‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: Sentimental Beginnings and Endings

2018 has already provided a curate’s egg anniversary for scholars of eighteenth-century fiction: 250 years since the first publication of A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (27 February 1768) and, less than a month later, the death of its author, Laurence Sterne (18 March 1768).

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas (1760), National Portrait Gallery.

‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference marked both sestercentennials by inviting over forty scholars from twelve countries to reflect on the impact of Sterne’s writings in his and our times. The conference took place at Sterne’s Alma Mater Jesus College, Cambridge, providing an opportunity for delegates staying in college accommodation to breakfast beneath a copy of Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sterne in the dining hall.

Marking both events together proved apt. A Sentimental Journey was, from its earliest conception, tied to the health of its author. Its origins lie in a seven-month tour of France and Italy that Sterne, a sufferer from pulmonary tuberculosis since his days as an undergraduate, undertook to improve his ailing condition. The risks as well as the rewards of venturing abroad in ill health are immediately apparent in the narrative. Having only just arrived in Calais and dining on a ‘fricassee’d chicken’ (ASJ, 3), Yorick, the text’s sentimental traveller, worries that the richness of his meal might lead to death by indigestion and the loss of his goods under the rules of the Droits d’aubaine. It is a mordant first step into cultural tourism: having just crossed the border into France, death by consumption would cement Yorick the consumptive’s status as an outsider under its laws of inheritance.

Many readers in 1768 would have been aware that Sterne had already resurrected Yorick from his death in the first volume of Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Even this most absolute of borders proves porous when Sterne requires it to be, and this sense of strange re-orderings, and the haziness of causal links that bind characters to each other and to their environs, suffuses much of his fiction. After an early chastening encounter with a monk he inadvertently abuses, Yorick promises to ‘learn better manners as I get along’ (ASJ, 11), yet his journey fails to provide any straightforward heuristic narrative. Yorick later muses that ‘I seldom go to the place I set out for’ (ASJ, 103), and it proves difficult to discern what, if anything, he actually learns from his sentimental encounters.

Digressions abound; at one point Yorick winds up in Rennes (200 miles west of his route south from Calais to Lyon) without any explanation for his presence there beyond it being ‘an incident of good fortune which will never happen to any traveller, but a sentimental one’ (ASJ, 108). As James Chandler notes, the capacity to reflect on his feelings appears to open Yorick to a flux of potential encounters, yet it remains unclear whether such reflections ‘can be supposed to occur on a single plane of circulation, where we all reflect each other’, or ‘on an ascending scale of higher-order recognitions’.[1]

Conversely, Yorick values highly the ability to distinguish difference. His distinction between the English and the French national character relies, as if folding the principle of differentiation in on itself, on differing potentials for individuation. The French, he argues, have reached such a heightened degree within the ‘progress of their refinements’ (ASJ, 119) that, like coins ‘jingling and rubbing one against another for seventy years together […] they are become so much alike, you can scarce distinguish one shilling from another’ (ASJ, 119). The English, in contrast, are ‘like antient medals, kept more apart, and passing but few peoples hands’ and it is this propensity to remain separate that preserves ‘the first sharpnesses which the fine hand of nature has given them’ (ASJ, 119). Yorick’s further observation that ‘’tis certain the French conceive better than they combine’ (ASJ, 112) almost certainly refers to Locke’s description of wit and judgement as respectively the combining and separating of ideas, yet the peculiarity of his own narrative lies in its interplay between such atomistic and holistic impulses.

Even defining what we should search for order proves a vexed point. Yorick’s Journey begins with his reader arriving at the end of a conversation: ‘––THEY order, said I, this matter better in France––’ (ASJ, 3). Precisely what ‘matter’ is ordered ‘better’ in France remains undisclosed. Some critics, such as Martin C. Battestin, take the term to allude to Sterne’s complicated friendship as an Anglican clergyman with materialist philosophes such as Baron d’Holbach, who was instrumental in obtaining Sterne’s passport to travel through France.[2] Another solution lies in the careful arrangement of the text itself into titled scenes, or vignettes. In driving action from discourse at the Journey’s outset, Sterne, Michael Seidel argues, ‘makes the linguistic properties of utterance spatial’, but more importantly, by inscribing ‘the space for narrative projection’ in these terms, he threads the ‘matter’ of what is, or should be, well ‘order[ed]’ into the fiction’s textual weave.[3] In a prime example of Sternean slippage between text and scene, it is the order of narrative ‘matters’ – i.e. the material arrangement and divisions of the book itself – that Yorick most strongly evokes by asking that his reader interpret the end of a conversation as the beginning of his journey.

