Eliza’s Room is very special and it is not normally open to the public. Situated on the first floor of Shandy Hall, directly above the room where Laurence Sterne wrote the final seven volumes of Tristram Shandy and all of A Sentimental Journey, it is architecturally all of a piece with original floorboards, fire-grate and panelling.
Eliza’s Room contains an installation by the artist Carolyn Thompson
Folie a deux (Eliza’s Coverlet) – Carolyn Thompson
Much speculation surrounds the relationship between Laurence Sterne and Eliza Draper, a married women some 30 years Sterne’s younger. The two met through mutual friends when Eliza was visiting London from her home in India. Were they lovers? Or was their friendship merely based on a meeting of like-minded individuals at a time in their lives when, through illness, they both yearned companionship.
Certainly Sterne’s Journal to Eliza and the letters he wrote to her, credit Eliza with an intellectual capacity he admired. The relationship was impractical for many reasons and it is possible that, through desire, yearning and a sense of impossibility, the association became a work of idealised, imaginative fiction for Sterne at least.
Folie à deux responds to, and directly utilises letters written by Sterne to Eliza during her stay in the port of Deal, Kent. She resided there whilst awaiting a ship that would return her to her husband, who was posted in Bombay whilst working for the East India Company. Eliza’s journey to India on the Earl of Chatham, began in April 1767 and would take her nine months. In his letters, Sterne refers to a room at Shandy Hall which he hopes Eliza will inhabit on her return to England. With both the length of journey and a promised return to the Hall in mind, Eliza would need a suitable activity to pass the time.
Patchwork and quilting were popular hobbies for women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When using the English paper piecing technique to produce patchwork, it was common practice to use letters and book leaves as templates around which each piece of fabric was stitched in order to give the pattern straight edges. Sometimes coverlets were used to hide letters from lovers, having the added advantage of being able to sleep beneath a loved one’s words. Eliza would have limited access to paper during her journey, and would need to use whatever was at hand.
The coverlet intends to examine the contrasting ideas of truth and fiction apparent in the relationship between Sterne and Eliza. The original letters were given for publication by Eliza on her return to England and had been re-written in her hand. Consequently they may well have been embellished or fabricated in content. By using examples of Sterne’s handwriting from the archives at Shandy Hall, Thompson has forged or re-written each of the letters Sterne wrote to Eliza, back into his hand, in order to use them as templates in for the coverlet.
Reproduction fabrics of those of the later half of the eighteenth century have been used to create the piece. Deal was known as a smugglers port in the 1700s. Printed textiles from India, which had been banned in the textiles acts of 1700 and 1720, where brought in from further along the coast where it was legally landed to be re-exported into Europe.
To mimic Eliza’s journey, during the creation of Folie à deux, Thompson has worked on the coverlet on journeys to Austria, Spain and Japan and on various trips back and forth form Brighton to London, Oxford and York.
Although Eliza did eventually return to England, Sterne died in 1768, only a year after they first met, and the couple were never reunited. Sited in the room Sterne intended for Eliza at Shandy Hall, Folie à deux has been left unfinished to echo their unfulfilled relationship.