Letters from Yorick to Eliza, 1775

The Laurence Sterne Trust is committed to furthering the knowledge of Sterne’s life, works and reputation, and this is the first of a number of the rarer items from Shandy Hall and associated collections that the Trust intends to put online.

As part of the Cultural Olympics, supporting the Games of 2012, Shandy Hall will be the site of an exhibition, ‘Precious Cargo’, exploring aspects of the relationship between Laurence Sterne and Eliza Draper, which started in January 1767, when they met in London at the house of Commodore William James. Sterne, at that point a 53-year-old clergyman from a small parish in the North Riding of Yorkshire, and a writer with a considerable European reputation, was suffering from consumption, an illness which had dogged him since his undergraduate career at Jesus College, Cambridge; Eliza Draper, who was 22 and based in India, was in England partly to attend to the arrangements for the schooling of her children, and partly because of her poor health. The two invalids appear to have been rapidly attracted to one another and had one other rather important area of common ground: each was in an unhappy marriage. Sterne’s marriage had deteriorated to the point where his wife had decamped to live in France, ostensibly to benefit her health, though there is considerable evidence to suggest that this arrangement was very welcome to both parties; and Daniel Draper was perceived to be an abusive husband to the extent that when Eliza returned to India she eventually left him.

The relatively brief relationship between Sterne and Eliza Draper, whilst it appears to have been platonic, spurred Sterne into the creative writing known as the Journal to Eliza, the manuscript of which is now in the British Library, and also was responsible for the publication of the Letters of Yorick to Eliza, of which no manuscript evidence survives. Sterne alludes to the relationship in A Sentimental Journey, when he writes of the French law that allowed for the seizure of the goods of any foreigner dying on French soil:

“even the little picture which I have worn so long, and so often have told thee, Eliza, I would carry with me to my grave, would have been torn from my neck” [image A]

The ‘little picture’ here is believed to be a miniature painted by Richard Cosway, the present whereabouts of which are unknown, though there is a caricature by John Hamilton Mortimer depicting Sterne showing off the miniature.

What matters is that the relationship was public knowledge; that Sterne was prepared to advertise unblushingly it in A Sentimental Journey; and that it became, partly because of Sterne’s literary fame, an almost idealised pairing, which ignored the fact that when Sterne wrote ‘so long’ the actual duration could only have been measured in months.

Establishing the corpus of Sterne’s writings is a major problem for editors. After the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy appeared an unscrupulous hack published a spurious volume three before Sterne could produce his own. This was only the first of a catalogue of imitations, spurious texts and outright attempts at forgery, which carried on for years after Sterne’s death. Despite Sterne taking the precaution of signing the first pages of volumes five, seven and nine, when they were published in 1761 [Image B], 1765 [Image C] and 1767 [Image D] respectively, another hack published a spurious volume nine in 1766 which was so successful that it ran to three editions and was translated by Johann Friedrich Zückert in the first German edition of Tristram Shandy in 1767. Problems were also introduced by the notorious William Combe who, after Sterne’s death, passed himself off as a close friend and published a number of texts, both anonymously and pseudonymously, all claiming to be genuine. In 1775 appeared Sterne’s Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions, [Image E] written for the most part by Combe, then in 1788 he published Original Letters of the Late Reverend Mr. Laurence Sterne; never before published, [Image F], which was entirely his own work; and followed this in 1797 with the more honestly titled Fragments in the Manner of Sterne, which appeared under the pseudonym Isaac Brandon, [Image G]. Combe was not the only hack who attempted to capitalise on Sterne’s reputation.

The first edition of Letters of Yorick to Eliza appeared in 1773, published by W. Johnson of 16 Ludgate Street, London, and was immediately re-printed in Philadelphia by John Dunlap in Market Street – one of the earliest examples of Sterneana to be published in North America. A surprising number of each edition survives, though on publication they were totally ignored by the monthly magazines. Late in 1774 Sterne’s daughter, Lydia Medalle, advertised in the London press her intention of publishing her father’s letters [Image H] and appealed for copies of originals to be sent to her to be included. William Combe seized on this as an excuse to publish his Letters of Eliza to Yorick, the first edition of which was advertised as having been entered in the hall-book of the Company of Stationers, the 15th of April, 1775. Though this was an entirely spurious work, it is indicative of the market in Sterneana that it was immediately followed by a pirate edition. Opportunistic publishers saw this as a clear marketing chance and set about re-issuing the text of Letters from Yorick to Eliza. In 1775 no fewer than seven editions appeared. J.C.T. Oates, in an article published in 1955, analysed the texts of the four of these editions which were published by the partnership of Kearsly and Evans, and established the sequence in which they are likely to have been published. He also pointed out that they had almost certainly been preceded by the edition published by Evans on his own. At that point the Dublin reprint does not seem to have been recorded, while the version offered here was identified as a piracy, the precise timing of which could not be established with any certainty. Oates’ view that it is a piracy is generally accepted. The absence of any indication of publisher strongly supports this view, and it may well be that it was produced by the same printer who pirated Combe’s spurious Letters of Eliza to Yorick. It stands therefore as an interesting example of the complexities of the market in Sterneana after the author’s death. But it is not a simple piratical text as there are interesting textual differences. Moreover, of these seven editions the one presented here is by far the rarest, known only in two recorded copies: one in the Oates Collection in Cambridge University Library (shelf-mark Oates 377), and the copy reproduced here from the Monkman Collection at Shandy Hall.