If it begins with an ending, the Journey ends with an aposiopesis, or breaking off, that again conflates text and scene. Somewhat uncomfortably for readers in the age of #metoo, the interruption provides also a pun on a grope, with Yorick’s outstretched hand catching ‘hold of the Fille de Chambre’s… END OF VOL. II.’ (ASJ, 165). As Paul Goring noted in a paper at Cambridge, the Journey’s abrupt conclusion also left Sterne’s final debt to his readers unrepaid. Its subscribers had been promised four volumes for their investment, but Sterne’s untimely death left them with only two.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Laurence Sterne, alias Tristram Shandy: ‘And When Death Himself Knocked at My Door’, by Thomas Patch, etching (1769), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The scene, ‘The Case of Delicacy’ (ASJ, 160), with which the Journey’s second and final volume ends, proves fascinating in light of the events that took place shortly after its publication. We leave Yorick supine and almost entombed in a bedchamber, ‘it being totally dark’ (ASJ, 165). Yorick’s hand extends ‘by way of asseveration’ (ASJ, 165) in one final reach outwards that manages to be both deathly and bawdy – in other words, Sternean. In a first-hand account of Sterne’s death in London, John MacDonald, a footman to one of Sterne’s friends, reports that when the moment came ‘He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.

Our conference at Cambridge welcomed a number of distinguished speakers, including author Martin Rowson, who discussed his graphic novel adaptations of Sterne’s fictions, and Peter de Voogd, who shared his insights from amassing arguably the largest collection of Sterne’s works on the continent.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference’.

Martin Rowson delivers a guest speech at ‘Alas, Poor Yorick!’: A Sterne 250-Year Anniversary Conference.

My own highlight was an incisive keynote from Freya Johnston, who addressed the subject of characterisation and determinism in Sterne’s fictions. Sterne’s characters, Johnston argued, do not develop or change in his narratives so much as undergo ordeals that evince their engrained hobby-horsical inconsistencies time and again. The claustrophobia that permeates his works – in which, even when we follow Yorick on the open road, we find ourselves enclosed within discreet, archly constructed sentimental scenes – begins with Tristram’s conception of the homunculus as an already complete character-in-miniature, and culminates at the end of the Journey’s first volume with Yorick reflecting on Walter Shandy’s theory that ‘children, like other animals, might be increased almost to any size, provided they came right into the world’ (ASJ, 80). According to Walter, only the rooms in which children are confined limit the extent of their growth, a theory that Yorick considers, but equivocates in passing judgement on, in his observations of a Parisian dwarf. It is an oddly death-like vision of the human potential for growth: one in which characters come pre-formed, encased in – and stunted by – their environment. Like being born into a coffin.

– Alexander Hardie-Forsyth (Wolfson College, Oxford)

[1] James Chandler, An Archaeology of Sympathy: The Sentimental Mode in Literature and Cinema (Chicago, 2013), p.205.

[2] Martin C. Battestin, ‘Sterne among the Philosophes: Body and Soul in A Sentimental Journey’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 7:1 (October 1994), p.19.

[3] Michael Seidel, ‘Narrative Crossings: Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey’, Genre, 18 (1985), p.2.


Les manuscrits à la VF: découvertes et partage

First page of ‘Assassins section 2de’

Début de la copie de l’article ‘Assassins section 2de’ (Voltaire Foundation: ms.73 [Lespinasse 3], p.14).

Une petite armoire à la Voltaire Foundation abrite une collection modeste de manuscrits dont la plupart datent du dix-huitième siècle. Rassemblés par notre fondateur, Theodore Besterman, tous les documents ne concernent pas forcément (ou uniquement) Voltaire: récemment nous avons accueilli des chercheurs de l’équipe des Œuvres complètes de d’Alembert, un collègue de la British Library, et j’ai aussi été contactée par le responsable du projet de l’Inventaire Condorcet, qui me demandait de vérifier des références et de fournir, pour leur beau site, des photos de certaines lettres que Voltaire avait adressées à Condorcet dont nous possédons des copies d’époque.

C’est en cherchant une de ces lettres, en feuilletant un volume de papiers laissés par Mlle de Lespinasse, que je suis tombée sur un texte de Voltaire qui m’était familier, et cela depuis dix ans, car c’est en 2008 que j’ai participé à l’édition du second volume des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Par un heureux hasard, la découverte coïncidait avec le travail de préparation de l’introduction des mêmes Questions, qui paraîtra dans quelques mois. Il ne s’agissait aucunement d’une hallucination: le texte, ‘Assassins section 2de’, est bel et bien celui de l’article ‘Assassinat’ de cet ouvrage de Voltaire en forme d’encyclopédie (article au demeurant assez méchant, où l’auteur s’attaque à Jean-Jacques Rousseau).

Selon la note inscrite en marge du titre de ce texte dans le manuscrit Lespinasse (on la voit sur la photo), Voltaire envoya l’article à D’Alembert avec sa lettre du 9 juillet 1770 (D16505). Ce qui m’a surprise, c’est que l’inclusion de cette ‘pièce jointe’ n’est pas signalée dans l’édition de la correspondance de Voltaire procurée par Theodore Besterman. La chose étonne surtout étant donné que celui-ci connaissait déjà le volume manuscrit au moment de préparer son édition (cette copie est l’unique source de la lettre qui nous occupe), et en fournit la référence dans l’apparat critique de la lettre. Il a donc apparemment jugé qu’il n’était pas pertinent de mentionner ce témoignage concernant l’envoi de l’article avec la lettre. Pourtant, il est extrêmement intéressant pour quiconque s’intéresse à la diffusion et à la pré-publication des Questions de savoir que cet article figure parmi ceux que l’auteur envoya à D’Alembert, l’un des deux responsables de l’Encyclopédie, ouvrage avec lequel les Questions entrent pour ainsi dire en dialogue.

