‘Quite out of the beaten track’: Patrick Wildgust on ‘A Sentimental Journey’

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‘I shall not begin my Sentimental Journey till I get to Coxwold – I have laid a plan for something new, quite out of the beaten track.’

Sterne writing from London in February 1767 to his daughter Lydia

It was Shandy Hall in Coxwold that was Laurence Sterne’s intended destination. He had taken up occupancy of the Parsonage when the living of Coxwold was granted him by Lord Fauconberg. Previously he had been responsible for the neighhouring parishes of Sutton-on-the-Forest and Stillington and this third living came partly as a result of his fame as the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Coxwold is 20 miles north of York on the edge of the Hambleton Hills and he found the house and the village much to his liking. It was there, in a small room at the east end of the building, that he had written all but the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy.

Shandy Hall in Coxwold

Tristram Shandy had made Sterne a famous man but he had never been a healthy one. He had suffered from the onset of tuberculosis whilst a sizar at Jesus College, Cambridge where, it is reported, he ‘filled his bed with blood’. Perhaps this dreadful consumption reinforced his understanding that life was short and the only response was to ‘fence against the infirmities and other evils of life by mirth, being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles, but more so when he laughs, that it adds something to this fragment of life’. Laughter could be the only medicine.

The book that was to be ‘quite out of the beaten track’ became A Sentimental Journey and it was written in what is now the room where Shandy Hall’s collection of editions of Sterne’s writings is housed. When Sterne lived here it was his writing room. (In the photorgraph of Shandy Hall the writing room is behind the ground floor window on the right.)

Laurence Sterne's study

The title page of the first edition

On the 27 February 1768, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy was published in two volumes by Becket and De Hondt in the Strand, in an edition of 2500. Following the title page, is a list of 281 names subscribing for 334 copies of the edition of which 132 were printed on ‘Imperial Paper’. Some copies contained a loosely inserted ‘Advertisement’ stating that there should follow a further two volumes (already paid for in the subscription) and a promise for them to be delivered within the year.

Subscribers to the first edition

A new edition of A Sentimental Journey, illustrated by Martin Rowson, published by the Laurence Sterne Trust to celebrate its 250th anniversary, is available from the Bookshop. Order your copy now.

Laurence Sterne is our Author of the Month for February. Find out more about his work here.