Writing War in the Age of Sterne: The Seven Years' War and A Sentimental Journey

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Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey was written in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, and is arguably influenced by the author’s travels on the continent during this period of conflict, in 1762. The theme of war, however, is pushed to the background in the novel, making the culture of wit, politeness and sensibility take the centre stage. Sterne’s protagonist, Yorick, is poorly attuned to contemporary events: oblivious to the fact that his country is at war with France, he carelessly travels there without arranging for a passport. He appears unable to comprehend the enormity even of his own situation when threatened with the idea of incarceration in the Bastille. Despite Yorick’s naivite, however, his observations in France testify to the miseries war can bring to a country; behind the light-hearted jokes and gentlemanly politeness a reader of sensibility will find impoverished soldiers, crowds of beggars, and a bleak world where fellow-feeling is so scarce that kindness to an animal can become a spectacle.
This essay proposes to read A Sentimental Journey as a piece of war-writing, in the context of first-hand accounts of life during the Seven Years’ War written by soldiers, civilians and travellers. While Sterne’s account focuses on Yorick’s mental and emotional journey, I will read a range of primary sources from the period to uncover what the novel strives to suppress: the immediate experience (physical and emotional) of war on those who participated in it or observed it, as well as the state of Europe (especially England and France) during this time of conflict. The essay will argue that the discourse of sensibility enables both the erasure and the re-surfacing, in a polite guise, of the realities of war in the novel. I will analyse Sterne’s commentary on the limits of eighteenth-century sensibility and highlight the techniques used to awaken his audience’s responsiveness to the darker contemporary issues that are suppressed behind the novel’s humorous façade.
Original languageEnglish
JournalThe Shandean
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 10 Aug 2020

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