La question se pose évidemment de savoir si le copiste disait vrai ou s’il se trompait… Mais cette petite histoire d’une trouvaille inattendue illustre l’évolution de l’esprit de l’édition critique sur la quarantaine d’années qui se sont écoulées depuis la parution de la seconde édition de la correspondance de Voltaire dans les années 1970. On a beaucoup plus tendance de nos jours à prêter attention aux détails matériels des sources et à incorporer ces indices à l’apparat critique. D’un point de vue personnel, je suis contente d’avoir trouvé ce manuscrit avant et non pas après la parution de l’introduction des Questions – où Christiane Mervaud s’intéresse à la genèse et à la diffusion de ce texte – et heureuse aussi de constater qu’il ne présente aucune variante textuelle par rapport aux deux autres manuscrits connus de cet article, qui sont conservés, assez bizarrement, dans la même armoire à la Voltaire Foundation.

– Gillian Pink



Improvement and Enlightenment

A recent invitation to talk to the Enlightenment Workshop of the Voltaire Foundation prompted me to consider the ways in which some modes of thinking common during the Enlightenment might have been inherited – directly or indirectly – from the English idea of ‘improvement’, a topic on which I had been working. By ‘improvement’ I refer to a word and a culture which were invented in England in the seventeenth century and had their most notable effects, at least initially, at home. Other countries might have been striving for improvement in practice in one way or another at the same time, but the English found a word which embraced every aspect of it, and fashioned out of it a frame of mind which had remarkable consequences.

The word ‘improve’ was first coined in England in the later fifteenth century, and it meant to make a profit from land. By the early seventeenth century the notion and word were being extended, by Francis Bacon, for example, who described learning as capable of being ‘improved and converted by the industry of man’. Then in the 1640s and 1650s the word was extended further by the Baconian reformers in the group led by the Prussian emigre Samuel Hartlib, some of whom went on to become founders of the Royal Society. Hartlib himself was most interested in promoting agricultural improvement, but the word and concept were already being applied to trade and banks, and were soon used about almost everything – including navigable rivers, fire engines, military power and the relief of the poor.

Much of this was propaganda for particular projects, and intended to profit their advocates. But improvers also had to their credit two major innovations in thinking about economic behaviour and the economy in general – two crucial components which English improvement carried with it into the eighteenth century. The first was the explicit defence of consumer appetites and luxury as legitimate roads to national wealth. In the 1670s Nicholas Barbon led a reaction against contemporary criticism of London as a monster consuming the wealth of the nation. Instead he pictured competitive consumption as the consequence of ‘emulation’, and a positive cause of both individual and national improvement. According to Barbon, ‘all men by a perpetual industry’ were ‘struggling to mend their former condition; and thus the people grow rich’. Here, for the first time, some of the moral brakes on economic appetites were being deliberately and explicitly relaxed. A whole generation before Bernard Mandeville’s infamous Fable of the Bees, self-interest was being presented as identical to the public interest.

Sir William Petty

Sir William Petty, by Isaac Fuller (1649-50).

The second intellectual innovation of the 1670s was the work of William Petty, whose tract, Political Arithmetick, advertised the method he had invented for conceptualising, analysing, and measuring the wealth and resources of states. Petty used it to produce for England the first set of national accounts ever devised, and from it he developed a wholly new kind of political economy which he manipulated to show how the power and wealth of England would soon rival those of France. While Barbon opened the way to unrestrained economic appetites, one might say, Petty showed how their consequences could be measured and predicted.

When it came to the realities of England’s economic performance after 1688, therefore, the slogan of improvement was everywhere to be seen. It was wielded by advocates of the Bank of England in 1694, by supporters of the Union with Scotland in 1707, and by a crowd of promoters of trading and insurance companies and transport improvements, on whose often hazardous enterprises England’s economic success ultimately depended. By the 1720s, when Daniel Defoe publicised England as the greatest ‘trading improving nation’[1] in the world, ‘improvement’ had become shorthand for describing and justifying the dedication of the English to the pursuit of every kind of national and personal well-being.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, artist unknown (National Maritime Museum, London).

By the 1720s too, improvement appeared to have delivered the goods. We now know that the national income had increased rapidly in the later seventeenth century; and since the population of England had stopped growing, income per head – the standard of living – had risen even more rapidly, probably by about fifty per cent in half a century, an astonishing achievement. Improvement seemed to have created England’s material affluence, and it is no accident that in the years around 1700 the word ‘affluence’ began to be used with its modern meaning, and that ‘progress’ began to be commonly applied to material progress. It was inevitable that so successful a culture should attract foreign admirers, visitors like Voltaire who came to learn its secrets, and politicians in other states who hoped, as David Hume observed, to ‘emulate’ England and adopt improvements of their own.

