This is possibly the earliest surviving example of a novel in the author’s handwriting. It is an autograph manuscript of the first part of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy – a comic travel novel published in 1768, only three weeks before Sterne died.
A Sentimental Journey
Sterne’s book was inspired by his travels through France and Italy, but the text only just got past Lyons. Like many of Sterne’s works, it is narrated by Yorick, the parson from Tristram Shandy who ‘interests his heart in everything’ (p. 23), but never reaches his journey’s end. Instead, he is diverted by flirtatious escapades and heart-rending encounters with monks, beggars and chambermaids.
As in Tristram Shandy, Sterne plays with different genres. He both exploits and subverts the trend for travel novels, by charting human sensibilities rather than grand landmarks. As a pioneer of ‘sentimental’ fiction, he moves us with ‘pity and fellow-feeling’ (p. 33), but this is mixed with mischievous humour, innuendo and irony.
Which extracts are shown here?
Yorick sails from Dover and by three o’clock he is ‘incontestably in France’ eating ‘fricasee’d chicken’ and wondering if he might die of indigestion (ff. 11v‒15r). On the back of the page, Sterne scrawls a footnote explaining Droits d’aubaine, a law by which the Crown could confiscate foreigners’ goods if they died on French soil.
In the chapter entitled ‘The Desobligeant [or coach] Calais’, Yorick writes a belated preface (ff. 32v‒48r). With self-reflexive wit, he exposes the haphazard process of writing the text we’re reading. The preface considers different kinds of traveller, ending with the ‘Sentimental’ one who seeks human ‘commerce’, as Yorick does. Sterne finishes with a flourish, a little like the one in Tristram Shandy (Volume 9, Chapter 4).
What’s special about the manuscript?
With obsessive attention to detail, Sterne makes over 500 insertions, changes and deletions. This revised manuscript was used as the printer’s copy, and there was probably a parallel manuscript for the second part. One section of part one, folios 56‒69, is missing from this copy.
A Victorian scrapbook
In 1843, the manuscript was bound into a Victorian scrapbook owned by the collector William Upcott (1779–1845). It contains an odd assortment of Sterne memorabilia, including a letter on Coxwold headed paper in which Sterne asks the actor David Garrick if he can borrow ‘twenty pounds’. There is also a painting by Thomas Gosden of Sterne’s inaccurate gravestone, which states that he died aged 55 on 13 September 1768 (it was actually 18 March, and he was 54). Remarkably, Sterne’s body was taken by grave robbers from Paddington to Cambridge for anatomical research, but a professor recognised his corpse and sent it back to London.
The script of Sterne’s novel is interspersed with 19th-century pictures. The first image of Calais Harbour is based on a painting by Clarkson Stanfield. The others are cut from an 1839 edition of A Sentimental Journey, with engravings by John Bastin and G Nicholls, based on drawings by Charles Jacque and Joseph Fussell.
 Page numbers are taken from the Oxford World's Classics edition (2003).