To this day, reading novels is tied to the pleasurable activity of immersing oneself in stories, to digress from the ordinary. However, when this digression includes the depiction of the pain of others, the often cosy “familial feeling” can also morph into the more problematic paternalistic feeling for others. In literary sentimentalism the depiction of enslavement is frequently reduced to scenes of spectacular Black suffering and tearful white pity. As outlined in the introduction, the overlaps between this mode of writing and abolitionist discourse have garnered most attention and criticism in eighteenth-century studies. In his monograph on the politics of sensibility, Markman Ellis accordingly emphasises the limitations of sentimentalism as a form of political agitation (cf. 1996: 83). This “public sentimental rhetoric” (Carey 2005: 60–61) links the private and familial sphere with the political debate of the day (maybe more explicitly than later Victorian domestic novels would). On the one hand, the fact that slavery became a prominent topic in a broad range of texts in the 1760s and 1770s demonstrates that there is public concern around anti-slavery or at least amelioration, even predating the peak of the abolitionist campaign. On the other hand, the reliance on idealised sentimental versions of white benevolence in the face of Black anguish is at risk of constructing sensibility as the unique capacity of those supposedly more refined. Thus, to understand the rise of the British novel and its reliance on “familial feeling”, epistolary novels and published letters appear especially relevant for the growing permeability of the public sphere for authors from the middle ranks who conversed about political and everyday occurrences. In this context, the exchange of letters between Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne is extremely valuable as both participated in but also transformed conventions of literary sentimentalism and how readers were to imagine feeling subjects.

Sancho and Sterne—connected via the Montagu family—are the only two writers joined in a chapter in this book who actually communicated with and cross-referenced each other and thus embody the most literal sense of entangled tonalities. Their digressive styles, I argue, are atypical of more straightforward sentimentalism in the wake of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (2004 [1747–1748]), associated, for example, with authors such as Sarah Scott and Henry Mackenzie.Footnote 1 Both, while certainly relying on what Carey calls the “sentimental parable” (2005: 49), promote a more playful adoption of tears and blushes. Sancho and Sterne do not simply reproduce sentimentalised heroic depictions of African sorrow which shape the ensuing ameliorationist discourse in the mid-eighteenth century. Their tonality is also less moralistic and part of a much more humorous conception of familial feeling than the one found in the foundational narratives of Defoe and later Equiano. Their writing reveals the generic conventionality of sentimentalism combined with digressions on the topic of enslavement and thus provides pathos and entertainment. They also do not shy away from displaying aesthetic artifice in their prose. Their digressive styles, in fact, may have contributed more to the aesthetic development of novelistic writing than the political debate of the day. Sterne and Sancho are not invested in providing a realistic portrayal of a middle-class individual as Defoe or a feeling Black subject like Equiano. Instead, both emphasise the power of writing that reflects on its own capacity to instil emotions.

Sancho, the shopkeeper, witnesses political upheaval and engages in various topics but, at the same time, is concerned with the well-being of his kin and his correspondents. His letters, which, Carey maintains, are structured “in the form of an epistolary novel of sentiment” (2004: 82), are not a simple appeal to white compassion but prove that he already is a man of feeling, that “peculiarly eighteenth-century phenomenon of a man who both interprets and communicates with the world through the medium of his own emotions” (Carey 2003: 9). In comparison to the other transatlantic authors discussed in this book, Sancho’s writing displays the most affective attachment to and comprehensive literary representation of his family life. His letters demonstrate how an Afro-British subject partakes in the daily toils of London’s growing mercantile class, communicating with bankers, booksellers, but also members of the servant class, including other Afro-Britons like Julius Soubise. It is this combination of familiarity with domestic matters and passing references to the grand political concerns such as slavery but also the Gordon riots and the American Revolution that marks what I describe as the digressive tonality of Sancho.

Sterne, the “provincial” clergyman, is not personally affected by the politics of London. He demonstrates literary bravura not in his letters but in his fictions that employ different personae and a highly intrusive narrative commentary to challenge conventions of writing. Sterne famously promotes a way of storytelling that has been characterised as postmodern avant la lettre, destabilising more predictable linear prose. Sterne’s convoluted attempt to reconstruct Tristram Shandy’s family and life story as well as his Sentimental Journey are both panoramic in scope and familial in emotional address. Especially his tone in relation to constructions of masculinity (and the charge of “effeminacy” attached to sentimentalism) is often satirical. John Mullan describes this as Sterne’s departure from more conventional codes of sentimentalism:

While Richardson had attempted to exercise strict moralistic control over the interpretation of his novels, distrusting the very literary form that he was using, Sterne was willing to accept fashion as a virtue, trusting to the capacities of the private reader, and making his very life as an author (in the personae of Tristram or Yorick) a fiction to flaunt in the face of his critics. (2002: 149)

Accordingly, Mullan reads Sterne as both sentimental and self-reflexive, shaping a literary style that promotes moral ambiguities rather than edification.

Artifice and authenticity are conflictingly related in the extroverted and stylised displays of feeling in both authors’ texts but there are different things at stake for Sancho and Sterne. Sterne employs aesthetic playfulness to set himself apart from literary predecessors, Sancho uses it to claim a part in the culture of taste and sensibility. Since Sancho considers Sterne his most beloved literary writer, the question of influence and imitation remains relevant and has shaped the reception of their exchange. I read Sancho and Sterne’s literary adoption of a digressive tonality distinctly not as imitative but as entangled in their different attempts to create attention in the growing public sphere. Accordingly, I will begin by discussing Sancho’s letters to focus on the points of connection and distinction between both writers. The famous dash in Sterne is often associated with a mimicking of intrusive thoughts and a meandering of the storyteller. The political digressions in his texts are tied into more bawdy episodes. His scenes dealing with slavery in this way, while not necessarily only sentimental, still elude ideas of political solidarity by never committing fully to the consequences of these reflections. Sancho’s interjections of emotional concern not only highlight his capacity to feel (as well as his attachment to his family), in adopting the Sternian digressive dash, or in what I call his “dashing familiarity”, he does not adhere to the usual linear form of redemptive abolitionist writing and displays a uniquely Black aesthetic voice, albeit one that also reproduces deprecating sentimental tropes. This needs to be read as more than simply imitative or as mimicry in Homi Bhabha’s terms. While Sterne remains more elusive in his aestheticised divagations, Sancho’s digressive tone, I argue, intervenes more fundamentally into the sentimental romance with the cultured, feeling subject of modernity.Footnote 2

Dashing Familiarity: Ignatius Sancho’s Letters

Predating the publication of Equiano’s Narrative by seven years, Ignatius Sancho’s letters were published posthumously in London in 1782 in two volumes edited by Frances Crewe,Footnote 3 as was customary in the eighteenth century by subscription as The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African (cf. Descargues 1991 on the history of the different editions). While almost all texts of the early Black Atlantic can be considered life writing in the broadest sense, it is often no longer possible to distinguish fact from fiction as was evident already in Equiano’s case. Brycchan Carey turns our attention to this problem of autobiography in relation to Sancho. There exists a short contemporary biography of Sancho (“The Life of Ignatius Sancho”) by Joseph Jekyll accompanying the publication of the letters which, according to Carey (2003), has been reproduced uncritically as factual for too long. Nevertheless, for my enquiry it is not quite so relevant whether the life story of Sancho (and that of other authors of the Black Atlantic) is in fact true. I am interested in their life writing as a way to express an emotional attachment to Britain and the family. The story of Sancho, following Jekyll’s account, reads as follows: He was born around 1729, supposedly during the Middle Passage, shipped to New Granada where he was baptised Ignatius. At the age of two, he was given to three English sisters as a “gift”; they named him Sancho with reference to Cervantes’s famous literary character. After being maltreated there, it is their neighbour the second duke of Montagu, John Montagu, who “saves” and educates Sancho, so that he eventually can work as a butler for the family after the duke’s death and later as a valet for the late duke’s son-in-law, who becomes the new duke of Montagu after the title had initially been rendered extinct.Footnote 4 Increasingly ill and immobile, Sancho leaves the family service and with their financial assistance can establish a grocery store in Westminster in 1774 together with his wife, Anne. They had seven children and theirs is one of the very few recorded marriages between a man and a woman of African descent at the time.Footnote 5 Sancho became quite renowned during his lifetime following the inclusion of his correspondence with Sterne in the posthumous publication of Sterne’s letters in 1775 (cf. Carey 2005: 57).Footnote 6 Suffering from the gout, Sancho died on 14 December 1780 before the abolitionist debate really garnered widespread public attention. In addition to fashioning himself as an African man of letters, Sancho was also very likely the first man of African descent to have voted in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780 given his status as a householder in Westminster (cf. Carretta 2004) and is now commemorated as such.Footnote 7