The full force of an improvement culture naturally travelled first and most successfully to other English dominions, to Ireland and Scotland, and especially, and with the greatest impact, to the English colonies in America, where both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found ‘inventions of improvement’ proliferating in endless sequence. The language of English improvement moved less easily across the Channel because it needed translation, but that was no obstacle to the transmission of the intellectual content which lay beneath the word, and least of all to the transmission of English political economy. Its influence was notable, for example, in translations of John Law’s tract on improvement, Money and Trade (1705), into French and German in 1720, and in other economic works written in Paris at the time, which drew on English examples, like the three volumes by Ernst Ludwig Carl, Traité de la Richesse des Princes (1723), which pointed to England’s material improvement and economic progress, and Jean-François Melon’s Essai politique sur le commerce (1734), which had a chapter on political arithmetic, and an argument that France must imitate English industry if there was to be similar economic ‘progress’ there.

John Law

John Law, by Alexis Simon Belle (c. 1715-20).

The most weighty testimony to the impact of improvement in France came in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, where Diderot himself, in a long entry on ‘arithmétique politique’, paid tribute to Petty as the first practitioner of a quantitative science indispensable for any politician concerned with trying to ensure the prosperity of a state by every possible means, including ‘la perfection de l’agriculture’. It is interesting to note that the word ‘perfection’ was used again for ‘improvement’ in translations into French of some of the works of Hume and Adam Smith also written in the 1750s. The common vocabulary suggests that something of the persuasive power of improvement had become part of what one might call Enlightenment thinking.

There were doubtless other sources, besides the writings of English improvers, which contributed to similar ways of thinking; and it is undeniable that there were whole sectors of Enlightenment thought to which English authors made little contribution. Nonetheless, when historians of the Enlightenment seek to identify its greatest contribution to Western thought, and point – as some of them do – to a new political economy aimed at ‘human betterment’, they are paying tribute to English writers on improvement of the second half of the seventeenth century. They had been the first to build a whole culture around the notion that individuals, societies and states had the capacity to ‘mend their condition’ (as Barbon put it) and to demonstrate practical ways of going about it.

– Paul Slack

[1] In A Tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain (vol.1, 1724).

Fausser le climat pour mieux s’exprimer? Stratégies de discours dans la philosophie politique de la Renaissance aux Lumières

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573).

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, ‘Hiver’ (1573). Courtesy of giuseppe-arcimboldo.org (CC by 4.0).

Pour expliquer l’hypothèse de lecture de mon livre, Les Climats du pouvoir: rhétorique et politique chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, je voudrais me référer à la blague suivante, tirée d’un article du Dictionnaire de Trévoux:

‘Le froid, dans le figuré, est une métaphore établie; mais il ne faut point qu’elle passe les bornes: & l’Italien qui disoit à son retour de Pologne, que les personnes de ce pays-là étoient si froides, que leur conversation l’avoit enrhumé, outrait la métaphore.’ (‘Froid’, Dictionnaire de Trévoux)

Durant l’Ancien Régime, la popularité des discours climatologiques et déterministes tenait non seulement aux effets de science qu’ils apportaient à la conversation mais à leur flexibilité rhétorique. C’est pourquoi il faut noter la sagesse de l’article ‘Froid’ du Dictionnaire de Trévoux qui ironise sur la facilité des corrélations à laquelle la logique déterministe peut trop souvent donner lieu. Entre la température et le tempérament, le potentiel rhétorique des associations fait voir un glissement métaphorique qu’on peut aisément exagérer ou dissimuler à des fins multiples. Dans mon livre, qui porte sur les appropriations politiques du climat, le but n’est pas nécessairement de faire rire. Mais on retrouve le même écart créatif à l’égard de cette théorie prétendument scientifique.

C’est un ludisme qui échappe parfois aux analyses, surtout en raison du passé controversé des théories des climats. Celles-ci ne méritent souvent que des explications historiques et épistémologiques. On considère souvent le discours comme une erreur de l’époque, comme si son ‘primitivisme’ ou manque de rigueur scientifique neutralisait quelque peu sa charge ethnocentrique. D’où la tendance à expliquer les différentes versions de la théorie en bloc, en fonction d’une épistémè qui n’est plus la nôtre, mais qui entrent dans une généalogie de nos origines et de nos progrès scientifiques. Ainsi, Bodin croyait à la théorie des climats à cause des influences de la cosmologie; Montaigne et La Mothe Le Vayer y recouraient grâce à l’ouverture chorographique (géographie axée sur la description) fournie par les récits de voyage et ainsi de suite. Toutefois, de telles lectures désamorcent le déterminisme climatique et le neutralisent par l’explication. Ainsi, en soumettant le discours à des déterminismes épistémologiques, on risque de passer sous silence les logiques internes du discours, c’est-à-dire leur créativité propre.

