The author refers to his promise made in Book 1, Chapter 22 to "write two volumes every year" for 40 years — provided that he stays alive and well. But he is not so well; the main thing that buoys him up is his "spirits": "in no one moment of my existence . . . have ye once deserted me, . . . and when DEATH himself knocked at my door — ye bad him come again; and in so gay a tone of careless indifference, did ye do it, that he doubted of his commission." He is even miffed by the fact that Death called on him while he was telling a dirty story to Eugenius. He decides to flee Death by taking a trip to France, and he describes his travels while he is about it.
The trip across the Channel is quite rough, and he and the other passengers are glad to get ashore. He must then make a choice among the three roads that go from Calais to Paris. Since he is in Calais, he asks himself whether he ought not to describe it. He really doesn't want to, however, and he asks the reader why "a man cannot go quietly through a town, and let it alone, when it does not meddle with him."
He writes a little travelogue description of Calais, nevertheless, gaily offering to add a little history in "Rapin's own words" that "will not take up above fifty pages." Kindness keeps him from it: "But courage! gentle reader! — I scorn it — 'tis enough to have thee in my power." Then on to Boulogne.
Feeling himself pursued by Death, Tristram urges the coachman to make haste. His fellow passengers assume that he is pursued by the law, and they speculate in low voices about his crimes. (Tristram, meanwhile, is occupied with flirting with a pretty girl.) He realizes that his desire for haste makes him unfair to the coaches and coachmen, but he can't resist pointing out "that something is always wrong in a French post-chaise upon first setting out": "a rope's broke! — a knot has slipt! — a staple's drawn" or the coachman has to get down and take his sandwich out of the bag. A little bribe will usually make him rush, and the coach reaches Montreuil.
The most interesting thing in Montreuil is Janatone, the innkeeper's daughter; she knits and subtly flirts with Tristram, and he is aware of her many charms. The reader would prefer the measurements of the "length, breadth, and perpendicular height of the great parish church, or a drawing of the facade of the abbey of Saint Austreberte," Tristram supposes, "but he who measures thee, Janatone, must do it now — thou carriest the principles of change within thy frame."
They set off for Abbeville, where the inn makes a bad impression on Tristram. If he could make conditions with Death about where he is to die, he would stipulate that it be "in some decent inn. . . . But mark. This inn, should not be the inn at Abbeville — if there was not another inn in the universe, I would strike that inn out of the capitulation."
Still in a rush to get to Paris, he has a pleasant reverie about heathen gods and goddesses at play; he comes to himself with a start: "What jovial times! — but where am I? and into what a delicious riot of things am I rushing? I — I who must be cut short in the midst of my days, and taste no more of 'em than what I borrow from my imagination."
They reach Amiens, about which Tristram has one fact to tell us: "Janatone went there to school."
The most irritating thing of the entire trip is having to wake up every six miles to pay his fare, the horses being changed that regularly. He thinks of ways to outwit the collectors, like having the money ready in his hand, but there is always an argument or discussion to go through about some detail or other, or "then Monsieur le Curé offers you a pinch of snuff — or a poor soldier shews you his leg — or a shaveling [begging friar] his box." Try to get back to sleep after that!
They enter Paris, which "looks, I suppose, better than it smells," and Tristram remarks on the narrowness of the streets, the number of restaurants, and the number of barbershops: "One would think that all the cooks in the world on some great merry-meeting with the barbers, by joint consent had said — Come, let us all go live at Paris."
His view of Paris is somewhat soured by his not being able to get a room: "in all the five hundred grand Hotels, which they number up to you in Paris . . . the devil a one of us out of fifty, can get our heads fairly thrust in amongst them." He enumerates the 900 streets of Paris, and he quotes the inscription over the Louvre, commenting wryly: "The French have a gay way of treating every thing that is Great; and that is all can be said upon it."
He rushes on, and he "cannot stop a moment to give you the character of the people — their genius — their manners-their customs — their laws — their religion — their government — their manufactures — their commerce — their finances" (although he is qualified to do so, having spent "three days and two nights amongst them").
Suddenly he turns to understanding the speed — or lack of it — of the coaches in France: "if you weigh their vehicles with the mountains of baggage which you lay both before and behind upon them — and then consider their puny horses, with the very little they give them — 'tis a wonder they get on at all." Instead of feeding their horses, the French drive them on with two words: "****** and ****** in which there is as much sustenance, as . . . [in] a peck of corn." He hesitates to use these words himself, but he will illustrate his point with the story of the Abbess of Andoüillets and her novice.
This abbess, suffering from a stiff knee, decides to go to the hot baths at Bourbon; for company she takes a young novice, Margarita, who is suffering with an infected finger. They set out in a carriage driven by the convent gardener, who walks alongside and drinks slyly from his wine bottle. When his wine is finished, the young man gives the mules "a sound lash, and looking in the abbess's and Margarita's faces (as he did it) — as much as to say, 'here I am' — he gave a second good crack — as much as to say to his mules, 'get on' — so slinking behind, he enter'd the little inn at the foot of the hill." The mules get halfway up the hill, and realizing that the driver is no longer there, they stop. The nuns cannot get them to move on, and they feel panic: "We are ruin'd and undone, my child, said the abbess to Margarita — we shall be here all night — we shall be plunder'd — we shall be ravish'd — " " — We shall be ravish'd, said Margarita, as sure as a gun.