Sancho’s letters obviously pose something of an abnormality at a time when most enslaved Africans in the diaspora were still far from being recognised as human beings, let alone citizens. To stay within the picture of entanglement, to contextualise his texts, we need to further enquire into the convergence of modernity and enslavement and the paradoxical coincidence of the age of reason with unfreedom. If it were true then that Sancho was born during the Middle Passage, this would indeed turn him into the “poster child” of the early Black Atlantic revolution. His mother died of an unspecified disease while his father committed suicide, according to Jekyll’s unverifiable account (cf. Jekyll in LIS 5). As has been mentioned, Gilroy understands death—suicide, but also filicideFootnote 8—as the most radical form of agency resisting the dehumanisation of slavery (cf. 1993: 68). For a few privileged Black subjects at the time, agency could also be found in reading and writing. For Sancho, letters are a means to communicate as a subject. In contrast to his ancestors, he can resort to narrative self-fashioning that connects literacy and familiarity. However, unlike Equiano’s later account which offers the first comprehensive narrative of a Black life story and voices political demands on behalf of the enslaved—and hence was considered first in relation to Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe as foundational of modern subjectivity—Sancho’s letters are more erratic and digressive in tone. His writing was not read primarily as a political pamphlet but still as a curious display of intellect that people of African descent supposedly lacked altogether.Footnote 9 One has to bear in mind that while Sancho’s letters were published in the early 1780s when the abolitionist debate started to take hold and thus clearly also received within that context, they were written earlier in the late 1760s and 1770s.Footnote 10

Initial literary critics of Sancho’s writing often read his aspiring to the eighteenth-century culture of taste as self-indulgent and apolitical. Superficially, Sancho, the sentimental and privileged man of letters, was conceived as an “Uncle Tom” in contrast to abolitionist campaigner Equiano who was likened to Malcolm X (cf. Innes 2000: 20; 2002: 28).Footnote 11 An even sharper contrast can be established to the ostensibly more radical later writing of Robert Wedderburn. While Equiano finds his allegiance in the religious cause of the dissenting Methodists and abolition, Wedderburn takes to those working-class circles that Sancho deprecates as anarchists, later still, Seacole flaunts her maternal military inclusion. In comparison to the other three Black Atlantic writers considered in this book then, Sancho is the only one who, at the time of writing his letters, had already arrived in the centre of the empire’s capital with some footing. He repeatedly stresses his allegiance to the monarchy, which his contemporary biographer Jekyll praises as his “wild patriotism” (in LIS 8). Sandiford (1988: 83) cites Sancho’s supposedly reactionary stance in the Gordon riots as a case in point when he condemns the group of demonstrators who sought to repeal the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. British Roman Catholics did not have civil rights at the time and the radical Protestant Association led crowds to the streets in a two-week riot in June 1780—which notably included Black men and women (cf. Fryer 2010: 96). The members of the so-called mob also freed large numbers of prisoners, many of them debtors rather than criminals. Controversy is linked to the army’s brutal response, killing more than three hundred and giving any form of political protest the semblance of lower class unruliness. Sancho’s engagement with public political discourse in the letters is thus not restricted to abolition but showcases the contemporary tensions between Protestants and Catholics (and I will come back to the question in how far this theme is also a subtext for Sterne’s reference to slavery) as well as the uncertain fate of the American colonies in the War of Independence. Being both of African descent and loyal to British political interests and the monarchy seems possible because he and his family are located already within the heart of metropolitan Britishness (and a more comfortable life due to his position as a grocer).Footnote 12

During the Gordon riots and towards the end of his life the beleaguered shop owner Sancho finds himself in “the midst of the most cruel and ridiculous confusion” as he describes the scene to “his good friend” the draper and banker John Spink, the recipient of several letters dealing with the riots dated from 6 to 13 June 1780. Sancho speaks of the madness of Lord Gordon and “the worse than Negro barbarity of the populace” (LIS 217). Is this phrase simply “doubly ironic”, as editor Carretta suggests in the explanatory notes (in LIS 318), because Sancho is living proof of a cultured African despite the presence of Black rioters? Sancho is certainly loyal to the crown, but he also contemplates the relevance of liberty and fears that the crowds are being misled. He is looking to the nation and the family to provide law and order, to “send these deluded wretches safe to their homes, their families, and wives!”. The young protesters on the streets are met with a combination of disdain and pity by the aging Sancho.

He describes the whole scene in the following terms:

This—this—is liberty! genuine British liberty!—This instant about two thousand liberty boys are swearing and swaggering by with large sticks—thus armed in hopes of meeting with the Irish chairmen and labourers—all the guards are out—and all the horse [sic];—the poor fellows are just worn out for want of rest—having been on duty ever since Friday.—Thank heaven, it rains; may it increase, so as to send these deluded wretches safe to their homes, their families, and wives! About two this afternoon, a large party took it into their heads to visit the King and Queen, and entered the Park for that purpose—but found the guard too numerous to be forced, and after some useless attempts gave it up.—It is reported, the house will either be prorogued, or parliament dissolved, this evening—as it is in vain to think of attending any business while this anarchy lasts.

I cannot but felicitate you, my good friend, upon the happy distance you are placed from our scene of confusion. (LIS 218–219)

Sancho repeatedly voices concern for the state of British liberty and is also keenly aware that the riot impacts his business (and in a following letter laments the attack on property, including that of Lord Mansfield). He calls the rioters “liberty boys”, possibly alluding to the American “Sons of Liberty” who had formed to oppose British colonial rule. However, in the postscript, he also expresses more ambivalent sentiments, highlighting his African origin—stating, “I am not sorry I was born in Afric [sic]”—which stands in contrast to the “Negro barbarity” of the beginning of the letter. It is as if by way of writing, Sancho tries to make sense of the “scene of confusion”, offering his eye-witness account. The acts of violence make him long for a safer distance and a recluse to the realm of the family—a route he wishes the protesters would follow as well. At the same time, he sincerely hopes “they do not some of them lose their lives of liberty before the morning” and he finally ruminates that “there is more at the bottom of this business than merely the repeal of an act—which has as yet produced no bad consequences […]”.Footnote 13 The sectarian tensions seem like a subterfuge to Sancho, who liberally confesses: “I am for an [sic] universal toleration” (LIS 219). Ellis further explains that the anti-Catholicism of the protesters was also fuelled by xenophobia and it is too easy to simply “denounce” Sancho’s politics. Instead, he argues, “The libertine turn in Sancho’s Letters thus rounds out, and subverts, the picture of Sancho as a conservative and patriotic Whig” (2001: 208).

In a 1782 review of the letters, Sancho is praised for his “playful familiarity of friendship” and “the ardour of genuine patriotism”.Footnote 14 It is the increasingly insecure position of England in the world (rather than religious tensions in the country) that causes Sancho most worry and characterises his patriotism. These global threats to the nation’s stability can only be compensated by the safe haven of the family, which also informs the tone of the final letter in the series to Spink and again gives more room to good wishes to and from his friend:

For your kind anxiety about me and family, we bless and thank you.—I own, at first I felt uneasy sensations—but a little reflection brought me to myself.—Put thy trust in God, quoth I.—Mrs. Sancho, whose virtues outnumber my vices (and I have enough for any one mortal) feared for me and for her children more than for herself. […].

America seems to be quite lost or forgot amongst us;—the fleet is but a secondary affair.—Pray God send us some good news, to chear [sic] our drooping apprehensions, and to enable me to send you pleasanter accounts;—for trust me, my worthy friend, grief, sorrow, devastation, blood, and slaughter, are totally foreign to the taste and affection of

Your faithful friend

and obliged servant,


Our joint best wishes to Mrs. S[pink], self, and family. (LIS 224)

Feeling, family, and national belonging are entangled here as elsewhere. In his letters, Sancho mentions his African origins often, but he certainly will appear more familiar than foreign to his British correspondents, an effect that I call his “dashing” familiarity. Sancho mocks his concerned wife, “whose virtues outnumber [his] vices”, as he writes in one of the many parentheses, inserting little afterthoughts and witticisms. America appears lost and instead of contemplating these political grievances, he would prefer to speak of topics more suitable to his refined “taste and affection”. In relation to his family, Sancho displays a gentle version of masculinity and since, as mentioned, he is not married to a white woman, the constraints of modesty are also less severe. It is in this familial tone and speaking in the name of the “Sanchos” that he sends “our joint best wishes” to “Mrs Spink, self, and family”. Clearly then his descriptions of his emotional ties to his children and wife Anne, whom he mentions in the majority of all his letters referring to them even as his “Sanchonetta’s”,Footnote 15 add to this impression of an amusing familiar conversationalist. It also marks him as a complex affectionate modern person whose conception of family corresponds to Stone’s aforementioned famous descriptions of the rise of a new type of affective family in the eighteenth century (cf. 1977: 7). Sancho is the embodiment of a head of the family who shows a keen interest in both his private affairs and the public political debate, shaped by his, for the time, indeed, extraordinary status as a Black citizen in England.