C’est ici que je voudrais dégager l’ironie des théories des climats. Chez Bodin, Montesquieu et Rousseau, les théories des climats s’avèrent conscientes d’elles-mêmes ainsi que des erreurs géographiques qu’elles véhiculent. Autrement dit, les discours des climats ne sont pas nécessairement une chasse gardée pour les historiens de la science. Dans le cas des appropriations politiques, ils peuvent jouer un rôle prépondérant dans la structure argumentative de l’ouvrage et inviter à des usages métaphoriques. Mon livre propose une lecture en profondeur de ces arguments, tant sur la forme que sur le fond, les reliant aux grandes théories politiques de la période: la souveraineté, le constitutionnalisme et le républicanisme. J’avance que l’usage créatif du discours climatique révèle différents niveaux de lecture et différents types de lecteurs.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu

Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (anonymous portrait, 1728). Public domain.

Pour revenir à la blague du Trévoux, il faut cependant convenir que, contrairement à la voix narrative qui annonce l’humour du ‘rhume’, les corrélations température-tempérament des déterminismes climatiques tendent à estomper leurs marques énonciatives. La tentative est de confiner à une vérité scientifique. La dimension rhétorique se dissimule derrière l’observation empirique. De là, le discours se réclame d’une vérité physique, des observations avérées par la connaissance géographique, pour objectiver une position scientifique, que mon étude explique, de différentes manières, comme un homme de paille. C’est ce voile de la ‘scientificité’ qui abrite une stratégie détournée ou ‘ésotérique’ (Leo Strauss) de représenter le pouvoir. Moins des ‘caractères’ sociologiques ou des indices de la diversité humaine, les climats cachent une philosophie du pouvoir. Une grande partie de mes analyses expliquent le pourquoi de cette dissimulation que les théories de Strauss – mais aussi l’héritage des miroirs des princes – aident à structurer. Pour les modèles gouvernementaux et absolutistes de l’Ancien Régime, le discours climatique sera envisagé en tant qu’un idiome destiné aux législateurs, qui imite le manque de transparence de leur pouvoir, c’est-à-dire les arcana imperii, afin de mieux les influencer.

– Richard Spavin

Sade: a national treasure?

What do Ian McKellen and the Marquis de Sade have in common? They’re both national treasures in their respective countries.

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome.

In Britain, a national treasure is someone who’s been around for quite a while, and generally regarded with respect and affection. Think Judi Dench and David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Alan Bennett, who are probably Britain’s favourite national treasures even though they might blanch at the label. Such is the enduring love for these reassuring yet sometimes quirky figures that even when scandal strikes – as when La Lumley was embroiled in that ghastly garden bridge brouhaha – we collectively sigh, shrug and continue in our comfortable love. This points to a trait common to many British national treasures: their pasts as well as their presents are rarely conservative. Though they may have a traditional keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude, there’s often something irreverent, naughty or even queer about them – think of Irvine Welsh, Helen Mirren and David Hockney. That’s why Kate Moss is already a national treasure, Nicola Adams might be one day, but the Queen will never be. Longevity doesn’t translate into insipidness, and Mary Beard exemplifies how a national treasure continues to stimulate, provoke and upset (some of) us.

National treasures in France, however, are not people but ‘des biens culturels qui présentent un intérêt majeur pour le patrimoine national au point de vue de l’histoire, de l’art ou de l’archéologie’, and whose expatriation is temporarily blocked so that their value can be determined by experts and potentially for the State to raise sufficient funds for their purchase. On 18 December 2017 France’s Ministère de la culture declared the manuscript of Sade’s 120 journées de Sodome to be a ‘trésor national’, a decision taken just before the twelve-metre long scroll was about to be auctioned off as part of a sale of manuscripts owned by the now discredited company Aristophil, a French investment firm that went bankrupt in 2015 after buying more than a 100,000 manuscripts and whose founder was charged with fraud last year. Sade’s scroll – as well as André Breton’s Manifestes du surréalisme which were also owned by Aristophil and were similarly designated a national treasure – cannot leave France for at least thirty months, during which time the State is expected to rustle up the funds to purchase it at a price such as it would reach on the international market. According to Le Figaro, that sum is in the region of 8 million euros, slightly more than the 7 million euros paid by Aristophil, which bought the manuscript in 2014, the bicentennial of Sade’s death.

Les 120 journées de Sodome – described by its author as the ‘récit le plus impur qui ait jamais été fait depuis que le monde existe, le pareil livre ne se rencontrant ni chez les anciens ni chez les modernes’, and somewhat surprisingly by both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail as ‘an erotic masterpiece’ – appeared in the Pléiade series in 1990 and as a Penguin Classic in 2016. As the official website of the Ministère de la culture notes, ‘ce manuscrit, remarquable par sa forme particulière résultant des conditions de sa création en cellule lors de l’incarcération du marquis de Sade à la Bastille, son parcours fort mouvementé, sa réputation sulfureuse et son influence sur un certain nombre d’écrivains français du XXème siècle, est d’une importance majeure dans l’œuvre de Sade, en tant que premier véritable ouvrage, à la fois le plus radical et le plus monumental, bien que resté inachevé.’ Frédéric Castaing, member of the committee that advises on which works should be classified as national treasures, is quoted in the New York Times as describing Les 120 journées as a work that ‘that challenges, that reaches into the depths of humanity, of the obscure, […] a serious document of literature, of France’s literary history.’ Its canonization is now complete and irrefutable.

