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by Bamber Gascoigne

Laurence Sterne (1713-68)

Laurence Sterne was Irish-born English novelist and sermon writer, whose The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) has been considered an antecedent of postmodernism. This unique work of  interruptions and digression defies conventional expectations of what a novel is: there is no clear beginning, middle and end, the time concept is nonlinear, and the narrative is fragmented. "Shandy" in the title is an old Yorkshire dialect adjective meaning crack-brained, odd. The novel was condemned as unsuitable reading for women.

"L..d! said my mother, what is all this story about?--"
(in Tristram Shandy, 1759-1767)

Laurence Sterne was born born in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, the son of  Roger Sterne, an army ensign, and Mrs Agnes Hebert (née Nuttle), widow of an army captain. The family lived in various garrison towns in Ireland. Sterne has an older sister, Mary,  younger one, Catherine, and a younger brother Devijeher; he died aged three. Sterne's father died of fever in 1731 in at Port Antonio, Jamaica, where he was ordered, and left the family penniless.

Sterne was educated in Halifax, where he one day scrawled his name in large letters on the whitewashed wall of the schoool-room. His teacher described him as "a boy of genius". With the help of a relative, Sterne entered Jesus College, Cambridge, as a "sizar" (poor scholar). Before going to up to Cambridge, he contracted tuberculosis. Sterne became a B.A. in 1737, and shortly afterwards took holy orders, discovering his true calling only afterwards. He received Master of Arts degree in 1740.

In 1738 Sterne was inducted as vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forrest, Yorkshire, serving there for twenty years. By the influence of his uncle, Dr. Jacques Sterne, he obtained a prebend of York cathedral, preaching occasional sermons. His great-grandfather, Richard, had been Archbishop of York. Sterne was also a  Justice of the Peace and ran a dairy farm with seven cows. But in stead of devoting himself to his clerical duties, Sterne spent his time chiefly in shooting, in the pracice of music and painting, and reading voraciously. Moreover, he had sexual liaisions with servants and prostitutes.

Sterne was five feet 10 inches tall, he had a very small head, with high cheekbones and prominent front teeth. His wife called him "Laurey". Sterne disliked smoking and never drank to excess. Sir Walter Scott described him as being "tall and thin, with a hectic and consumptive appearance.  His features, though capable of expressing with peculiar effect the sentimental emotions by which he was often affected, had also a shrewd, humorous, and sarcastic character, proper to wit, and  the satirist, and not unlike that which predominates in the portraits of Voltaire." (in The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott, Vol. III, 1829, p. 202) 

At the urging of his uncle, Sterne contributed a series of political articles for the York Gazetteer, in support of the Whigs and Sir Robert Walpole (1717-1797). Sterne wrote anonymoysly. When his identity was discovered, he withdrew from politics, and as a result, Jacques Sterne became his arch-enemy.

In 1471, Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley, a cousin of Mrs. Montagu, the leading bluestocking hostess and writer. The couple moved to Stillington; they had a daughter, Lydia. The marriage was unhappy and they were constantly in debt although Sterne was made also vicar of Stillington. Elizabeth, who once discovered her husband in bed with their maid, suffered an emotional breakdown. In the late 1750s, she imagined herself the Queen of Bohemia. The singer Cathérine Fourmantelle may have inspired "dear Jenny" in Tristram  Shandy.

With the huge success of the first volumes of Tristram Shandy, Sterne established his position as one of the most original humorists in his country. Ever since its publication, the novel has teased, annoued, perplexed, puzzled, and fascinated readers and critics. Sterne wrote that "my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, ‒ and at the same time." Horace Walpole called the novel "a very insipid and tedious performance". Sterne's friend Denis Diderot (1713-1784) wrote that, "I can't give you a better idea of it than by calling it a universal satire." In Germany J.W. von Goethe (1749-1832) said that, "Yorik-Sterne was the most beautiful spirit ever active; anyone who reads him immediately feels free and beautiful; his humour is inimitaable, and not all humour frees the soul . . . He is a model in nothing and a guide and stimulator in everything." Sterne's fame brough him a lifetime curacy at Coxwold, north of Sutton, where he would settle with his family. However, presented at court, the young King George III afforded Sterne only the slightest bow.

Originally Tristram Shandy was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. At the outset, the narrator declares that his quest for self-understanding begins from his parents and from the moment of his conception, "that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind". After this good intention, the erratic narrative turns into an endless maze of whimsical digressions, flash-backs, authorial comments and interferences. "Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine," Sterne wrote, "they are the life, the soul of reading! ‒ take them out of this book, for instance, ‒ you might as well take the book along with them".

The opening volumes concern his father, Walter, and his uncle Toby (variations on Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), in the last days of Mrs. Shandy's pregnancy. Like Don Quixote, uncle Toby has a dream, not of knighthood, but of his toy cannons and tin soldiers.

Beneath the surface of disorderly order is a complex web of causes and effects, intentions and achievements, which illustrate the problems of determinism and free will. Sterne mocks the determinism of Newtonian mechanics by arguing that Tristram's conception was connected with the winding of the household clock. The author himself confessed: "Now, of all things in the world, I understand the least of mechanism ‒ I have neither genius, or taste, or fancy ‒ and have a brain so entirely unapt for every thing of that kind, that I solemnly declare I was never yet able to comprehend the principles of motion of a squiller cage, or a common knife-grinder's wheel ‒ "

As a character Tristram  is not born until volume IV. It took two year writing the history of  the first days of his life and in the book, he never gets beyond infancy. Shandy lamented that at this rate, material would accumulate faster than he could deal with it, so that he could never come to an end. Bertrand Russell demonstrated in The Principles of Mathematics (1903) that Sterne was wrong: if he had lived for ever and kept on writing, no part of his biography would have remained unwritten. Russell's reasoning was based on Georg Cantor's theory of infinite numbers. If two infinite quantities can be placed in one-to-one correspondence to each other, they are equal. Say that Shandy was born on January 1, 1700, and began writing on January 1, 1720. The first year of writing, 1720, covers that first  day, January 1, 1700. The diagram below shows that there is a one-to-one correspondence:

Year of Writing           Covers Events of
1720                           January 1, 1700
1721                           January 2, 1700
1722                           January 3, 1700
1723                           January 4, 1700
etc.                             etc.