The fate of the newly independent United States and the war with France is one such ongoing concern, not only in the correspondence about the Gordon riots. In 1777, in an earlier letter and in light of the American Revolution, Sancho had still voiced hope that the thirteen colonies would return to allegiance with the “mother country” and that the “British empire be strongly knit in the never-ending bands of sacred friendship and brotherly love” (LIS 106). By 1780, after the riots subside, he writes much more solemnly, “How the affair will end, God only knows!—I do not like its complexion.—Government has ordered them to give up their arms—if they do, where is British liberty? if they refuse, what is administration?” (LIS 227). Can British liberty be reconciled with the conception of the colonies tied to England in “sacred friendship and brotherly love”? While early Black British subjects often referenced American slavery as a negative foil against which to praise British progressive enlightenment, Sancho is concerned more with the state of the empire as a bond between nations equally invested in their love of liberty, as a more egalitarian “brotherly bond”, not necessarily one of authoritarian “parental control”. He is still writing with the early (or “first”) British empire in mind and is a witness to the beginning of a new phase. In the course of the late eighteenth century it is the exploration and settlement of the Pacific that shape British colonial ambitions which leads Black British subjects to voice their paradoxical support for Britain’s empire as more advanced than the (economically declining) American slave economy. Equiano, Wedderburn, and Seacole all speak disparagingly of the injustices of the plantation system of the Caribbean and the US South and each see more or less potential in a British enlightened progressive abolitionism (which would not by default contradict even greater British global imperial expansion in the nineteenth century).Footnote 16 So, while Sancho is clearly invested in British politics, the references to slavery remain interspersed in more general deliberations about commerce and occasionally more sentimental reflections.

As mentioned initially, it seems unlikely that Sancho ever had first-hand experience of chattel slavery given his early relocation to England.Footnote 17 But he does take a cursory interest in the beginning abolitionist debate of the time and encourages some of his white addressees to show empathy for the plight of his “poor black brethren”. This evocation of (metaphorical) fraternity will become central as the mentioned inscription of the Wedgwood medallion “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” in Evangelical abolitionist discourse but, in Sancho’s case, he is quite literally a family relation, the descendant of slaves. In a letter to Mr Browne, dated 18 July 1772, Sancho writes,

I thank you for your kindness to my poor black brethren—I flatter myself you will find them not ungrateful—they act commonly from their feelings:—I have observed a dog will love those who use him kindly—and surely, if so, negroes—in their state of ignorance and bondage will not act less generously, if I may judge them by myself—I should suppose kindness would do any thing with them;—my soul melts at kindness—but the contrary—I own with shame—makes me almost a savage. (LIS 45)

Despite the brotherly tie, in the quote, “negroes” are a group separate from him; he likens them to dogs, but also mentions their feelings, and, in the end, compares himself to a “savage” because of his own excessive affective attachment that sparks a shameful burst of anger at the thought of the maltreatment of them “in their state of ignorance and bondage”. The question whether the enslaved had feelings to begin with remains at the core of the early abolitionist debate, and it is interesting how a Black sentimental writer acknowledges this conundrum. The context of this letter is not entirely clear, but here, as in other letters, Sancho seems to pass on advice to the son of a befriended family who is in a place from which Sancho asks him politely to send “half a dozen cocoa nuts” (LIS 45), presumably working in the Caribbean plantation economy where the young addressee has begun to build a career for himself. Sancho engages in the still ambivalent sentimental—oftentimes ameliorationist—literary response to the tropes of African suffering. Once more, rather than trying to pinpoint Sancho’s political stance on the matter, it is interesting to inquire into the tone of these letters that are not informed by the immediacy of the eye-witness account of the Gordon riots but adhere more to the style of a sentimental letter writer who intermingles his communication with political reflection, evident in his characteristic more convoluted and digressive interjections.

Sancho does not advocate the abolition of slavery but a more humane treatment of those in bondage, “to use” the enslaved “kindly” (like you would a dog who would come to “love” you as a result). Not uncommon for sentimental writing then, the letter really is based on the idealised assumption of a “grateful slave”, as Boulukos has shown (2008: 175), and showcases his own affection. Sancho is also concerned with the state of the young Englishman whose Christian morals should not be corrupted by the exposure to the brute force on the plantations. Consequently, despite construing a familial connection to the enslaved, this remains abstract throughout Sancho’s letters and cannot be compared to Wedderburn’s indignation at his maternal family’s suffering for instance.

On the occasion of receiving some abolitionist texts, he addresses the Philadelphian Quaker Mr Fisher,

Full heartily and most cordially do I thank thee—good Mr. F[isher], for your kindness in sending the books—that upon the unchristian and most diabolical usage of my brother Negroes—the illegality—the horrid wickedness of the traffic—the cruel carnage and depopulation of the human species—is painted in such strong colours—that I should think would (if duly attended to) flash conviction—and produce remorse in every enlightened and candid reader.—The perusal affected me more than I can express;—indeed I felt a double or mixt sensation—for while my heart was torn for the sufferings—which, for aught I know—some of my nearest kin might have undergone—my bosom, at the same time, glowed with gratitude—and praise toward the humane—the Christian—the friendly and learned Author of that most valuable book. Blest be your sect! (LIS 111)

Again, familiarity is emphasised when he speaks of his “brother Negroes”. Sancho is overwhelmed by the feeling that his “nearest kin” could have undergone the horrors of slavery and thus certainly has a “legitimate claim” to a more immediate affective affliction than say his white fellow Britons. Interestingly, however, he does not talk about the fate of his actual parents, to whose life story biographer Jekyll seemed privy, despite Sancho’s young age at the time of their death. Rather than dwell on his immediate family, Sancho seems even more moved by the power of the word to engender such strong emotions, a torn heart for the suffering enslaved and a glowing bosom for the valuable book. On the one hand, this could be seen as his political conviction to further spread the word in the campaign against the slave trade. On the other hand, it can also be understood as buying into the spectacle of reading as a form of suffering through/for Others.

In the 1770s British ongoing interests in the plantation economy and the growing imperial ambitions overlap. Sancho also freely intermingles the general state of colonised populations in Africa and India with the system of enslavement in the Caribbean. This can be seen, for example, in the first letter of the second volume, addressed to Mr Jack Wingrave, another young family friend and son of John Wingrave, a bookbinder and seller with whom Sancho also exchanged letters, and who in 1778 is in India “seeking to make his fortune”, as Carretta’s notes put it (in LIS 254). I quote from this letter at some length here to give an impression of the abundance of interjections in Sancho’s prose:

My good friend, you should remember from whom they learnt those vices: […] I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love—and for its freedom—and for the many blessings I enjoy in it—shall ever have my warmest wishes—prayers—and blessings); I say it is with reluctance, that I must observe your country’s conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East—West-Indies—and even on the coast of Guinea.—The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all christian [sic] navigators—is money—money—money—for which I do not pretend to blame them—Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part […]:—the enlightened Christian should diffuse the riches of the Gospel of peace—with the commodities of his respective land—Commerce attended with strict honesty—and with Religion for its companion—would be a blessing to every shore it touched at.—In Africa, the poor wretched natives—blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil—are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing:—the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves—and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings—encouraged by their Christian customers—who carry them strong liquors—to enflame their national madness—and powder—and bad fire-arms—to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.—But enough—it is a subject that sours my blood—and I am sure will not please the friendly bent of your social affections.—I mentioned these only to guard my friend against being too hasty in condemning the knavery of a people who bad as they may be—possibly—were made worse—by their Christian visitors.—Make human nature thy study—wherever thou residest—whatever the religion—or the complexion—study their hearts.—Simplicity, kindness, and charity be thy guide—with these even Savages will respect you—and God will bless you! (LIS 130–131)

Sancho’s letter comes in response to the young Englishman’s indignation at the “treachery and chicanery of the Natives” (LIS 130).

His reprimand of Wingrave stands in contrast to the kindness that the young Mr Browne supposedly demonstrated, and that Sancho praised in the earlier letter. Here Sancho wavers between patriotism and genuine critique. English colonial exploitation is linked to the “wicked” greed for money (repeated emphatically three times) and, at the same time, Sancho commends the potential civilisational benefits the “poor wretched natives” in Africa might enjoy if only a good Christian form of commerce prevailed. Sancho loves to be a “resident” in England, but also feels the need to defend the Africans, who were corrupted by their “Christian visitors”.Footnote 18 With the interjection “—But enough—” he stops himself halfway through because, again in true sentimental fashion, Sancho is afraid to be overpowered by his emotions as the topic of slavery “sours his blood”. What is more, not only is he moved by powerful feelings, he is also afraid to disturb the “social affections” of his addressee. Sympathy is interactive and is understood as potentially beneficial with respect to empathy with Others. The evil by-product of the conquests of “English navigators” is global misery. But this suffering, despite the distancing technique of speaking suddenly of “your country”, ends in a sentimental appeal to “study their hearts” using “simplicity, kindness, and charity”. This shows that what starts off as an indignant assessment of the ails of colonisation and enslavement ebbs into platitudes of sentimentalism, which Ellis characterises as

a mode of writing that engages the sympathies or affections of the reader, advertising virtuous and benevolent conduct by repeatedly displaying scenes of feeling and distress. These scenes engage the emotions of the reader by exhibiting the work of emotions in the characters, who often make a luxurious display of their tears, blushes and faintings. (2001: 200)

It is exactly this recourse to sentimental prose that demonstrates that Sancho is in fact more familiar with the discourse of feeling of his country of residence than the vast global geography of English exploitation or the dire fate of the enslaved which, within the letter of the London resident, becomes simply “the East—West-Indies—and even […] the coast of Guinea”. On the one hand, Sancho in many letters reproduces what Ellis calls “scenes of feeling and distress”. “The poor wretched natives” become a signpost for how slavery affects his sensitive temperament (or threatens to corrupt impressionable young Englishmen). On the other hand, the letter does engage in an albeit always polite critique of his addressee and urges him to recognise the humanity of his Indian counterparts despite difference in complexion and religion. Howsoever we interpret Sancho’s political standpoint here then, aesthetically, he is certainly “advertising virtuous and benevolent conduct”. Accordingly, what is remarkable in his positionality is that his writing is not appealing to a close bond with “African suffering” but rather to a metropolitan sensibility that is affected from afar, an affliction that is best communicated in the realm of letter writing.