Ironically, Les 120 journées de Sodome works against the idea of nationhood. One of the books that inspired Sade’s novel is the Abbé Bertoux’s Anecdotes françaises (1767), which provides a pithy story or two to exemplify the ‘mœurs, […] usages et […] coutumes’ of the French nation for many of the years since 487. In contrast to Bertoux, who deploys the conventional anecdote to forge a collective and nationalist readership, Sade uses the obscene anecdote to create an individual and subversive reader. And yet there is a logic to this violent, obscene and radically atheist novel being declared – and publicly funded – as a national treasure. Sade writes in ‘Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains’, the political pamphlet intercalated in La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795):

‘Que les blasphèmes les plus insultants, les ouvrages les plus athées soient ensuite autorisés pleinement, afin d’achever d’extirper dans le cœur et la mémoire des hommes ces effrayants jouets de notre enfance [the phrase “effrayants jouets de notre enfance” of course refers to religion]; que l’on mette au concours l’ouvrage le plus capable d’éclairer enfin les Européens sur une matière aussi importante, et qu’un prix considérable, et décerné par la nation, soit la récompense de celui qui, ayant tout dit, tout démontré sur cette matière, ne laissera plus à ses compatriotes qu’une faux pour culbuter tous ces fantômes et qu’un cœur droit pour les haïr.’

With his manuscript now classified as a national treasure, it transpires that Sade has won just that kind of prize. Whether his fellow Europeans are in the mood to award a similar prize is less clear for now.

– Thomas Wynn, Durham University

Thomas Wynn’s translation and edition of The 120 Days of Sodom, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, University of London), was published by Penguin Classics in 2016.


D’Éon vs Rousseau: Gender, slavery and the unique self

Chevalier d'Eon

Portrait of Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont by Thomas Stewart (1792), at the National Portrait Gallery.

Virtually everything about the Chevalier d’Éon’s life was extraordinary. D’Éon had a decorated career as a dragoon, diplomat, spy for the French king and rumoured double agent, not to mention being a prolific author, proto-feminist, freemason, international celebrity and exceptional fencer.[1] However, far more remarkable than all of this is the fact that, aged forty-nine, the Chevalier began a new life as a woman. After rumours began to circulate in 1770, d’Éon, who was living in England at the time, was subsequently taken to court, declared a woman and required to adopt female dress for the last thirty-two years of their life. Upon death, the body was examined and described as ‘unambiguously male’.[2] The reasons for d’Éon’s acceptance of a female identity instead of proving otherwise have been guessed at but never fully explained. Suggestions have ranged from the purely practical, such as the avoidance of assassination, to the deeply personal, such as the hypothesis that d’Éon was an example of a transgender individual avant la lettre.[3]

In around 1785, d’Éon wrote The Maiden of Tonnerre as an attempt to justify their decisions and lifestyle.[4] The intention was for this work to be translated into English and published, but the translation was not completed and the work remained unpublished until 2001. No French edition is currently available. The Maiden of Tonnerre contains a collection of semi-truths, letters, historical fiction and outright fibs claiming to be autobiographical, all tailored to maintain d’Éon’s self-image as a woman who lived as a man for the first forty-nine years of her life. Given this authorial intent, the literary persona of the Chevalière d’Éon, as portrayed in The Maiden of Tonnerre, will accordingly be referred to as ‘she/her’, while the real-life Chevalier d’Éon will continue to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ‘they/their’.

Due to its hybrid nature, The Maiden of Tonnerre is something of a trans-genre text, existing at the crossroads of several literary genres just as its author existed at the crossroads of traditional sex and gender identities. In this work, the Chevalière outlines a conception of gender that is radically different from the stringent gender roles that are so often cited as typical of the late eighteenth century, attesting to a deep-seated psychological component to her embodied situation:

‘I had two personalities. My mind tended toward tranquillity, solitude, and study. Prudence told me that this was the wisest and simplest way to shield myself, but my heart loved the clash of weapons and the display of all the military drills. Unable to consult either man or woman, I consulted God and the Devil and, so as not to fall into the water, I jumped into the fire.’ (p.7)

D’Éon locates stereotypical eighteenth-century masculine and feminine gender roles as central to her anguish. Her hybrid psychological gender identity made up of ‘two personalities’ cannot bring itself to conform to the rigid gender roles society expects of a woman. The real-life d’Éon is likely to have encountered these gender roles as expressed in the famed writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, of whom they were an avid follower. However, as will become clear, the two authors vehemently disagreed on key issues surrounding gender.

Engravings of the Chevalier and Chevalière d’Éon

Engravings of the Chevalier and Chevalière d’Éon by Jean-Baptiste Bradel (c. 1780) which demonstrate a very different interpretation of gender ambiguity, namely that d’Éon is presented as two different people.

