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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

III. Sterne, and the Novel of His Times

§ 8. Nature of his Sentimentalism

The sentimentalism of Sterne goes much deeper and, in its more extreme forms, is, perhaps, less capable of defence. Here, again, no doubt, we are mainly, though, in this case, not solely, concerned with the actual effect stamped by the artist’s hand upon our imagination. We have little—and, in that little, we have nothing directly—to do with the havoc which sentiment, as he nursed it, may have wrought with his personal conduct and his practical outlook on life. The truth is that sentiment so highly wrought—still more, sentiment so deliberately cultivated and laid out with such a manifest eye to effect—can hardly fail to rouse the suspicion of the reader. When the limelights are manipulated with design so palpable as in the death of Le Fevre or the story of the dead ass, the author goes far to defeat his own purpose. The spontaneity which is the first charm of sentiment is immediately seen to be wanting, and the effect of the whole effort is largely destroyed. More than that. We instinctively feel that, with the author himself, as a man, all can hardly be well. We are driven to cast doubts on his sincerity; and, when we look to his life, we more than half expect our doubts to be confirmed. Such suspicions inevitably react upon the imaginative pleasure which the picture itself would otherwise have given. There is an air of unreality, if not of imposture, about the whole business which, with the best will in the world, it is impossible wholly to put by.

Yet, the same command of effect, which, in matters of sentiment, is apt to prove perilous, is, elsewhere, brought into play with the happiest results. Give him a situation, a thought which appeals strongly either to his imagination or to his humanitarian instincts—for Sterne also, in his own curious way, is among the prophets—and no man knows so well how to lead up to it; how to make the most of it; how, by cunning arrangement of light and shade and drapery, to show it off to the best possible advantage. As stage-manager, as master of effective setting, he is without equal, we may almost say without rival, among novelists. And there are moments when such mastery is pure gain. Take the curse of Ernulphus, take Trim’s reading of the sermon on conscience, take his oration upon death; and this will hardly be denied. There are, no doubt, other moments—those of sentimentality or indecency—when, from the nature of the theme, approval is not likely to be so unreserved. Yet, even here, we cannot but admire the cunning of the craftsman, deliberate yet light-handed, deeply calculated yet full of sparkle, nimbleness and humour.