While not quite fainting and blushing, in a letter to Mrs C[ocksedge] Sancho explicitly reflects on how he should best express his feelings as a sentimental man of letters:

Now, whether to address—according to the distant, reserved, cold, mechanical forms of high-breeding—where polished manners, like a horse from the manage, prances fantastic—and, shackled with the rules of art—proudly despises simple nature;—or shall I, like the patient, honest, sober, long-ear’d animal—take plain nature’s path—and address you according to my feelings? (LIS 105)

Over and over, his letters express concern not only with what he wants to communicate, but also how he should best do it (and how this in turn might affect his addressees).Footnote 19 In his cited images from the animal world, the bred horse, much like the aristocracy with their “polished manners”, is seen as conceited and fake, while the hard-working mule, the decent middle-class man, displays true feelings. In spite of the humorous undertone, references to the animal kingdom remain complicated at a time when Black people are considered less than human and often pejoratively described as animal-like, a discourse that Sancho’s comparison of the enslaved to dogs reproduces. Nevertheless, for Sancho concern about feeling and writing is not in contradiction to his status as an “African” in Europe. He even claims a distinctly African sensibility at one point: “I meant this—not as an epistle of cold thanks—but the warm ebullitions of African sensibility” (LIS 170). Despite the lack yet of a Black tradition in Europe, for Sancho, Africanness is compatible with metropolitan sentimental discourse, it might even add a distinctive “warmness” in its supposedly more immediate access to emotionality. And while there are no other Black authors he can cite, he provides intertextual references to earlier fictional depictions of non-white masculinities, most prominently Shakespeare’s Othello ([1604] in Shakespeare 1998) and Behn’s (2003 [1688]) Oroonoko,Footnote 20 to underline the humanity of the non-white subject as part of the refined world of literature and letters. However, the incoherence of these white imaginations of racialised masculinity, depicted either as savage beast or noble prince, obviously do not reflect the mundane experience of Sancho. Nussbaum explains: “It is difficult to conceive of a coherent black masculinity in the face of these popular representations, as fractured as they are between the ugly and the perfectly formed, the savage and the princely, the soft and the manly” (2001: 55). Sancho, rather than claim any of these extremes, promotes an image of a worldly and yet familiar masculinity that is linked to his harmonious family life.Footnote 21

This is also advice he passes on to fellow Afro-Briton Julius Soubise, who became the subject of public satire following a rumoured affair with his benefactress the Duchess of Queensbury. Such display of “foppish” behaviour and rakish sexuality, especially involving white women, might undermine the already precarious status of Black masculinity. That is why, Sancho begs Soubise to leave behind such foolishness to better himself and not do injustice to his “noble patrons”. While he is still in service for the Montagu family himself, Sancho writes in 1772,

Happy, happy lad! what a fortune is thine!—Look round upon the miserable fate of almost all of our unfortunate colour—superadded to ignorance,—see slavery, and the contempt of those very wretches who roll in affluence from our labours superadded to this woeful catalogue—hear the ill-bred and heart-racking abuse of the foolish vulgar.—You, S[oubis]e, tread as cautiously as the strictest rectitude can guide ye—yet must you suffer from this—but armed with truth—honesty—and conscious integrity—you will be sure of the plaudit and countenance of the good […]. (LIS 46)

The “woeful catalogue” that afflicts “almost all of our unfortunate colour” once more references slavery but only “superadded” to ignorance. Within this convoluted insertion the redundantly also “superadded” contempt of slaveowners could either be a result of enslavement or an addition to the list of miseries. For Sancho, the good fortune to be in the service of cultured English noblemen and noblewomen is an experience that Soubise should cherish, with enslavement understood again as a far-away abomination which leads to the display of foolish vulgarity, presumably by the “ill-bred” newly rich who have profiteered from the plantation economy, which he in turn usurps as “our labours”. Here Sancho at once construes an allegiance to those with whom he and Soubise share their “colour”, but he also expresses his loyalty to a cultured English aristocracy that seems exempt from partaking in the profits of enslavement.

In conversation with his correspondents, Sancho refuses being pinpointed to a position of either African or British, he reproduces stereotypes but also challenges conceit.

Sancho’s device of offering labels and stereotypes for his readers to refuse is also part and parcel of this technique as a letter writer, a conversationalist, who actively engages with his readers, and demands their involvement. In other words he is “writing to”, rather than “writing at” his readers. (Innes 2002: 35)

This strategy of “writing to”, as Innes calls it, can be linked to the concept of entanglement. Sancho is not writing back to Britishness from a position outside, rather he is a somewhat undecided, often digressive conversationalist positioning himself at times clearly at the centre of Britishness and at other times highlighting his differences.Footnote 22 Instead of dismissing this as another sign of Sancho’s supposedly lacking political awareness, I read this digressive tone as an aesthetic form of expressing and contesting modernity simultaneously. It is his genuinely conflicted positionality that seems well-matched in a tonality that continually stops to re-assess; this also leaves room for ambiguity and irony, which brings me to the question of literary influence and imitation.

As is widely noted, Sancho’s sentimental tone displays a distinctly humorous Sternian undercurrent. Sandiford speaks of a “rhetoric of self-mockery” (1988: 84) that characterises his writing and regarding the adoption of language mocking Black people, for instance, Nussbaum argues that he exhibits “a playfulness and self-deprecating humour absent from Equiano” (2003: 210). In response to racist appellations, we can thus discern a distinct difference between the more sombre foundational tonality of Equiano’s appeal to common humanity and Sancho’s sentimental humour (and later Wedderburn’s angry resisting tone, and Seacole’s eventual laughing off racism as a gesture that consolidates her belonging to Britishness). Instead of prematurely labelling these forms of engagement with literary tonalities as imitative, I want to again make a case for an entangled point of view that recognises Black aesthetic agency and white reliance on Blackness as the “constitutive outside” of its own claim of artistic and cultural refinement. To Mr Stevenson Sancho writes,

Young says, “A friend is the balsam of life”—Shakspeare [sic] says,—but why should I pester you with quotations?—to shew you the depth of my erudition, and strut like the fabled bird in his borrowed plumage—in good honest truth, my friend—I rejoice to see thy name at the bottom of the instructive page—and were fancy and invention as much my familiar friends as they are thine—I would write thee an answer—or try, at least, as agreeably easy—and as politely simple.—Mark that; simplicity is the characteristic of good writing—which I have learnt, among many other good things, of your Honor—and for which I am proud to thank you; […]. (LIS 51)

In this letter, Sancho stops himself after one quote by Young. The dash interrupts his impulse to demonstrate his learnedness by providing yet another quote from Shakspeare [sic], not to “pester” his friend or appear conceited. Playfully he goes on to define simplicity not only as the marker of good writing but also use this opportunity to pay his friend a compliment, as he has picked up this aesthetic virtue from him. To quote, to copy is to become a vain bird in “borrowed plumage”. Sancho exuberantly acknowledges his literary influences, but he is also keen to demonstrate his own reflections on style. He is anxious to show off his erudition but not at the expense of individuality. Like Sterne’s, Sancho’s writing is not linear. And one could argue that it is precisely this propensity to digress and to scrutinise subjects from different angles that characterises this form of writing as self-reflexive and novelistic.

In 1766Footnote 23 then Sancho and Sterne communicate directly, tellingly on the topic of slavery. Sancho, in a request that Helena Woodard characterises as “deeply layered in diplomacy” (1999: 79), writes,

It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.” [sic]—The first part of my life was rather unlucky […].—The latter part of my life has been—thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—[…] Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse […] is this very affecting passage—“[…] Consider slavery—what it is —how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!”—Of all my favourite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God!—what a feast to a benevolent heart! (LIS 73–74)

In beseeching Sterne to give just “one half hour’s attention” to ameliorating the fate of the enslaved in “our West Indies”, Sancho seems to follow a very peculiar temporality, given the magnitude of a topic like slavery in relation to the attention span of a mere thirty minutes. Indeed, while Sancho adores philanthropy, his greatest pleasure are books. Hence, Sterne is the ideal addressee of Sancho’s appeal. He begs him to indulge in such an emotionalising digression and Sancho is aware of Sterne’s power to create familiarity with the fate of the enslaved in the increasingly public sphere of print culture (he is but one amongst the numerous admirers of Sterne). Slavery is a social evil that needs to be amended, but Sancho is not too concerned whether Sterne’s endorsement of the subject would improve the life of many or just one individual. The “many millions” that are affected by slavery, as Sancho quotes from Sterne’s sermon “Job’s Account of the Shortness and Troubles of Life” in his letter, are linked to the “millions” who are indebted to Sterne for creating the “amiable uncle Toby”. Accordingly, Sancho first establishes his love of books and philanthropy before addressing slavery, and it is precisely this perception of slavery as a “feast to a benevolent heart”, which Festa calls the “self-satisfying nature of sentimental discourse” (2006: 85), that the tonality of philanthropy caters to.