To exemplify this, we might recall Rousseau’s declarations in Émile that the ideal woman is ‘modeste en apparence’ and that ‘la femme est faite pour plaire et pour être subjuguée’.[5] Every time the Chevalière is reprimanded by others, it is for violating this strict Rousseauian conception of femininity, whether it be by wearing her dragoon uniform in public or initially refusing to wear dresses when ordered to by the king (p.28-32). It is telling that d’Éon associates her modest, traditionally feminine side with her ‘mind’, while her traditionally masculine military side is associated with her ‘heart’. Not only does d’Éon mingle gender roles, she completely inverts them, reversing the accepted eighteenth-century dichotomy of ‘à l’homme le rationnel, à la femme la sensibilité’.[6]

Indeed, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘god’ and ‘devil’, ‘water’ and ‘fire’ all refer to binary logic founded on the principle of ‘either/or’, which, as d’Éon makes clear, offers no consolation to her unique gendered condition. This claim to singularity resembles Rousseau’s very own conception of the unique self as put forward in his autobiography, the Confessions.[7] It is d’Éon’s singularly non-conforming ‘style of life’ and ‘personality’ that causes her to resent the assimilation imposed upon her when the ladies of the court ‘have [her] play all the roles necessary to teach [her] how to behave at all times like an important noblewoman’ (p.17). This coerced assimilation is comparable to how transgender people are often compelled to ‘pass’ (either fully masculinise or fully feminise their appearance) to minimise their visibility by conforming to modern social custom. Likewise, d’Éon describes these predetermined roles as ‘chains’ and ‘shackles’ and likens the conformity they demand to ‘slavery’, desperately pleading, ‘Just leave me as I am’ (p.74, 62). In using this lexis, d’Éon draws upon yet another Rousseauian concept: the opposition between free will and slavery laid out in Du Contrat social. Thus, d’Éon appropriates two key notions found in Rousseau’s autobiographical and political writings to argue against Jean-Jacques (and much of eighteenth-century French society) on the topic of predetermined, fixed gender roles.

The translated edition of d’Éon’s ‘autobiography’

The translated edition of d’Éon’s ‘autobiography’, The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon, by Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates (London, 2001).

The Chevalière instead affirms that, as a unique individual, she should be left to interpret gender in her own unique way. D’Éon consequently lives as a woman but performs some aspects of masculinity rather than aligning herself neatly with one or the other. So, if the one concrete conclusion we arrive at is the apparent lack of any concrete conclusion, then it is worth emphasising how d’Éon’s primary concern is pointing out the flaws in neat binary logic that operates with categories like man or woman, real or fake, body or mind and sex or gender. D’Éon’s text reminds us that the Enlightenment should be viewed as an ongoing project rather than an arrogant quest for definitive answers, and, in the absence of sufficient understanding of a phenomenon, it is vital to avoid pre-emptively passing judgement.

This sentiment of not rushing to conclusions when faced with something we do not fully understand is as relevant today as it was in the late eighteenth century. Transgender academics such as Stephen Whittle, Susan Stryker and Eli Clare continue to argue against the compulsion to pathologise trans bodies as undesirably defective. Furthermore, trans individuals are increasingly questioning whether the deeply held self-understandings they have can be entirely due to nurture and environment, denouncing the ‘diarrhoea of theories’ used to conveniently explain away their identity.[8] As The Maiden of Tonnerre makes abundantly clear, these ideas about gender identity are not some passing fad that sprung up in the 1990s. They have, in fact, been around for centuries, and remarkably similar arguments are made, and ignored, in each instance. Now, as before, without stable facts to work with, we must refrain from hastily jumping to conclusions: we begin to question what we think we know, recalling a humbler side to the Enlightenment that is often forgotten.

– Sam Bailey

[1] For a biography of d’Éon, see Gary Kates, Monsieur d’Éon is a Woman: a tale of political intrigue and sexual masquerade (London, 2001).

[2] Roland A. Champagne, Nina Ekstein and Gary Kates trans. and eds., The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevalière d’Éon (London, 2001), p. xvi. All page numbers in our blog post refer to this edition.

[3] These and many other theories are explored in The Chevalier d’Éon and his Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Simon Burrows, Jonathan Conlin, Russell Goulbourne, Valerie Mainz (London, 2010).

[4] Tonnerre is d’Éon’s place of birth. The title is an adaptation of la pucelle d’Orléans, Joan of Arc’s French nickname.

[5] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Œuvres complètes de J.-J. Rousseau, vol. 2 (Paris, 1852), p. 659, p. 632.

[6] Raymond Trousson, ‘Préface’, in Romans de femmes du XVIIe siècle, ed. Trousson (Paris, 1996), pp. I-XXXIII (p. XV).

[7] For more on this, see Anna Clarke, ‘The Chevalier d’Éon, Rousseau, and New Ideas of Gender, Sex and the Self in the Late Eighteenth Century’, in The Chevalier d’Éon, eds. Burrows et al, pp. 187-200.

