Letters from Yorick to Eliza

Letters From Yorick to Eliza

Author: Laurence Sterne
Publisher: G. Nicholson and Co.
Publication Year: 1796
Language: English
Book Dimensions: 8cm x 13cm.
Pages: 26
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.G68 1797 no.9

Material History

Letters from Yorick to Eliza is part of a larger group of chapbooks, bound and covered in a cardboard cover. The collection was published by G. Nicholson and Co. in 1797 in Manchester, while the letters themselves were published in 1796. The book contains many other stories as well. 

The book is quite small, easily fitting in the palm of a hand, measured at 8cm x 13cm. On the outside, the collection of gothic stories seems to be extremely weathered, with cracks forming along both the front and back covers, creating an almost marble-like design. As a result of its age and upkeep, the front cover is no longer attached to the spine of the book, and has separated completely, but is still stored with the rest of the book. The collection of chapbooks is sewn together, with the string being exposed as a result of the detached front cover. The back cover of the book seems to have been reinforced with a type of tape to attach the covers to the outside of the stories. The book has shown clear signs of resilience, still maintaining a sound structure despite having lost the front cover.

The front cover page shows signs of aging, especially due to the condition of the front cover. The page is extremely yellowed, with debris from use forming a stained border on the right side and bottom half of the first page. There is reminiscence of dirt and debris on the page and a clear indication of where hands held onto the page and flipped. The rest of the pages also indicate similar signs of aging, with yellowing across the pages and browning on the outside corners of the pages, showing how they were more exposed to the elements that caused the pages to age. In addition, many pages have folded corners to indicate where they had been flipped. 

Inside the detached cover, a previous owner has constructed a table of contents to distinguish the different stories within the book. They have divided it into four sections, with stories listed within the sections. The list does not include Letters from Yorick to Eliza but includes many of the other stories. The stories are listed without page numbers because the book does not have continuous numbering, rather just page numbers for each individual chapbook. It is unclear if the author of the table of contents is the same person that has scribbled their name into the back cover of the book. The weight of the graphite is not the same and the handwriting shows similarities but is not identical. 

The stories themselves are all from the same publisher, so they have a uniform style and appearance. Each story begins on its own page and has printed illustrations underneath or above the title. The illustrations mimic the same style throughout the collection of stories. Underneath the title, Letters from Yorick to Eliza, there is a picture of a crossbow with a bag of arrows and a bow tied around it. This suggests that the chosen designs were stylistic and made to produce a cohesive gothic aesthetic throughout the chapbooks, rather than having individual relevance. 

Textual History

Laurence Sterne is a well-known Irish novelist and clergyman best known for his works The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1959) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). Most of Sterne’s works are heavily influenced by religion and his own life. In many of his works, Sterne employs a recurring character, Yorick, who takes on a somewhat autobiographical role in Letters from Yorick to Eliza. In the letters, Sterne catalogs a series of letters that are written to his companion, Eliza Draper, and recounts mundane events in his life while expressing his dearest concerns for Eliza. 

There are many copies of Sterne’s Letters, both digital and in print. The letters were originally published in 1775, seven years after his death, in England. While the letters were published on their own, Sterne also wrote a journal dedicated to Eliza in 1767 that is similar, although it was not published until 1904, well after the publication of the letters. Both the journal and the letters primarily focus on Sterne/Yorick’s relationship with Eliza. Both the letters and the journal are published as fictional stories but contain information that took place in Sterne and Eliza’s lives.

The letters have gained significant popularity across academic institutions, with nearly two-hundred libraries carrying the same edition, as well as translations of the work in French. Within the University of Virginia’s libraries, there are both digital and print copies available, as well as multiple editions of the text. The copies that are digital share no content differences compared to the special collection’s edition, however, between the first and second editions, there are many differences. The first edition of the letters only contains ten letters written by Yorick to Eliza, while the second edition contains responses from Eliza as well. 

The University of Virginia Special Collections edition of the chapbook was published in 1796 in Manchester, England. The chapbook was published alongside a collection of other gothic stories. Despite the limited gothic qualities of Letters from Yorick to Eliza, it is included in the larger collection of tales, most of which are also chapbooks. It is unclear why these letters were published alongside other gothic stories, as Sterne’s more notable works were published as individual works and are not typically regarded at gothic.

While the letters have managed to maintain their relevance, seen in their easy accessibility, their literary influence has not been as vast. Sterne inspired an acquaintance— German poet, Johann Georg Jacobi—and Jacobi’s works are connected to Sterne’s through imitations of Yorick in his work, “Winterreise” (Thayer 114). In the early twentieth century, Harvey Waterman Hewett-Thayer argued that Jacobi “pays a significant tribute to Sterne” through his books inspired by Yorick and Sterne’s way of writing about the “good and beautiful in the seemingly commonplace” (114).