Sterne replied favourably and includes Sancho’s letter in his own correspondence. For that purpose, he, in fact, edits some of Sancho’s mannered prose. In the version that was reproduced in Sterne’s posthumously published letters “the benevolent heart” is deleted to read simply, “what a feast”. Woodard analyses Sterne’s alterations in more detail and concludes, “The oratorical, emotional sermon like quality of Sancho’s epistolary style contrasts with Sterne’s more muted, formal epistolary style” (1999: 80).Footnote 24 Sancho’s letters in some way seem to imitate art and not life and show a keen awareness of aesthetics; Sterne’s own private communication is much more toned-down. In fact, Sterne’s letters are described as less remarkable by editors Melvyn New and Peter de Voogd who state that in them “his spontaneity was often forced, his sincerity dubious, and his sentiments rather commonplace” (in Sterne 2009a: lv). While Sterne seems to reserve his more extravagant prose for his fictional texts, Sancho uses his unique point of view as a way to fashion himself as a Sternian literary persona in real life. Ellis, too, highlights the importance of aesthetics here. “This literary aspect of Sancho’s letters suggests that the book asks to be read as a kind of Shandean epistolary novel, rather than as a biography in letters” (1996: 81).

In a letter to his friend Mr Meheux, who worked for the Board of Control, which oversaw imperial rule of India, Sancho sets out to defend “his Sterne” from scorn:

You had set up my bristles in such guise—in attacking poor Sterne—that I had quite forgot to give you a flogging for your punning grocery epistle—but omittance is no quittance.—Swift and Sterne were different in this—Sterne was truly a noble philanthropist—Swift was rather cynical;—what Swift would fret and fume at—such as the petty accidental sourings and bitters in life’s cup—you plainly may see, Sterne would laugh at—and parry off by a larger humanity, and regular good will to man. I know you will laugh at me—do—I am content;—if I am an enthusiast in any thing, it is in favor of my Sterne. (LIS 125)

Against the bitter satire of Swift, Sancho praises the combination of philanthropy and humour in “his” Sterne, no matter if he is mocked for his optimistic enthusiasm by his friend. Not simply pathetic in a tear-jerking sentimental fashion, nor interested solely in political wit, both Sancho and Sterne promote a digressive tonality of “light” political engagement. If this aesthetic choice can be understood as entangled, do their unlike positionalities lead to a differential understanding of the use of this style by the two writers? The Black author must first establish his status as a feeling subject after all. Over and over, we see that in the campaign for abolition several arguments coincide: is it enough to claim that “the slave” has a soul (as exemplified in the willingness to convert to Christianity and be baptised), that he or she has feelings, or did they also have to prove intellectual capacities to be regarded as equal human beings? In Sancho’s aspiration to the ideal of the man of letters, he clearly links all three aspects: he talks of his love of books, his sorrows and joys regarding his family and God’s providence but also often mentions his pain and problems caused by his many illnesses. Sandiford argues, “the excesses of sensibility that abound in the Letters seem to function as compensatory defences; they are as much statements of conventional sentimentalism as they are expressions affirmative of human value” (1988: 86). However, instead of reading this simply as an “empowering” adoption of sentimentalism and a “compensatory” strategy, I understand Sancho and Sterne’s exchange as one form of how the success of the British novel was entangled with the transatlantic world and the ways in which the imagination of British progressiveness depended on an engagement with literary voices from the margins.Footnote 25

Eluding Solidarity: Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey

While Sancho writes deferentially to his literary idol, Sterne is also eager to capitalise on Sancho’s supposed authenticity as an admiring Black subject.Footnote 26 Sterne’s oeuvre demonstrates only a very fleeting interest in and no substantial discussion of slavery (and Britain’s role in the transatlantic economy). Ellis states, “The Sancho exchange showed the celebrated writer [Sterne] in a better light than many of his other letters, confirming him as a benevolent philanthropist rather than a rakish libertine” (2001: 201), as which he was denounced, for example, by Wilberforce. Thus, one could argue that it is really Sancho’s letters that elevate the real-life author Sterne (rather than his literary alter ego Yorick) to the level of a sentimental humanitarian which explains his interest in being endorsed by Sancho (cf. also Sandhu 1998: 92).Footnote 27 Consequently, in the following, I will not attempt to offer comprehensive readings of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey but will focus on the well-known passages (and the by now numerous interpretations of them) that demonstrate Sterne’s elusive responses to slavery and will also return once more to the “imitation debate” to suggest an entangled perspective on how the digressive tonalities of Sancho and Sterne speak to each other.

In his response to Sancho’s letter (that may have been written with publication already in mind) Sterne expresses both his belief in a “brotherhood of man” and his trust in the power of the written word.

There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or your’s, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St. James’s, to the sootiest complexion in africa [sic]: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? […] If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a […] sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other. (Sterne in LIS 332–333; cf. also Sterne 2009b, 504–505)

Sterne is alluding here already to the last volume of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, whose nine volumes were published in five instalments from 1759–1767, and which was something of a literary sensation all over London. The novel brought Sterne, who was also a Church of England vicar in Yorkshire, literary success late in life. Ellis summarises the debate on whether Sancho’s letter could have had an impact on Sterne’s decision to address the topic of slavery, which his insistence on the “strange coincidence” seems to refute: “The question of influence, and moreover the direction of the flow of this influence, has been much debated in Sterne scholarship; with most Sterneans concluding that Sancho’s letter was a coincidence” because Sterne had completed the quoted “tender tale” in Tristram Shandy supposedly before Sancho’s letter reached him. But Ellis critically offers that this “demotion as a source is probably not accidental” (1996: 71). In many ways, Sancho’s real-life letters—that adopt and adapt literary sentimentalism—can be read as a critical interlocution with British sentimentalism’s bolstered image of benign humanitarianism which relied both on an excessive fascination with slavery and an avoidance of recognising the humanity of the enslaved.

Sterne, prompted by Sancho’s request to pay attention “to slavery as it is at this day practised in our West Indies”, not only liberally acknowledges Sancho’s status as the “negro-girl’s” brethren but also includes himself in a more expansive version of shared humanity.Footnote 28 At the same time, the Biblical “chains of darkness”, supposedly the ignorance that afflicts those “nonbelievers” of the “sootiest complexion”, can only be shed by the endorsement of Christianity and diligent learning. Thus, Sancho’s own “laudable” actions that broke these first chains are contrasted with the additional “Chains of Misery”, seemingly referring to enslavement which Sancho was spared because of the “Providence” that befell him by being rescued by his British patron family. Once more, familiar Britishness is exempt from involvement in the enslavement of Africans but only credited with progressive humanitarianism. Moreover, Carol Watts observes that the language Sterne employs here “carries painterly references to a scale of tints and shades that suggest he is for all his humanitarian solidarity dealing in representations” (2007: 175). The letter never touches upon the actual political implications of outlawing the slave trade (and the financial repercussions for the British in “our West Indies”) but seems more invested in the “Tale” and the “Work”.Footnote 29 Sterne does not need to be reminded of the potential progressive impact that his writing might have on the larger public, he is already aware of it, and yet, he likes to come across in the letter as a modest poet in the “service of the afflicted”. The sermon that Sancho quotes was originally published in the Sermons of Mr Yorick in 1760. Sterne the author appears happy to be conflated with his (potentially more) sympathetic fictional counterpart and for Sancho too, the two seem to overlap given his familiarity with the writing of Sterne/Yorick.Footnote 30 In the sermon, slavery does not refer to the transatlantic trade in human beings and the American system of chattel slavery but references “the slavery of body and mind” first in relation to Roman enslavement of prisoners of war and then offers a tirade of Sterne’s anti-Catholic sentiment that condemns the horrors of the inquisition:

Consider slavery—what it is,—how bitter a draught, and how many millions have been made to drink of it;—which if it can poison all earthly happiness when exercised barely upon our bodies, what must it be, when it comprehends both the slavery of body and mind?—To conceive this, look into the history of the Romish church and her tyrants, (or rather executioners) who seem to have taken pleasure in the pangs and convulsions of their fellow-creatures.—Examine the prisons of the inquisition, hear the melancholy notes sounded in every cell.—Consider the anguish of mock-trials, and the exquisite tortures consequent thereupon, mercilessly inflicted upon the unfortunate, where the racked and weary soul has so often wished to take its leave,—but cruelly not suffered to depart.—Consider how many of these helpless wretches have been haled from thence in all periods of this tyrannic usurpation, to undergo the massacres and flames to which a false and a bloody religion has condemned them. (Sterne 1996: 100–101)

In Sancho’s understanding of the sermon, the contemporary realm of the West Indies is implied in the general condemnation of slavery, and Sterne does not seem troubled by this (maybe generous) interpretation.Footnote 31 On the contrary, he is happy to be associated with the progressive discourse on the abolition of the trade. Nonetheless, it remains debatable how much of this context is decipherable for Sterne’s wider reading audience of the time that first and foremost craved more instalments of his most famous literary work.