[8] Stephen Whittle, ‘Foreword’, in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Whittle and Stryker (London, 2006), pp. i-xvi (p. xiii).

Lines on the Birthday of Dr Swift

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

Jonathan Swift, by Charles Jervas, 1710.

It is my birthday this week. People have already started celebrating. Because for the last 350 years I have been vexing the world, they still gather to talk about me, to talk about my books. They write books about my books. One of my younger fellow-countrymen once said that he was writing ‘To keep the critics busy for three hundred years’. This is what I have done.

I have played a number of tricks on my readers, of course. They have read my texts, not always sure whether they were serious or ironical, thinking that they were parodies but not always sure parodies of what. Sometimes it seems simple. My ‘Meditation upon a Broom Stick’ was sometimes referred to as being ‘According to The Style and Manner of the Honourable Robert Boyle’s Meditations’. It mocks Boyle’s famous meditations, or it mocks perhaps the infatuation of Lady Berkeley for Boyle’s meditations. It tells us that a broom-stick is a tree turned upside-down, the Branches on the Earth, and the Root in the Air, the perfect companion to Man, this topsy-turvy Creature (his Animal Faculties perpetually mounted on his Rational; his Head where his Heels should be, groveling on the Earth). The joke may also be on the reader, who, like the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels, fails to recognise his own picture.

Sometimes the jokes are more complex. I remember when poor Partridge, the astrologer, was being particularly irritating with his views on the relation between Church and State. I created the persona of Bickerstaff, parodied the form of the prediction, to attack him of course but also to dismiss the practice of almanacs. He tried to fight back but couldn’t; I predicted his death and confirmed it. He stood defeated. The problem is of course that, when I wanted to be serious, no one was quite sure whether I was, or not. For instance, I was determined to correct, improve and ascertain the English tongue; but some people argued that I could not possibly be putting forward such a project, having made fun of projectors throughout my writings.

Most of the time they could see that I was indulging in irony, but then they were ensnared, and could not dismiss my writings as simple fun. Because I force my readers to consider all the implications of my literary schemes. Take my modest proposal to Prevent the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick. It’s a wonderful plan, one that, as my new persona tried to explain, is based on scientific evidence, as communicated by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance: a young healthy Child, well nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food. The children of needy people could therefore be sold to the Persons of Quality and Fortune, through the Kingdom, to provide delicious nourishment. I computed that Dublin would take off, annually, about Twenty Thousand Carcasses; and the rest of the Kingdom the remaining Eighty Thousand. Had it been implemented, this scheme could have solved the problems of Ireland, reduced the numbers of Papists, brought money to the poorer part of the population, improved the activity in taverns, etc. Of course, I had nothing to gain by this scheme, for I had no Children, by which I could propose to get a single Penny; and my supposed wife, Esther Johnson, being past Child-bearing.

In A Tale of a Tub, I changed my voice again, adopting the persona of a modern to attack the moderns. This is one of my favourite devices, I am the enemy within. I use the other’s speech and I turn it inside out. No one quite knows, of course, with the Tale, what’s happening. It is a political tale. It is a religious tale. It is a tale about learning, which takes a stand in the battle of the books, which I also described, as it was happening, in St. James’s Library. It is an encyclopaedic text, with its myriad references, including to fictional texts, and perhaps the shortest encyclopaedia ever. There was even room for a digression in praise of digressions.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

The King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, by James Gillray, 1803.

But then everybody’s favourite is Gulliver. The book of course is called Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World and penned by Lemuel Gulliver, who has perhaps become even more famous than me. Isn’t it odd that this book, which my friend Alexander thought I had made as bitter a pill for the public as possible, has also become one of the most widely read of children’s books? Of course children tend to read only the first two books, probably like Samuel Johnson who, apparently, said: ‘When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do the rest.’ They watch the cartoon by Dave and Max Fleischer (1939) or the more mediocre recent film versions, they read countless adaptations. And as I write, the novelist Jonathan Coe is publishing a book for children whose model is Gulliver’s Travels: The Broken Mirror. My book of course is a bitter satire, a mirror in which we see everyone’s face reflected but our own. Perhaps this is why it still is so successful. Political factions among the little men, Gulliver’s fascination for war, the illusions of modern science which have taken hold of the projectors, not to mention Gulliver’s desire to negate his human passions and to become the model of rationality embodied by Houyhnhnms, all point in one direction: the stables, where man’s dreams and aspirations end up, where Gulliver is left to converse with his horses.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms, by Sawrey Gilpin, 1769.

I have written so much more—poetry of course, I have preached sermons as Dean of St Patrick, in Dublin, I have published political tracts, I have engaged in fake and real correspondences. There is not a single literary endeavour where I haven’t left my mark. And I have often used these writings to engage with the condition of the Irish, to remind the London government of their unfair policies towards Ireland (remember ‘the Wood’s halfpence’?). But I believe that people in Ireland have continued to see me as the great defender of Irish liberties, as one of the shapers of Irish identity. I was hoping this might be the case, when I wrote my own obituary in verse:

He gave what little Wealth he had
To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satyric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.

– Alexis Tadié