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Travel literature became, after the novel, the most famous literary genre in the eighteenth century. Thanks to the geographical discoveries made by important navigators of that time, enlightened people finally could explore with their imagination a ‘new World’. Inevitably, the growing interest in knowing the other lands brought people to travel around the world not only for health reasons, but also for pleasure and to complete their cultural education – this was called by the British, Grand Tour, and it became very popular especially among the leisured classes. In this way, people travelled and recorded their own experiences in their books, becoming then travel literature very useful to those who wanted to know something about the world out of Britain. However, travel books had some important rules that writers must observe: firstly, they must provide a detailed description of costumes and traditions of the visited countries; and secondly, travel’s records must be objective – no space for the author’s impressions. Nevertheless, a real change was taking place in the second half of the century concerning the ‘sentimental novel’, and it was made just by Laurence Sterne who wrote his books with ‘feeling’.
Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy was published in 1768, and it wants to be a satire of traditional travel books in which objectivity was the only protagonist. In fact, in this book the author presents to us a new protagonist, that is, the traveler’s feeling while he is travelling around the world. The author therefore focuses his attention on traveller’s sensibility and impressions during his journey through France and Italy.
In the first volume Yorick, the protagonist, says that travelers belong to different ‘Heads’, so that we can find ‘idle travelers’, ‘proud travelers’, ‘travelers of necessity’ and so forth. He belongs, however, to none of these classes because he is a “[…] Sentimental Traveler who have travelled, […] as much out of necessity, and the besoin de Voyager”, and that his travel’s accounts will be different from the others. Therefore, he foregrounds his impressions and sensations received during his journey from people, saying that “an English man does not travel to see English men”, and focusing then on human relationships originated from his meetings with people of ‘France and Italy’ – it is not then based on ‘practical aspects’ of a country that had characterized most traditional travel books. In this way, Sterne disrupts novel’s traditional rules giving also a new meaning to the word ‘sentimental’ and to Eros concept in general.
“But what were the temptations, (as I write not to apologize for the weaknesses of my heart in this tour, - but to give an account of them) – shall be described with the same simplicity, with which I felt them”: Sentimental Journey is full of this veiled Eros made by double meanings, which creeps into book’s pages and also into our imagination. This was strongly in contrast “con l’esaltazione della castit? e della ‘delicatezza’ predicate come essenziali in un particolare contesto culturale” ; nevertheless, it is just this kind of slyness that appealed to most readers of that time.
“Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still slavery! – still thou art a bitter draught, and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no less bitter on that account”: this is Yorick’s thinking about slavery, one of the most important topics during Enlightenment. He exclaims these words in the Starling episode, in which he is interrupted by the ‘voice’ of a starling who wants to get out of the cage while he is making one of his soliloquies. He then tries to free him in vain, and this leads the protagonist to imagine a slave locked up in a prison without having the courage to go on because, as Yorick himself says, “I burst into tears – I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn”.
To conclude, Sentimental Journey is a real journey into Yorick’s feelings and impressions, but he is different from the other “enlightened British […] shocked by the misery they met” on Grand Tour, because he reacts to every aspect of the World with smile, feeling and above all sensibility, so that he can really learn something from his sentimental experience.
Bertinetti, Paolo (2000) (a cura di) Storia della letteratura inglese, Vol. 1, Torino, Einaudi (Piccola Biblioteca Einaudi Nuova Serie), pp. 373-375
Outram, Dorinda (2006) L’illuminismo. Trad. di G. Arganese. Bologna, Il Mulino [tit. orig. The Enlightenment], pp. 65-79
Porter, Roy (2001) Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World, London, Penguin Books, pp. 1-23
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