Tristram Shandy is regarded as a metanarrative tour de force that displays Sterne’s fondness of using any given cause to digress from his actual tale. There is no clear linear plot, the highly intrusive narrator Tristram is not even born in the first two volumes and describes his own conception, digressing to tell the story of his uncle Toby and his servant Corporal Trim, and ending the narrative again before his own birth.Footnote 32 The novel additionally includes black and blank pages and other typographic quirks. The mentioned “tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl” appears as one of the many digressions in the final ninth volume (chapter six), interspersed notably by the famous over-use of the dash worth quoting at some length:

When Tom, an’ please your honour, got to the shop, there was nobody in it, but a poor negro girl, with a bunch of white feathers slightly tied to the end of a long cane, flapping away flies—not killing them.——’Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy——

——She was good, an’ please your honour, from nature as well as from hardships; and there are circumstances in the story of that poor friendless slut that would melt a heart of stone, said Trim; and some dismal winter’s evening, when your honour is in the humour, they shall be told you with the rest of Tom’s story, for it makes a part of it——

Then do not forget, Trim, said my uncle Toby.

A Negro has a soul? an’ please your honour, said the Corporal (doubtingly).

I am not much versed, Corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me——

——It would be putting one sadly over the head of another, quoth the Corporal.

It would so; said my uncle Toby. Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?

I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby——

——Only, cried the Corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her——

——’Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby,——which recommends her to protection——and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now——where it may be hereafter, heaven knows!——but be it where it will, the brave, Trim! will not use it unkindly.

——God forbid, said the Corporal.

Amen, responded my uncle Toby, laying his hand upon his heart. (TS 493)

This anecdote, part of Trim’s account of his brother Tom’s marriage to a Jew’s widow in (Catholic) Lisbon, comes itself as an insertion into the (sentimental) plot of uncle Toby’s pursuit of widow Watman.Footnote 33 Ellis proposes a metonymic relationship between the fly swat and the whip of West Indian slaveholders (1996: 74) and characterises this as a “classical sentimental scene: voyeuristically depicting the powerless reconciled to their powerlessness” (1996: 69). Woodard too emphasises the lacking agency of the non-white character here: “The ‘Negro girl’ in the sausage shop never speaks aloud in the scene with Toby and Trim, perhaps symbolizing the fact that only a white person could represent or validate the black woman, whether as narrative voice or as an individual” (1999: 81). The girl’s apparent benevolence towards the fly is described as the result of her “nature” and the “hardships” she has suffered. The circumstances of her life which “would melt a heart of stone” however remain a lacuna in Trim’s account, which, as Ramesh Mallipeddi contends (2016: 96), thereby actually evades addressing slavery. Sussman similarly notes that the “tender tale” “occupies only a page in Sterne’s novel and has nothing much to do with the conditions of slaves in the British West Indies, […] it is a very Sternian digression within a digression within a digression” (2000: 145). The unpresented story of the “poor friendless slut” (not a derogatory term at that time) is so “heart-warming” it should be saved for a “dismal winter’s evening”.

Toby and Trim proceed to more general deliberations on the common debate of the day whether “A Negro has a soul”, suddenly switching to the male universal.Footnote 34 The next sentence, however, quickly reasserts the specificity of gender of the subject of the scene. Rather than claim equality in rights that a focus on men might have implied, Trim wonders why the “black wench” should “be used worse than a white one”. Women appear in need of protection, irrespective of “colour”. With the Treaty of Utrecht as the larger historical context here, the characters find themselves in a situation in which the British have gained the upper hand in the military rivalries with the Catholic South of Europe. Thus, the forced conversion of JewsFootnote 35 in Lisbon and the reference to the inquisition yet again give room to Sterne’s anti-Catholicism, which Mallipeddi reads as an overshadowing of the theme of slavery altogether. While I concur that this passage does not communicate radical abolitionist ideas, such as those voiced by Granville Sharp, I do believe in explicitly using the term “whip” in the course of the conversation, there remains a clear allusion to a British “polite” form of rule in the colonies. Toby is no longer just interested in the girl but “her brethren with her” which speaks to a larger context of suppression than just the individual woman’s unknown story. Since “the fortune of war […] has put the whip into our hands now”, it is the obligation of the British to govern “fairly” and to demonstrate that they “will not use it unkindly”. Thus, while Sterne circumvents the realities of the slave trade in his digressive tale, Toby’s hand on his heart signposts a sentimental imagination of amelioration that would be the result of British (enlightened) and “just” administration (as opposed to the Catholic “barbarities”). So rather than assume the abolition of slavery, a “kinder”, sentimental rule is envisioned.

There is another pretext for the framing of this scene that concerns the concept of liberty not in relation to enslavement but regarding the role of unmarried men (cf. Ellis 1996: 68), making the reference to the sausages in the episode, framed by the voyeuristic attempts of Tristram’s parents to spy on Toby and Wadman after all, somewhat bawdy and sexually ambiguous. Reflecting on Tom’s imprisonment, Trim states:

Nothing, continued the Corporal, can be so sad as confinement for life—or so sweet, an’ please your honour, as liberty.

Nothing, Trim——said my uncle Toby, musing——

Whilst a man is free—cried the Corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus——

A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy.

My uncle Toby look’d earnestly towards his cottage and his bowling green. (TS 490–491)

Marriage and imprisonment are painted as analogous here and the elusive graphic representation of male (sexual) freedom in the Corporal’s movement of the stick is a self-reflexive and playful way of adding to the text’s continuous pleasurable deferral of narrative/sexual gratification. The sentimental affective address to the reader thus is not only tied to the debate about slavery and its amelioration but gender too seems highly relevant and I will discuss how masculinity for Sterne, in contrast to Sancho’s more familial version, is linked to an imagination of freedom in bachelorhood and/or celibacy.

First, however, the question of Sterne’s elusive representation of enslavement extends to a second much-discussed scene in the 1768 published A Sentimental Journey in the sections “The Passport” and “The Captive” in which a missing passport in France triggers a highly self-indulgent comparison of Yorick’s misery to slavery that also echoes the wording of his sermon (cf. SJ 70). In Paris he hears an incarcerated bird sing: “a starling hung in a little cage.—‘I can’t get out,—I can’t get out,’ said the starling” (SJ 69).Footnote 36 Later Yorick again reflects on his constricted liberty of movement and the danger of coming under what he perceives as the despotic rule of the French monarch and a possible confinement in the Bastille if he were caught traveling without a passport while France and Great Britain are still fighting in the Seven Years’ War. In his room, he closes his eyes to almost luxuriously wallow in his misery:

I sat down close to my table, and leaning my head upon my hand, I began to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. I was in a right frame for it, and so I gave full scope to my imagination.

I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting the picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitude of sad groups in it did but distract me.— (SJ 70)

However affecting slavery is the imagination of the suffering multitude does not capture Yorick’s full attention.Footnote 37 It is only when he focuses again on a fictional captive that the true power of sentimental empathy works, his “heart began to bleed” and later he “burst into tears” (SJ 71).Footnote 38 Ellis again stresses the figurative connection between the bird and the slave: “In much the same way as the slave owner’s whip was translated into the fly swat of the woman slave in Tristram Shandy, the starling is made a metonymic emblem of African slavery” (1996: 74). Other critics, such as Laura Brown, read the reference to nonhuman beings as stand-ins or a “disguise” for non-Europeanness but arguing, ultimately similarly, that the bird becomes “an African slave in the new world” (Brown 2001: 253). In contrast, Mallipeddi fundamentally repudiates these metaphorical interpretations. He argues, “in these episodes, set in Catholic Portugal and absolutist France, the captives are not literally slaves but religious minorities, victims not of colonial slavery but of Catholic persecution; in other words, the specific contexts alluded to in these episodes obscure rather than illuminate the sociopolitical structures of slavery” (2016: 87) and he concludes, “even though the trope of slavery is employed in different contexts, the institution of slavery itself remains unrepresented in the novel” (2016: 106). Despite these conflicting interpretations that highlight either the metaphorical representation of slavery or its potential concealment, most critics, including Ellis and Mallipeddi, seem to agree on the limits of sentimentalism as a politically effective discourse that would genuinely challenge the British status quo of the time.Footnote 39 Accordingly, rather than engage in more detail in the critical debate on whether there is a metaphorical/metonymical relationship between the “negro girl”, the starling, and actual enslaved people in the West Indies, I want to examine how the digressive tonality links to my larger interest in (familial) feeling.

