A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy Summary and Analysis of The Fille de Chambre to Character

Yorick decides that he wants to purchase a set of Shakespeare's works, but arrives at the bookstore only to learn there are no sets available. However, one set is being bound for the Count de B***. The Count apparently loves English books and the people of England, as Yorick learns.

A young chambermaid comes into the shop; she is about twenty and is very pretty. She pays for a small book, and Yorick walks out with her. He asks her what she is doing with a particular book which features the title “The Wandering Heart” when she is too young to know of such amorous things. This young woman is sweet and submissive in her bearing, and Yorick gives her a crown for her little purse. As both of the new acquaintances are virtuous, they decide to walk together without shame. Yorick's new companion tells him that she is the chambermaid to Madame R****, and Yorick is surprised, as Madame R**** is the very woman he needs to visit. He gives the girl his compliments to her mistress and says that he will visit tomorrow. As Yorick reflects, “’tis sweet to feel by what fine-spun threads our affections are drawn together” (56).

When Yorick returns home, the anxious La Fleur tells that the Lieutenant de Police stopped by in Yorick's absence. Yorick is not too surprised, since he has an idea what all this might be about: he traveled abroad without a passport because he was so excited to venture forth, and forgot that France and England are at war. Although La Fleur says that a friend of his in Paris might be able to procure Yorick a passport, it is possible that Yorick will be sent to the Bastille if he does not succeed in obtaining documentation. Yorick scoffs at this possibility. He tries to act lightly about the matter so that La Fleur will relax, but as soon as his servant leaves Yorick starts to think seriously about his situation.

Yorick remembers a joke he shared with Eugenius about getting clapped into chains at the Bastille, and sees the irony in the fact that imprisonment of just this sort might come to pass. The word “Bastille” intimidates Yorick, but he considers that it might not be a problem to be shut up for a time with pen and paper and then come out innocent and unharmed. Maybe his fate is not an evil, but merely a stretch of confinement.

As he is musing, Yorick hears a voice repeating the phrase “I can’t get out” and finds himself quite unnerved. He traces this utterance to a bird -- a starling, to be more exact -- in a cage, and realizes how frightened of imprisonment he actually is. Yorick breaks out into cries for deliverance; then, he leans his head on his hand and thinks about how he will be no different from those millions who are enslaved. He imagines a captive, shut up with no companion. He thinks of the time passed in the cell, the chains, the sighs, the misery. He bursts into tears, but calms himself and decides to go to Monsieur Le Duke de Choiseul, who might be able to assist him.

Before continuing to narrate his own adventures, Yorick gives a quick overview of the starling’s history. The Honourable Mr. ****’s young groom found the starling at Dover, then put him in a cage and taught him the phrase that Yorick hears. La Fleur bought the bird for Yorick and then Yorick gave him to another person, who passed him along a few more times. Now, Yorick does not know where the bird is, even though there is a starling on his crest.

Yorick is ashamed at his having to seek the favor of Monsieur Le Duc de Choiseul at Versailles, and cautions himself to be careful about making exactly the right impression. He wonders if he ought to be gay or downcast, and strikes for a middle demeanor. When he arrives, though, he finds Monsieur Le Duc busy and is told to come back in two hours.

In the meantime, Yorick decides to explore the town of Versailles, and orders his coachman to drive him around. The coachman mentions the Count de B****, the very same man who had bought the set of Shakespeare. Yorick wonders if this second authority might be sympathetic to an Englishman, and decides to call on him.

On his way to the Count, Yorick sees a Chevalier de St. Louis selling pates, a reversal of fortune that strikes Yorick as impossible. He feels pity toward the man and asks for his story. It turns out that the Chevalier came out of his regiment without money and without friends, and now must stand in his current position in an attempt to make a living. The king of France is generous, he says, but cannot help everyone. However, Yorick relates the tale of how this poor man eventually does reach the king and is given a pension that meets his needs.

Yorick also relates the tale of the Marquis d’E**** of Brittany, who is trying to save a declining house. He wants his two children to have a future, so he goes before the president and presents his sword, asking him to keep it for a time until he earns it back. For twenty years he and his family work hard so that he can reclaim his nobility; eventually, he returns to address the president. He is given his sword and inspects it closely, for there is a bit of rust on it. He announces that he will find some way to clean this prized possession, and presents it to his family.

The Monsieur Le Count de B**** has no problem admitting Yorick, and is very solicitous to the Englishman. After relating his story, Yorick guides the conversation to other matters. He and the Count get along quite well and have much to talk about, although Yorick is a bit shy when the Count is forward about women. Yorick himself waxes poetic about every woman being a temple; he would rather see sketches and original drawings than the finished work of an artist such as Raphael. He also comments that his journey to France and Italy is intended to get to the heart of nature and of human affections.

The Count asks for Yorick's name, and Yorick considers how difficult it is for him to describe himself. He goes to Hamlet and points to the part about Yorick. The Count is tickled and embraces him. Yet he puts the volume in his pocket and leaves the room suddenly.

While the Count is away, Yorick reads Shakespeare's comedy Much Ado About Nothing. The Count returns with a passport in hand, and tells Yorick that the passport was obtained for him since he, Yorick, is the king’s jester. Confused, Yorick says that he is not, that there is no jester at court in England since there is nothing to jest about (especially since the ladies are so pure). Though a little embarrassed by these circumstances, Yorick accepts the passport.

