabelaisian style- something lacking in MacKenzie, let alone the oft humorless novels of sentiment that were published after the turn of the century.  Blame the Victorians, or don't, it matters little.
      However it's clear to me that the "Sentimental Man" was a cultural trend with all the complexity and force of later trends like Rock and roll, and it's interesting because it was one of the FIRST such modern trends whose influence was reflected in a contemporary art form that was ITSELF just rounding into form (the novel.)  For that reason it's worth thinking about, because by learning about people then, we can learn about ourselves now.
       In conclusion I'd just like to note that like the last classic novel I read (Castle Rackrent), A Sentimental Journey clocks in at around one hundred pages- so be warned- not a great value in that regard.

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