In both sentimental scenes from Sterne’s texts it is not entirely clear what the desired effect on the readers is: are we to empathise with the victims of injustice (the “negro girl” and the starling) or are we to indulge in the tearful display of affectionate feeling of Toby and Yorick? Or, are the readers invited to take on a much more critical distance to these thus potentially self-reflexive and mocking spectacles of literary sentimentalism that are embedded in more humorous and satirical contexts after all? How much reflexivity regarding the conventions of sentimentalism, especially when addressing such a controversially debated topic as slavery predating abolition, can be assumed of their contemporaries? Festa suggests that this is a problem of representation more generally connected to the mode of sentimentalism and the fabrication of supposedly authentic feeling in literary discourse (cf. 2006: 84). The figure of “the slave” is more important than the actual freedom of the enslaved, the bird is not set free but handed down like a cheap commodity (cf. 2006: 86–87).Footnote 40 The evocation of strong feelings is also a feature of (financial) success in the literary marketplace. The link between slavery and the trapped bird can thus serve not only to discuss the (limited) political effectivity of sentimentalism, it is also connected once more to the role of aesthetics and originality.

Both Ellis and Festa in their readings return to Hume’s parrot and his derisive comments on Black artists merely being capable of mindless repetition. Festa draws attention to the “I” in the statement of the bird which is contingent on the subjectivity of its human teacher, an English groom (cf. 2006: 84). Like Crusoe’s parrot, the starling after all can only repeat its master’s words. But like the parrot’s truncated exclamation “Robin Crusoe” that startles its master, the mimic discourse of the animal can have an emotive power of its own, as does the starling’s voice on Yorick. This question of affective valence becomes highly relevant regarding the creative agency of the disenfranchised, like Sancho, who did participate in literary discourse’s bargaining in feeling. Thomas Jefferson, who in Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781–1784, published first in 1787) doubts the artistic capacities of Black people, inserts within his abundant racist proclamations that “in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous” (2011 [1854]: 382). Unsurprisingly, he is dismissive of the poems of Phillis Wheatley, whom Sancho in turn praises for her “Genius in bondage”.Footnote 41 About Sancho, who, in comparison to Wheatley, “has approached nearer to merit in composition”, Jefferson states,

He is often happy in the turn of his compliments, and his style is easy and familiar, except when he offers a Shandean fabrication of words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky. (2011 [1854]: 383)

Sentimentalism is considered an objectionable literary style, especially for an African whose capabilities, while outstanding for a Black writer, could never match the excellence of the white “epistolary class” (Jefferson 2011 [1854]: 384). Is the problem then that Sancho (mindlessly) imitates “white” conventions or that he adopts the repulsive habit of the “Shandean fabrication of words” that is “incoherent and eccentric”? Is the critique directed at content or form? In other words, is Sancho with his “familiar” style lacking creativity or, like Sterne, too “wild” in his “meteoric” imagination?Footnote 42

As a way to repudiate the framework of imitation, Ellis (cf. 1996: 75) cites Homi Bhabha’s postcolonial concept of mimicry, to describe Sancho’s relationship to Englishness. Discussing British rule over India, Bhabha had famously argued that “mimicry is at once resemblance and menace” (1994: 123). By repeating conventions of sentimentality, Ellis analogously argues, Sancho also threatens English dominance. However, this framing is still somewhat lacking. Sancho is either dismissed as imitative or elevated as a subversive mimic man in Bhabha’s sense, adopting a literary style to undermine colonial power. I want to maintain that neither of these labels describes the literary ambition of Sancho’s letters, which are entangled in the discourses of playful sentimentalism and genuine affective individualism, adequately. His writing in the most literal sense of entanglement is part of the metropolitan discourses of its day (and not a postcolonial writing back or mimicry before its time). As much as Sancho is adopting British writing conventions, the very aesthetics of sentimentalism is already in its emergence deeply entangled with Britain’s role in the slave economy. Bhabha’s concept of mimicry therefore runs the risk of always prioritising colonial discourse and emphasising a postcolonial response or ambivalent and subversive rewriting when, in fact, I would stress the contemporaneous links. In framing Sterne and Sancho as entangled literary voices, we can understand the references to slavery as signposts of a hegemonic sentimental and supposedly benevolent British identity. Sterne needs objects of tearful displays of compassion to demonstrate elevated feeling. As in the Hegelian conception of intersubjective relationality, the master needs the slave.Footnote 43 But Sancho, too, claims a position of “masterful” sentimentality—he, too, pities the enslaved in a Sternian vocabulary. In his complicated familiarity with his objects of pity, however, his digressions truly interrupt the all too neat narrative of the sovereign modern subject.

Sukhdev Sandhu, in a very convincing reading of the relationship between Sterne and Sancho, stresses Sancho’s agency in appropriating Sterne’s digressive literary style as well (cf. also Innes 2002: 33). Despite the pro-slavery argument that slaves cannot draw a straight line, that is to say, “think straight”, Sancho does not adopt a more polished linear prose (cf. Sandhu 1998: 100–101). He self-consciously litters his letters with Sternian dashes, interrupting the literary flow, often expressing strong feelings and emotional upheaval in these parentheses and digressions.Footnote 44 Consequently, an eighteenth-century claim to subjectivity comprises the capacity to think and feel. Sandhu argues:

In contrast to this supposed silencing of peripheral voices, we are now led to believe and rejoice in the fact that the Empire is apparently “writing back.” The vengeful antagonism of this phrase is, as Sancho’s life and letters prove, a misleading and reductive characterization […]. For Sancho was actively encouraged, patronized, and financially assisted by many authors and artists right at the heart of the imperial metropolis, right in the very middle of the age of slavery. This did not mean he became a parrot, someone mindlessly aping the style and syllabics of authors whose prestige overawed him. No, of his own accord he selected the writer who meant most to him, consciously picked out which aspects of his aesthetics he felt were most pertinent to his own life and concerns, and deployed them in various touching, adroit, and satirical ways. The empire does not—and did not—always write back to the center. Often, it writes in critical and reflective partnership with the center. (1998: 101–102)

I believe Sandhu is right to radicalise our understanding of why a Black author like Sancho could become part of British sentimentalism already during the eighteenth century. This is more than mimicking hegemonic Englishness, it is a digression from and an interruption of the supposed linearity of white superiority (and the rise of the novel framework), that is, as Sandhu cogently asserts, too often framed as challenged only ever retrospectively.

Accordingly, instead of debating the (in my opinion limited) counter-hegemonic weight of Sterne’s contribution to anti-slavery thought or Sancho’s status as a mimic man, I want to follow Sandhu’s example to think more formally about how their digressive tonalities affect an understanding of subjectivity and familial feeling. This concerns primarily temporality in relation to the seriality of the novel and the typographic peculiarities, but also the “time of heterosexuality” and the expectations of the order/progress of a man’s life. On the one hand, the discussed sentimental scenes in Sancho and Sterne could be seen as complacent and sentimental insertions only. On the other hand, digression, according to Schwalm, for instance, can be understood as pointing to the limits of the genre of autobiography to capture a life in writing (cf. 2007: 287–289). Read in this way, the digressive mode is not simply a signifier of the limited political weight of sentimentalism, it also interrupts more teleological narratives of coherent (modern) subjectivity and provides pause.

The narrator Tristram asserts the value of interrupting narrative flow and proclaims a necessary “masterstroke of digressive skill”:

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a masterstroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,- -not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;- - -and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;- - -not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,- - -but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time. (TS 57–58)

Elaborate characterisation requires digressive description for the reader to get truly acquainted with the protagonists. Plot and characterisation are part of the narrative “machinery” that is “digressive” and “progressive” “at the same time”. This obviously will have an impact on how temporality is expressed in the text as narrated time and narrative order. The universe of Tristram Shandy is not invested in a realistic description of empirical details that are causally motivated, as is the case in Robinson Crusoe. Mullan characterises this as a temporal distancing technique which is contrasted to Richardson’s “truth of feeling” that draws the reader closer to the moment. In contrast, “Tristram Shandy is writing away from the moment” (2002: 160). Flint, in turn, emphasises that the direct narrative comment is writing “to” (rather than away from) the moment. Despite the assumed opposite directionality, both critics agree that Sterne’s text as a result lacks “temporal intimacy”. Flint writes , “Unlike Defoe’s autobiographical narrators or Richardson’s epistolary subjects, Sterne, for all his apparent writing to the moment, never really tries to flesh out the temporal intimacy between one’s self and one’s pen” (1998: 272). So, whether we understand the digressive “over-characterisation” as getting closer to (or stuck in?) the moment or the many prolepses and analepses as moving away from the moment, Sterne’s digressive style certainly does not add to psychological proximity but draws attention to the artificiality of the process of trying to put a life into words.Footnote 45

Writing and reading seem inextricably linked in this process.Footnote 46 Sterne, via Tristram’s narration, reflects on the fact that he would need to “live faster” to produce adequate textual documentation:

I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—’tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back—was every day of my life to be as busy a day as this—And why not?—and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description—And for what reason should they be cut short? as at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write—It must follow, an’ please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write—and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read. (TS 228)

Reading and writing become means in and of themselves, which is of course also a comment on the pleasure of producing and consuming fiction.

