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|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
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?--"
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.
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
shooting, in the pracice of music and painting, and reading
voraciously. Moreover, he had sexual liaisions with servants and
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,
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
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
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
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
"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".
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
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
(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
Year of Writing Covers Events of
There is a year for every day, and a day for every year (see Labyrinths of Reason
Poundstone, 1988, p. 158).
"So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s
his ailments, Sterne took Bishop Berkeley's tar-water
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).
Sterne returned to England, and settled at Coxwold in his beloved "Shandy Hall," Elizabeth remaided with Lydia in France.
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.
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
secret. Later biographers have dismissed the story as folklore. A group of freemasons erected a memorial stone near his burial
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)