The young nun tells the abbess that there are "two certain words, which I have been told will force any horse, or ass, or mule, to go up a hill whether he will or no." She forces herself to whisper the words. They decide that the sin of saying the words can be avoided if each says only one syllable. The mules do not move. "They do not understand us, cried Margarita — But the Devil does, said the abbess of Andoüillets."
Tristram admits to "Madam," his reader, that he has been wearing his fool's cap during the last piece of storytelling, and he continues the account of his travels. Apropos of his passing through the town of Auxerre, he remembers that when he was a boy, he and his father, Uncle Toby, Obadiah, and Trim stopped there on a tour of France. Walter was anxious to see the mummies at the Abbey of Saint Germain; he makes an assortment of ribald comments and innuendoes about the proximity of the male saints to the female saints. Toby and Trim of course "mount the ramparts" of the castle to study its fortifications.
The author marvels at the parallel journeys and the repetition of history. His situation astounds him: "I have brought myself into such a situation, as no traveller ever stood before me; for I am this moment walking across the market-place of Auxerre with my father and my uncle Toby, in our way back to dinner — and I am this moment also entering Lyons with my post-chaise broke into a thousand pieces — and I am moreover this moment . . . [in Toulouse] where I now sit rhapsodizing all these affairs."
Book 7, containing the account of Tristram's journey through France (for his health), seems to be isolated from the story that preceded and from the story that follows. Toby's amours will not be told about in this book, after all. Still, within the context of the whole — the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy — this section has as much validity as any other, even if the Shandys are left behind. In addition to the promise of Uncle Toby's famous "amours," the author reminds us that he has promised "two volumes every year," but he hasn't specified the subject of those volumes. The epigraph to Book 7 (each of the five installments has one) says, in translation, "For this is not an excursion from it, but is the work itself." The work ultimately is the life and opinions of the "I" of the book.
Tristram's cavalier attitude toward death is consistent with his attitude toward grave matters in general; he is not frightened, impressed, or subdued. He treats death like an annoying old bore, someone to get away from. Tristram, like his creator, Laurence Sterne, is consumptive; Sterne had the same gay indifference toward death that he gave to his chief character. This is not to say that they had no concern about whether they lived or died.
The "travelogue" material of Book 7 is sprightly and funny. Tristram makes no attempt to sound like a guidebook — except when he makes fun of guidebooks — and yet we learn a lot about France, about the human element in the French and their impact on this funny Englishman. As he says, why can't a traveler go quietly through a town and let it alone instead of writing descriptions about it. In his observations about how something is always wrong with French coaches, about the smell of Paris, the difficulty in finding a hotel room, the number of cooks and barbers, about trying to get some sleep while traveling, about the overloaded coaches and the overworked horses — in all of these we see a real-life France. Spleen and amused tolerance struggle for mastery, but Tristram finally relinquishes the former.
Even though he is pursued by death, Tristram is able to enjoy the beauty of life; he is distracted by the pretty passerby, by the charming Janatone at Montreuil, and (at the end of the book) by the country girl, Nannette. At the same time, the book contains bittersweet (not bitter) references to beauty and happiness cut short by death, as in the apostrophe to Janatone, who carries "the principles of change" in her, and in his own sober realization that he is dying and "must be cut short in the midst of" his days.
Careful planning can again be seen in the introducing of the story of the Abbess of Andoüillets: coach travel is a hard matter; French coaches are very slow; the fault doesn't lie with the horses, however, since they are overburdened; the horses are also underfed; the coachmen get them to move on by means of the two words bouger and fouter; he is too much a gentleman to write these words, but he knows a story in which these two words are said and yet not said (since two people each say one syllable).
In Chapter 27, we meet all the Shandys except Mrs. Shandy. They suddenly pop up in full character and costume: Walter, the satirical pedagogue, guidebook in hand; Toby, as compassionate and military as ever. We might as well be back in Shandy Hall, when Tristram was still a child. But we aren't: we're on a trip with the mature, aging author who has taken time out from his writing about his family and his past to tell about the sudden trip he had to take for his health. We are looking at three Tristrams, and the author of course knows it; even he is somewhat awed by the fact. Tristram 1 is the child on the tour with his father and his uncle; Tristram 2 is the subject of Book 7, the sick man who is touring France (at the moment he is between Auxerre and Lyons in a wrecked coach); Tristram 3 is the man with the pen in his hand, sitting in Toulouse and writing about what happened to him in Auxerre. Ordinarily, we wouldn't think about the second and third as different individuals; after all, lots of writers write about themselves. There is this difference, however, and it is a difference that Tristram constantly emphasizes: when he himself is the subject of his writing, he discusses the handling of that subject as if it were any other; he puts distance between himself as author and himself as subject (both child and adult).
This chapter shows the author's achievement and success in relation to his intention: "In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, — and at the same time" (Book 1, Chapter 22).