Visually the digressive tonality is characterised by the mentioned excessive use of the dash (of various lengths)Footnote 47 to insert ever more subplots and ideas, and Schwalm (2007: 289) links this once more to a formal repudiation of coherence and narrative linearity. Analysing the typeset in more detail, Lennard notes that paradoxically the digressive style is both satirical and yet potentially psychologically more “realistic” (yet not necessarily affectively intimate) than the pretence of ordered narrative.Footnote 48

Digressions operate at all levels in Tristram Shandy, including those of the chapter and the volume, but they are manifest in the dashes and lunulae which spatter each page of text. At all levels digressions may, and often do, carry a satirical charge, but they also express, in the degree and scope of the disorganization which they impose, Tristram’s mind and psychology. (Lennard 1991: 140)

Thus, while parenthesis might be more lifelike, in the sense that it imitates how humans actually think and speak, it does add further challenge in relation to the representation of authentic feeling and affective proximity, as explained. This stylistic choice can thus be read as part of the satirical rather than sentimental register of Sterne that also creates emphasis. Lennard argues, “in satire the parenthesis is often not a digression but an intensification” (1991: 155). While for the novelist Sterne the dash seems to function as a satirical and self-reflexive distancing technique, for Sancho the letter writer, it is often used to imply greater proximity to his addressees, mimicking the spontaneous flow of actual conversation, creating a more familiar tonality that implies confidentiality, in inserting ever more little afterthoughts.

Moving away from the dash on the page, one can also link digression or temporal distance to the larger scope of the different volumes of Tristram Shandy. Publication in instalments gives Sterne the opportunity to react to trends and readers. Thomas Keymer sees a shift towards the more fashionable tone of sentimentalism only in the course of the publication of the later volumes. He argues, “Tristram Shandy was always potentially responsive to market conditions, which, with characteristic self-consciousness, it inscribes within itself” (Keymer 2005: 594). The serialised novel in that sense shares much with the interactive communication of letters. It is not a closed “masterpiece” but a dialogic form in the truest sense—especially if we consider the possibility that Sancho might very well have been an influence on Sterne’s decision to include the “tender tale”.

But despite his flirtation with literary trends, Sterne’s writing of course does not simply reproduce the already slightly mocked conventions of tear-jerking sentimentalism straightforwardly but in his digressive tonality combines humour and sentiment. Thus, in contrast to a solely satirical understanding of digression, Sandhu reads Sterne’s style in his fictional writing and in his sermon on philanthropy as a sincere call to pause and reflect.Footnote 49 “Linearity, Sterne believed, is tantamount to selfishness” (2001: 14). (Auto)Biography that focuses only on one life could be regarded as vain and thus Tristram Shandy is not as solipsistic as Robinson Crusoe one might argue. In this way, Sterne, like Sancho, intervenes in the modern romance with coherent (narrative) subjectivity. However, whether this can be equated with a more fundamental unsettling of hegemonic meaning-making seems dubious. Keymer, in contrast to Sandhu posits, “[i]n practice, the novel fails, or refuses, to sustain any clear distinction between sentimental sincerity and Shandean satire” (2005: 596). But is it not exactly this ambivalence of the novel that adds to the popularity of the medium in its serialised form?

Precisely because of its self-reflexivity it also addresses a diverse public sphere. Thus, it is probably not the right question to ask whether Sterne’s sentimental philanthropy is sincere or whether his digressive and elusive style is (only) sardonic. His texts might well be so successful exactly because they combine both affective registers. Keymer himself states, “Always alert to the diversity of readerships and the multiplicity of meanings, Sterne offers his audience a text in which sentimental tastes are simultaneously fed and mocked” (2005: 597–598). The preacher Sterne uses sentimentalism ambivalently, as a means to deride and indulge a growing feeling middle-class reading audience. Sancho’s letters in contrast contest the distribution of object and subject of sentimentality more fundamentally. He needs to generate true affection in his readers, upon whom he also depends financially, and this also finally relates to questions of familial feeling in Sterne and Sancho’s texts. Both employ a digressive tonality that avoids clear-cut politics in favour of feeling, feeling that in Sterne circumvents heterosexuality (via misogyny) while in Sancho, emotionality is linked to a romanticisation of the nuclear family of his Sanchonettas. In this context, both reproduce the specifically gendered figure of the man of feeling which comes not only with gender but also class privileges after all.

Robert Markley is highly critical of the idealisation of men of feeling since it leaves no room for the agency of victims of social inequality, especially women and children. He writes, “This strategy of rendering the victims of sentimental ideology as politically and symbolically impotent becomes a crucial means of mystifying the class prejudices and ideological imperatives that underlie the workings of sensibility” (1987: 212). It is mainly the travelling upper class that seems to evade the responsibilities of a “caring” masculinity. In her reading of A Sentimental Journey Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes the blatant “absence from the novel of any shred of a literal family for Yorick” (1985: 81). As the visual representation of Trim’s flourish of the stick showed, marriage is considered anathema to liberty and the sphere of control and policing of male sexuality. The narrative pleasure in digressing literally also pertains to a deferral of (male) obligations. While Defoe’s adventurous Crusoe seems devoid of any sexual or domestic desire, Yorick’s sentimentalism points in the direction of the libertine. In Tristram Shandy, which Nussbaum calls “Sterne’s anti-didactic novel of masculine domesticity” (2003: 89), “women ironically seem irrelevant to a story that begins with sexual congress and childbirth” (2003: 100). Nussbaum compares conversation in Tristram Shandy to coitus interruptus and essentially “phallic humour”: The book “engages long-suffering readers in the playful combat of unfinished conversation, constantly interrupted for apparently frivolous reason, and it fails to culminate in a union of either bodies or minds” (2003: 101).Footnote 50 Tristram despite his best efforts cannot control his relations and the gendered order of the family : “the family becomes not an ideal of governance but a symbol of social entanglement” (Flint 1998: 288). Respectful masculinity would need to be distinguished from aristocratic foppery, as Sancho demands of his friend Soubise. Sterne’s novel, however, seems to at least flirt with a more libertine version of masculinity as in the many episodes surrounding Toby’s glorified military past and questionable virility.

With its repeated allusions to impotence, be it uncle Toby’s war wound in the groin or Tristram’s accidental circumcision, Sterne’s writing “does not just indulge in improprieties, it mocks the reader who might be determined not to find them” (Mullan 2002: 187). Against the decorum of sentimental fiction, Sterne establishes a double-voicedness of literary discourse that the initiated reader might decode. When Sancho, in a letter to Meheux writes tongue in cheek, “You see I write like a lady, from one corner of the paper to the other” (LIS 96), he seems closest to Sterne’s satirical tone. Here Sancho, too, demonstrates his awareness of gendered assumptions around the culture of taste and letters. But in contrast to Sterne’s heroes’ attempts to escape matrimony, the family remains the topos of belonging in Sancho’s letters. Sancho, the proud Black father and husband, thus in fact already points more in the direction of the realistic affective individualism of Austen (although he never talks about the marriage prospects of his Black daughters in Britain), in comparison to the parson Sterne for whom the family seems cumbersome, both in fiction and real life. As has become clear, style and feeling are highly ambivalent in both authors with Sancho often more enthusiastically embracing family/familiarity, while Sterne seems content to defer both political and familial responsibility. For Sancho, the position of a refined man of letters rested to no small degree on his “authentic” emotionality, writing about his role as a loving husband and father. The community of his family and correspondents is an important affective resource, while for Sterne the demands of family seem limiting. In his playful texts an extroverted, at times foppish, masculinity seeks to circumvent heterosexuality altogether.

Sancho needs to establish his “dashing familiarity” as a real person, while Sterne seems flattered and strategically uses the inclusion of the Sancho letter to the benefit of his reputation, eluding solidarity as a true concern for Others’ well-being. Nevertheless, the ultimate tension between the display of lachrymose emotions as authentic political commitment or the lack thereof in relation to both their fleeting comments on enslavement cannot be settled once and for all. Consequently, rather than ask whether Sancho is mimicking Sterne or Sterne is appropriating Black suffering, they should be understood as entangled in their adoption of a digressive tonality that is not afraid to divagate, pushing the boundaries of sentimentality. While Sterne disrupts the linearity of the novel form and challenges generic restrictions, Sancho’s bold adoption of an “affected” literary style demonstrates a Black interest in aestheticised prose despite the fact that this might weaken his claim to rational subjectivity.

In the course of the nineteenth century, the ideal of the domestic family becomes even more central—both for marginalised and canonical literary voices—in the further generic consolidation of the bourgeois novel, which is also increasingly shaped by more resistant, less digressive, tones. Austen’s heroines cannot conveniently go on a grand tour to escape the confines of domesticity and Wedderburn, born on a Caribbean plantation, also cannot use slavery as simply a sentimental interlude.