Sterne’s Eliza in Whom Genius and Benevolence Were United

Today, we welcome a post from contributor and friend, Alexander Hardie-Forsyth!

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The title of Arnold Wright and William Lutley Sclater’s 1922 miscellany Sterne’s Eliza cannot but raise an eyebrow ninety odd years down the line, but we can read an unintended irony in its bold assertion of the possessive. Born on the south Malabar Coast in 1744, married to Daniel Draper at the age of fourteen, and the centre of an elopement controversy in 1773, Eliza was anything but Sterne’s. The ailing vicar instead forged his own spectral double of her at Shandy Hall, where a room she never visited acted as both shrine and metonym for a quasi-mythological Belle-Indian Bramine figured through memories of chance encounters in London, fevered dreams and erotic epistles. Here, her absent presence held the power to rupture bursting blood vessels, the consumptive’s life being one racked by uncontrollable bodily fluids that fuel a desire for the absent Other felt with tenfold intensity.

Twelve ‘handsome brass screws’ were Sterne’s parting gift to Eliza, of which he takes two as a token sacrifice with which to furnish her second cabin. As a figurative expression of incompleteness, it is neatly apt: what Sterne can claim of Eliza is only a minimal portion of her extraordinary life as an Anglo-Indian transnational. Her presence in the Howardian Hills would never be more substantial than the ghost of Cordelia Sterne sought to converse with in nearby Byland Abbey. The absence of any second voice in the Letters from Yorick to Eliza hollows the pronominal I-you relationship that characterises the letter as a ‘mediator of desire’ in Janet Altman’s terms.

For Royal Society philosophe Abbé Raynal, the savage man is distinguished from the cultured in that he has no need for pleasures that ‘are a relief to appetites which are not excited in his sensations’. When a change encounter with Eliza inspires within him a ‘sensation [previously] unknown to me’, she thereby serves to heighten both his status and his requirements as a civilised creature of the world. Letters from Yorick to Eliza had been published and Eliza’s reputation well established by the time Raynal encountered her. He would remain acutely aware that in the public’s eye he had simply inherited her from Sterne.

Genius and benevolence were ‘united’ in Eliza according to the lavish tomb Raynal financed to honour her memory at Bristol Cathedral. Correspondingly, he laments her demise in classical terms as a division or reconstitution of qualities and experiences that had been arranged together in one figure but for a fleeting moment. Death in stoic discourse is of course that which either annihilates us or strips us to our essence:

‘I search for Eliza every where: I discover, I discern some of her features, some of her charms, scattered […] But what is become of her who united them all? Nature, who hast exhausted thy gifts to form an Eliza, didst thou create her only for one moment?

Eliza Draper is only difficult in the sense that she provides no answer or response; she remains the absent interlocutor in the works of two of the century’s foremost men of letters. Transpacific travel and an untimely death would spread the Belle-Indian’s fame and qualities far and wide, yet they also expunge her voice, scatter her features, and leave little trace more tangible than the apocryphal tales of scandal many know her best for. Raynal and Sterne both yearned to co-opt Eliza into their visions of progress, whether toward an ecstatic death or toward new ambitions for a burgeoning colonial mission. Her legacy is as a woman who continues to resist fitting into any totalising narrative; her gaze in Cosway’s portrait remains satisfyingly inscrutable.

Image Credit: The Laurence Sterne Trust

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