After Yorick takes the passport, the Count asks Yorick how he finds Frenchmen. Yorick replies that they are polite to excess, but the Count presses him further, not finding him to be totally candid. Yorick endeavors to explain, first trying to employ a musical analogy, then taking two coins from his pocket. He says that the English are like metals that keep apart, and are thus rougher and less pleasant to feel; still, for an Englishman, the “legend is so visible, that the first look you see whose image and superscription they bear” (75), while the French are “a loyal, a gallant, a generous, an ingenious, and good temper’d people as is under heaven –if they have a fault –they are too serious” (75).

The Count wishes to hear more but has to dine with a Duc, and asks Yorick to come along. Yorick promises to join the Count another time and leaves.


While A Sentimental Journey has seemed rather episodic up until this point, here Sterne's novel finds a narrative crux -- Yorick’s lack of a passport, his fear of the Bastille, and his attempts to procure said passport. Even the encounter with the fille de chambre at the beginning of this section actually comes back around to play into this narrative movement. Yorick’s haste to set off for France -- yet another example of his spontaneity -- made it so that he did not procure the needed passport. Now, he must seek assistance from various quarters.

Among the major considerations in this section are Yorick’s observations of the French, especially as they compare to the English. He is asked outright what his feelings concerning the French are, and he describes the French as polite to excess, whereas the English are rougher, more authentic. The tales of the Chevalier and the Marquis also indicate that the French are honorable, persevering, and dignified. In terms of these national characterizations, Tim Parnell’s endnotes elucidate this conversation between the Count and Yorick; Parnell writes that “the notion that English climate and English ‘Liberty’ foster quirky and whimsical character survives today in ideas of English eccentricity, but in the eighteenth century it was an important element in the construction of an emerging national identity. Such an identity was typically defined in opposition to the perceived defects in the French ‘character’.” A letter Sterne himself wrote in 1762 clarifies Sterne's English bias further, communicating the author’s impressions of French manners: “the ground work of my ennui is…the eternal platitude of the French characters –little variety, no originality in it at all…they are very civil –but civility itself, in that uniform, wearies and bodders one to death.” Clearly Sterne’s own ambivalence factors into Yorick’s divided view of his surroundings and their inhabitants.

Moments of strong drama are introduced by both Yorick’s fear of imprisonment and the incident with the starling. Yorick, who depends very much on private fantasies, tries to convince himself that the Bastille would not be so terrible -- since it might provide time for writing and reflection. Eventually his thoughts darken and lead him to a consideration of the millions currently enslaved, then to a vision of himself in a similar situation. Parnell discusses Yorick's ruminations in the context of Adam Smith, whose writings were familiar to Sterne and may have informed this passage. Smith explains that we can never truly understand how another person feels in a situation, so that all we can do is put ourselves in that same situation; through this process, another's "agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels.”

Finally, it is instructive to look at Yorick’s encounter with the fille de chambre, especially in the larger context of Yorick’s flirtations. Scholar Rebecca Gould has offered a compelling take on Yorick’s behavior with and towards women, placing it within a discussion of hysteria, a condition normally seen as feminine in the 18th century. Hysteria during Sterne’s time was thought to be affiliated with a weak constitution, a susceptibility to sensibility, and perhaps even nervous disorder. (Thoughts about hypochondria were similar, but that condition was affiliated with men.) Major hysterical characteristics included “a withdrawal from the commercial world, a sedentary lifestyle, a delicate and weak body, a heightened sensibility, and an overexertion of mental powers." In Yorick's era, hysteria was also associated with masochism -- as evinced, perhaps, in Yorick’s theatrical suffering over his possible imprisonment and his fixation on the starling. Gould acknowledges that Yorick does not possess all the qualities of the hysteric, as Sterne's protagonist does seem to enjoy his life and his travels. Thus, she concludes that the combination of the strong and weak traits supports the position "that [Yorick’s] androgyny is defined by the presence of hysterical traits in him, defining him as a man with a conventionally feminine disorder rather than as a man with a typically male disorder.”

In his various social encounters, Yorick has trouble fully identifying with men: he reacts emotionally and is subject to many erotic reveries, but seldom takes erotic action. His world is internal, imaginative, and emotional. In his relationships with men, his reactions may be explained by impotence and insecurity, as is seen in how he is repulsed by the monk’s celibacy. When Yorick spends time among the upper class, a rich woman treats him very much as a female confidante. In the stories of the Chevalier and the Marquis, “Yorick sees in these figures…what he lacks figuratively, a phallus and the patriarchal power that accompanies it.” And in the late stages of the novel, when he has dinner with the pastoral family, he borrows the father’s knife, as he has no markers of masculinity of his own. La Fleur reminds Yorick of what he does not have, and their positions of power in regards to masculinity are reversed -- despite being the master, Yorick learns from and admires La Fleur. At the very end of the book, an innkeeper gives a lady and her maid a room where Yorick already resides, suggesting that Yorick is "so benign and feminized that she [the innkeeper] sees no reason why the pair could not share a bedroom.” Overall, Yorick’s “marks of masculinity allow him to enter the world outside his home, but his role identification is repeatedly feminine rather than masculine" according to Gould's systematic reading of A Sentimental Journey.