There is a year for every day, and a day for every year (see Labyrinths of Reason by William Poundstone, 1988, p. 158).

Sterne's A Political Romance (1759; later called The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat), an attempt at a Swiftin satire, outraged churchmen and was burned. Only six copies is known to have survived. In Russia, the story was picked up by Andrei Kropotov (1780-1817), whose novella Istoriia o smuron kaaftane (1809, The Story of a Browninsh Kaftan) is an unacknowledged translation of the pamphlet (see Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander I (1801-1825) by Alessandra Tosi, 2006, pp. 152-153). 

"So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s
(in Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768)

For his ailments, Sterne took Bishop Berkeley's tar-water remedies. From 1760, his health steadily declined. He lived in 1762 in the south of France in search of a warmer climate. While staying in Paris, he met Diderot and the Baron d'Holbach. Two years after he went to Italy. Some of his impressions of this journey Sterne recoded in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768). This short novel, which ends in mid-sentence, narrated the travels of Parson Yorick, a character who dies in the first volume of Tristram Shandy. Banned by the Vatican, the work was put on the Index of prohibited books (1819).

When Sterne returned to England, and settled at Coxwold in his beloved "Shandy Hall," Elizabeth remaided with Lydia in France. During 1767 Sterne formed an attachment to Mrs Eliza Draper, the wife of an East India Company officer, knowing that she would sail for Bombay and their time together would be short. Sterne died of pleurisy, on March 18, 1768, in his lodgings in Old Bond Street. He died alone but for the company of his nurse. Before he was buried in the churchyard of St Georges, Hanover Square, his attendants robbed him of his gold sleeve-buttons.

Soon after Sterne's death, it was rumored that his body had been stolen by graverobbers and sold to an anatomy professor in Cambridge University. The body was recognized by a student in a lecture and returned to the grave in secret. Later biographers have dismissed the story as folklore. A group of freemasons erected a memorial stone near his burial place. Sterne's daughter published in 1775 a collection of her father's letters, in 3 volumes. In the same year appeared Letters from Yorick and Eliza. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that Sterne was "the most liberated spirit of all time".

For further reading: The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne by Wilbur L. Cross (1909); Yorick and the Critics: Sterne's Reputaion in England, 1760 to 1868 by Alan B. Howes (1958); Wild Excursions: The Life and Fiction of Laurence Sterne by David Thomson (1972); Laurence Sterne: The Early and Middle Years by Arthur H. Cash (1975); Laurence Sterne: The Later Years by Arthur H. Cash (1986); Laurence Sterne in Moderism and Postmodernism, eds. David Pierce, Peter de Voogd (1996): Laurence Sterne: A Life by Ian Campbell Ross (2001); The Reception of Laurence Sterne in Europe, eds. Peter de Voogd, John Neubauer (2004); Narrative Form and Chaos Theory in Sterne, Proust, Woolf, and Faulkner by Jo Alyson Parker (2007); The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne, edited by Tom Keymer  (2009); Sterne, Tristram, Yorick: Tercentenary Essays on Laurence Sterne, edited by Peter de Voogd, Judith Hawley, and Melvyn New (2016)

Selected works:

  • The Case of Elijah and the Widow of Zerephath. Charity Sermon . . . 17 April 1747, 1747
  • The Abuses of Conscience. Sermon . . . 29 July 1750, 1750
  • A Political Romance, 1759 [lated called The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat, 1769] 
  • The Sermons of M. Yorick,  1760, 1769 (2 vols.) 
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1760-1767 (9 vols.)
    - Tristram Shandy: elämä ja mielipiteet  (suomentanut Kersti Juva, 1998)
  • A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768
    - Sentimentaalinen matka (suom. Ville-Juhani Sutinen, 2010)
  • Sermons by the Late Rev. Mr. Sterne, 1769
  • Letters from Yorick to Eliza, 1775
  • Letters to His Friends on Various Occasions. To which is added his History of a Watch Coat, 1775  
  • The Beauties of Sterne, 1783, 1787, 1898
  • Original Letters Never Before Published, 1788 
  • The Works of Laurence Sterne, 1803 (4 vols.)
  • Seven Letters Written by Sterne and His Friends, 1844 (ed. Cooper, W. Durrant)
  • Unpublished Letters. 1855-86 (communicated by John Murray)
  • The Complete Works and Life of Laurence Sterne, 1904 (12 vols., edited by Wilbur L. Cross)
  • Letters to His Most Intimate Friends. To which are prefixed Memoirs of His Life and Family, 1775 (3 vols)
  • The Works of Laurence Sterne, 1926-27 (7 vols.)
  • Tristram Shandy, 1940 (edited by J. A. Work)
  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, 1967 (edited by Graham Petrie)
  • Tristram Shandy: An Authoritative Text, the Author on the Novel, Criticism, 1980 (edited by Howard Anderson)
  • The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne, 1978–2008 (8 vols, eds. Melvyn New, Joan New, et al.)
  • Tristram Shandy, 1991 (edited by George Saintsbury) 
  • The Letters, 2009 (2 vols., edited by Melvyn New and Peter de Voogd)

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