The “Sentimental Metaphysics” of Catherine the Great

Maria Lobytsyna, University of Sydney

This paper discusses Catherine the Great’s interpretation of the sentimental vogue in Europe in the late eighteenth century, and of the works of Laurence Sterne in particular. Anthony Cross has drawn attention to Catherine II’s acquaintance with Tristram Shandy (1759–1767) and A Sentimental Journey (1768), works that were to provoke the cult of sentimentality and to give the word its fashionable run in Britain and on the Continent.

Catherine’s interest in Sterne coincided with her search for new literary models. Shandyism as a mode, at once festive and ironic, proved attractive to the authors of the Russian Enlightenment she had been patronising. As well as a complex of cultural determinations, there were personal reasons why Catherine II was inspired by Sterne’s intricate manner of artistic self-representation. These reasons are to be found in her private papers of the 1770s, in which the sentimental reflections create a striking opposition between Catherine the ruler and Catherine the “woman of feeling.” We can trace the Sternean motif of the sensitive intellectual through the Memoirs (French) of 1771 to her confessional letters (Russian) to Potemkin of 1774, many of which have only recently been published and have yet to be translated into English. Perhaps the most poignant instance of this theme appears in a letter to Potemkin in which Catherine refers to the “senselessness” of sentimental affection and the indignity of personal response: “I shall doodle a whole sentimental metaphysics.”

Catherine’s determination to fashion the literary mask of a suffering, yet self-mocking, sentimental heroine has yet to be discussed, nor have her papers been considered in the context of the late eighteenth-century politics of sensibility.