Laurence Sterne’s ‘Bramine’s Journal’ was prompted by his passion for the 22-year-old Elizabeth Draper (1744–1778). They met when she visited London in early 1767, and Sterne wrote this gushingly sentimental text – a cross between a diary and letters – when she left to rejoin her husband, an East India Company official in Bombay. They used the pet-names ‘Bramine’ and ‘Bramin’ to evoke Eliza’s Indian background and Sterne’s religious calling (Brahmin being the highest caste in Hinduism).
The ‘Journal’, dated 13 April to 4 August 1767, is labelled ‘Continuation’ because Laurence and Eliza exchanged letters before this. At the time, Sterne was 53, his wife and daughter were in France, and he was dying of consumption. This text reveals another side of the witty, ironic man who wrote Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey.
‘Fever of the heart’ and venereal disease
On 15–16 April, Sterne wastes away with a ‘fever of the heart’, wallowing in self-pity and mournfully eating his chicken alone. Just over a week later, on 24 April, he tells the ‘comically disastrous’ tale of being diagnosed with a venereal disease, though he insists he hasn’t had sex, ‘not even with my wife … these 15 years’. Nevertheless, he is forced to ‘surrender’ to the mercury he is prescribed. Ultimately this ‘cure’ probably hastened his death in 1768.
Secrecy or publication
Sterne deliberately blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, secrecy and publication. He opens with a disclaimer saying that the names are all ‘fictitious’, as this is just a translation of a French manuscript. He might have intended to publish it and hoped to avoid a scandal by hiding his own identity. Yet he writes in the name of ‘Yorick’, the parson from Tristram Shandy and Sterne’s well-known alter-ego.
While writing the ‘Journal’ Sterne was also composing A Sentimental Journey (1768) ‒ a witty travel novel. This is again narrated by Yorick, who dotes on Eliza’s ‘picture’, as Sterne does in the ‘Bramine’s Journal’ (16 April). But A Sentimental Journey also raises questions about Sterne’s devotion to Eliza, as Yorick confides that he’s ‘been in love with one princess or another almost all my life’ (p. 28, Oxford World’s Classics edition, 2003).
Sterne’s letter to Eliza’s husband
Bound alongside the ‘Journal’ is a long letter dated 15 April 1772, from Eliza Draper in Bombay to her friend Anne James, who had introduced her to Sterne. There is also the draft of an awkward note from Sterne to Mr Draper, in which he struggles to find the right words to declare his ‘honest passion’ for ‘Mrs Draper …your Lady… Mrs Draper’.
A chance discovery
The manuscript was discovered by 11-year-old Thomas Washbourne Gibbs in a room where his father’s old papers were ‘set aside as waste’. Later, Gibbs sent the manuscript to William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863), who was preparing a lecture on Sterne. On 12 September 1851, Thackeray sent a scornful response, saying it would be hard to find a ‘falser and wickeder man’ than Sterne.
 The lecture where Gibbs told the story is described in the Athenaeum, 30 March 1878.
- Full title:
- THE BRAMINE'S JOURNAL': a journal addressed by Laurence Sterne to Eliza Draper, wife of Daniel Draper, of Bombay, after her departure for India, and extending from 13 April to 4 Aug, 1767
- 1767–1851, London, Bombay (Mumbai)
- Manuscript / Letter
- Laurence Sterne, Eliza Draper, William Makepeace Thackeray
- Usage terms
- Laurence Sterne: Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
William Makepeace Thackeray: © The estate of William Makepeace Thackeray. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 34527
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Rise of the novel, Satire and humour, Language and ideas
Dashes, loops, wiggles and blanks: John Mullan investigates the visual oddities of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.