A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy was published in two volumes by Lawrence Sterne in 1768. It is considered a significant work of English literature because it is one of the earliest entries in the genre of travel writing, which became prominent in the 18th century. Travel writing stressed the observation and description of manners, customs, and character. Although A Sentimental Journey was intended to extend over four volumes, Sterne died before the entire project could be finished: there is no “Italy” section, only a section on France.
The novel was written while Sterne was gravely ill, his health failing after years of affliction from tuberculosis. His novel was influenced by a journey he made to France and Naples in 1765, when he accompanied a diplomatic party that was headed towards Turin. Specific details in the novel can be traced to this trip.
A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy received favorable reviews when it was first published, although -- given some of the sexual innuendo in the later parts of the work -- some reviewers were disconcerted to find the author a Reverend. Still, many reviewers considered the novel superior to Sterne's earlier success, the satire Tristram Shandy (1759). A Sentimental Journey is sometimes construed as an epilogue to that work, as well as a response to the travel writings of Tobias Smollett (on whom the character of Smelfungus in A Sentimental Journey is modeled). The character of Yorick, who appears in both of these novels, is seen as Sterne’s alter ego.
Some commentators from past centuries believed that Sterne was capitalizing on the vogue for sentimental fiction during his day, but modern critics suggest that, while Sterne may have had canny commercial instincts, he was still interested in literature for its own sake. Scholar Tim Parnell notes that the nature of A Sentimental Journey should not surprise us, for “our modern sense of the incompatibility of satire and sentiment creates an anachronistic dichotomy that did not obtain in mid-eighteenth century fiction, where the happy cohabitation of irony, comedy, and pathos is commonplace.”