In April 1775, the Gentleman’s Magazine published a review of Letters from Yorick to Eliza. This was clearly identified as the edition printed with Kearsly’s name as the lead publisher and containing 80 pages, and is therefore the second of the editions which had appeared that year [Oates A above]. The anonymous reviewer initially unhesitatingly accepted the authenticity of the letters and, after providing some background to the relationship, expressed some moral outrage that the letters had been made public:

These ten short letters, which are unquestionably genuine, were addressed by the late Mr. Sterne, of facetious memory, to Mrs. Elizabeth Draper, an East-Indian by birth, wife of Daniel Draper, Esq; counsellor at Bombay, and at present chief of the English factory at Surat, while she resided in England for the recovery of her health, and were copied from the originals (we are sorry to say) with her permission. Most of them were addressed to her at the point of embarkation, and all of them are expressive of the most tender and (we trust) sentimental friendship. But between married persons, such cicisbeism [Defined by OED as ‘The practice of attending a married woman as cicisbeo’ where cicisbeo is ‘The name formerly given in Italy to the recognized gallant or cavalier servente of a married woman’] is always unsafe, and generally suspicious; and, to virtue, prudence, and even sensibility, must give abundantly more pain than pleasure. We could wish therefore, that these letters had continued in manuscript, and been consigned to oblivion, especially one or two paragraphs relating to Mrs. Sterne, which, from tenderness to the deceased, we shall forbear to specify. [Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. XLV (1775), p. 188]

A little later, however, the reviewer cast some doubt on the authenticity of the texts, claiming:

The work, indeed, derives no credit from its publisher, as, by his introduction, [the introduction referred to here may be read on-line here] which, in many places is unintelligible, he seems scarce worthy to have wiped his author’s pens. For, though Tristram, when talking to Eliza, might, perhaps, have ‘wished to God that she was possessed of that vanity with which she was charged,’ yet, certainly, he would never have observed, ‘lest any body should be at a loss, that the principal cast, or tribe, among the idolatrous Indians, are the Bramins, and out of the chief clans of this cast comes the priests, so famous for their austerities.’ [p. 189]

The edition here comes furnished with a preface which does not appear in any other published version of the Letters of Yorick to Eliza: the writer claims a personal knowledge of Eliza Draper and takes exception to suggestions in the prefatory material to the earlier editions, which implied that there was something untoward in the relationship between Sterne and Mrs Draper, when the anonymous editor had enquired ‘Whether the glowing Heat of Mr. STERNE’s affections never transported him to a Flight beyond the Limits of pure Platonism.’ This comment may have suggested a degree of impropriety to the reviewer in the Gentleman’s Magazine. The innuendo is indignantly repudiated with an unacknowledged quotation from Pope’s Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot: ‘To hint a fault and hesitate dislike, has often proved more injurious to the Fame of the wisest and best of People, than the boldest open Accusation that the Enemies could bring against them inasmuch as the former Method of calling their Virtue in question could never be effectively guarded against as the latter.’ [Image I]

Now, as there is no evidence to allow us to identity the writer of this preface, it is not possible to assess how reliable the defence of Sterne and Eliza might be, by the same token, there being no manuscript evidence, it is impossible to assert with any security that these letters were indeed written by Sterne. That one of the editions of Letters from Yorick to Eliza carries on the verso of its half-title an advertisement for another publication by Kearsly and Evans, Sterne’s Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions, a collection by the indefatigable William Combe, does suggest that the authenticity of Letters from Yorick to Eliza cannot be claimed with certainty. That the only other Sternean text in which Kearsly and Evans collaborated is a known example of Combe fakery, does not inspire confidence in the bona fides of the pair, nor does the fact that Kearsly was responsible for publishing some of Combe’s other dubious imitations. One might also wish to take into consideration the publication in 1781 of a work attributed to Combe with the very suggestive title: Letters between Two Lovers and Their Friends. By the author of Letters Supposed to Have Been Written by Yorick and Eliza.

What can be said is that Eliza Draper herself was not in England when the Letters of Yorick to Eliza appeared, and that if she had any involvement in the publication of this work, then it was at a considerable distance. The letters printed here may well not be by Sterne, but by one of his more accomplished imitators. Whomsoever the author, the correspondence represents a view of a well-known liaison which, as the sales show, reflects the popular perception of the relationship. To the reading public of the mid 1770s, Yorick and Eliza were in the same tradition of thwarted lovers as Héloise and Abelard, Tristan and Iseult, Dante and Beatrice, and Petrarch and Laura.




For the bibliographically minded, here are the essential details:

J.C.T. Oates, ‘Notes on the Bibliography of Sterne: I. Letters from Eliza to Yorick, 1775; II. Letters from Yorick to Eliza, 1775,’ Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, II (1955), 155-169.

In this article John Oates analysed the following 1775 editions of Letters of Yorick to Eliza, which are for the most part easily distinguished by the number of pages. (There was no Oates B.)

London: printed for T. Evans, near York-Buildings, Strand. 80 pp.

London: printed for G. Kearsly; and T. Evans. 80 pp. (Oates A)

‘A new edition.’ London: printed for G. Kearsly; and T. Evans, (Oates C)

‘A new edition.’ London: printed for G. Kearsly, at No. 46, in Fleet-Street; and T. Evans, near York-Buildings, Strand, 104 pp. (Oates D)

London: printed in the year M,DCC,LXXV. 48 pp. (the edition reproduced here)

The one edition omitted from Oates’ article was:

Dublin: printed for Messrs. Chamberlaine, Williams, Wilson, Husband, Moncrieffe, Porter and Flyn. 68 pp.