Narrative Point of View

There are two narrators in Letters from Yorick to Eliza. The preface is written in the third person by an unknown author only known as “the Editor,” which is likely Laurence Sterne himself, and the letters are written in the first person by Yorick, who Sterne assumes as an alter ego. The narrator of the preface expresses insight into the minds of both Eliza and Yorick/Sterne, telling the reader the feelings of both characters. The narration consists of long, run-on sentences with a vocabulary that mirrors common English writings of the same time. By contrast, in the letters to Eliza, Sterne often writes with passionate language in a colloquial way. His writing is informal with a lot of figurative language expressing his love for Eliza. The narration gives insight into how Sterne’s honest responses and opinions on the events and people in his life. The letter format allows a more personal opinion to be formed with Sterne. 

Sample Passage of Third-Person Narration from the Preface:

He immediately became discovered in her mind so congenial with his own so enlightened, so refined, and so tender, that their mutual attraction presently joined them in the closet union that purity could possibly admit of; he loved her as a friend, and prided in her as his pupil; all her concerns became presently his; her health, her circumstances, her reputation, her children were his; his fortune, his time, his country, were all at his disposal, so far as the sacrifice of all or any of these might in his opinion contribute to her real happiness. (Sterne 5)

Sample Passage of First-Person Narration from Yorick/Sterne’s letters:

But thou, Eliza, wert the star that conducted and enliven’d the discourse. —And when I talked not of three, still didst thou fill my mind, and warned every thought I uttered; for I am not ashamed to acknowledge I greatly miss thee. —Best of all good girls! the sufferings I have sustained the whole night on account of thine, Eliza, are beyond my power of words. (Sterne 11)

The narration style impacts how the reader understands the relationship between Eliza and Mr. Sterne. With the anonymous narration in the preface, the relationship between Eliza and Mr. Sterne is reported in a style that presents information as factual. The narration separation between the preface and the letters creates distance from the underlying ideologies embedded in Mr. Sterne’s character. Because the letters are only from Yorick, without the insight into both the minds of Mr. Sterne and Eliza, an analysis on Yorick’s relationship with Eliza would not be complete. The outside narration in the preface presents the reader with facts that become useful in understanding the letters written by Yorick. This narration style is especially important in how readers interpret the language of Mr. Sterne in his letters when he speaks of his intense feelings for Eliza. Without the objective information relayed in the preface by the narrator, ensuring that Mr. Sterne’s relationship was nothing more than platonic, the reader could interpret his affections in the letters differently. The two narrators function together to influence what the reader will draw from Yorick’s writing, in ways that the Editor wants them to be understood. At once, the Editor is able to write satirically of this platonic relation, acknowledging that it might have been impossible for Sterne, particularly, to avoid less platonic feelings.


Letters from Yorick to Eliza is a collection of ten letters based on correspondence that Laurence Sterne wrote to his friend, Eliza Draper, in the eighteenth century. Though all the letters are written by the same man, they are signed with various names, including L. Sterne, Yorick, and “Thy Bramin” (a reference to the fact that Sterne was a clergyman as well as a writer).

The volume begins with a preface that provides context for Yorick and Eliza’s relationship: Eliza Draper is a woman from the East Indies who is married to Daniel Draper, and Mr. Sterne is a clergyman who is also married. This preface explains that Sterne first met Eliza when traveled to England to recover from an illness, and that since their meeting they have remained in contact with one other through letters. In the preface, the unnamed “editor” also emphasizes that the relationship between Eliza and Yorick is completely platonic and is simply two friends staying in touch with each other.

All ten letters are from Sterne/Yorick, giving the reader no insight into the contents of Eliza’s replies, but it is understood that she does write back. He writes to Eliza over a considerable period of time, recounting different travels he has undertaken and interactions he has had with various people, but he reveals very few details of his journeys; rather, he primarily focuses on reassuring Eliza of his affections and well wishes for her.

As he retells his tales, he often breaks his stories to address Eliza and include her in his travels. He updates her about the people he has spoken too and what she would think of them as well as places he has traveled to and if she would like them or not. By the last letter, Yorick reveals that he is dealing with a sickness but is slowly recovering and wishes Eliza were by his side. Through Yorick’s letters, readers are able to understand the compassion that two friends have for each other, and the enjoyment they receive from staying updated on each other’s lives. The letters serve as a testament to Yorick and Eliza’s strong friendship.


Hewett-Thayer, Harvey Waterman. Laurence Sterne in Germany: A Contribution to the Study of the Literary Relations of England and Germany in the Eighteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1905.

Sterne, Laurence. Letters From Yorick to Eliza. G. Nicholson and Co, 1796.

Researcher: Ella Rier

How to cite this page:

MLA: “Title Italicized.” Project Gothic, University of Virginia, YEAR, https://gothic.lib.virginia.edu/access-the-archive-2/title-hyphenated/.