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Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne

The British novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) produced only two works of fiction, but he ranks as one of the major novelists of the 18th century because of his experiments with the structure and organization of the novel.

The English novel came of age in the 18th century. Daniel Defoe had contributed realistic detail in the 1720s; Samuel Richardson had showed the dramatic intensity inherent in the epistolary novel; Henry Fielding had combined the satirical portrayal of contemporary manners with elaborate and carefully worked-out plots. Laurence Sterne, however, published the single most idiosyncratic novel of the century, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1760-1767). The apparent plotlessness of Tristram Shandy, the endless digressions and wordplay, and the use of the narrator's psychological consciousness as the governing structure in the novel make Sterne unique among the early masters of the English novel and suggest a tie to the stream-of-consciousness novelists who appeared later.

Biography and Early Work

Sterne was born in Clonmel, Ireland, on Nov. 24, 1713, the son of an English army officer, Roger Sterne, and an Irish mother, Agnes. After spending his early years moving about with his father's regiment, he attended school in Yorkshire from 1723 to 1731. Sterne received a bachelor of arts degree from Jesus College, Cambridge, took orders in 1737, and in 1738 became the vicar at Sutton-in-the-Forest, near York, the first of several benefices in and near York that he held. His marriage to Elizabeth Lumley in 1741 proved unhappy.

In 1743 Sterne published his first verses, "The Unknown World, Verses Occasioned by Hearing a Pass-Bell," in the Gentleman's Magazine. But neither his verses nor his second work, A Political Romance (1759), later called The History of a Good Warm Watch, a work that had grown out of a quarrel with fellow clerics, had prepared the English reading audience for the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy, which were published early in 1760.

The enormous popularity of Sterne's unusual novel quickly made him a celebrity and gave him social access to the great houses of London and Bath. In 1762 the consumption that plagued his entire life forced him to abandon London society and to seek better health in France. During the last winter before his death, Sterne readied his A Sentimental Journey for the press and carried on a curious platonic affair with Mrs. Eliza Draper, the wife of a Bombay official in the East India Company. Sterne's letters to Mrs. Draper were collected in the Journal to Eliza.

Sterne's irascibility and bawdy humor were well known to his congregations and to the English public. His local reputation around York was based, at least in part, on his eccentric dress and habits, his mordant wit, and his fund of indecorous anecdotes. It is said that he preached sermons on brotherly love with unusual rancor and ill temper. He died in London on March 18, 1768.

Tristram Shandy

With the London publication of volumes 1 and 2 of Tristram Shandy on Jan. 1, 1760, Sterne was launched as a successful author. There were baffled readers, bored readers, and indignant readers, but as Sterne observed, even those who condemned the book bought it. Samuel Richardson found the work "too gross to be inflaming," and Horace Mann noted: "I don't understand it. It was probably the intention that nobody should." Within a few months, Sterne had become a literary lion in London. He admitted that he intended to publish additional volumes as part of the novel "as long as I live, 'tis, in fact, my hobbyhorse." Sterne published volumes 3-6 in 1761; volumes 7 and 8 appeared in 1765; and in 1767, not long before Sterne's death, volume 9 appeared. Although Dr. Samuel Johnson observed of Sterne's novel that "nothing odd will do long," it has survived both neglect and the attacks of critics, and it continues to please, puzzle, and attract more readers than any other 18th-century English novel.

The apparently chaotic structure and puzzling chronology of Tristram Shandy are easily clarified. For example, Tristram is born on Nov. 5, 1718; attends Jesus College, Cambridge; and begins his latest volume on or about Aug. 12, 1766. Parson Yorick dies in 1748. Sterne's intention, of course, was to experiment with the straight-forward chronological development of plot that had previously characterized English fiction. By dramatically scrambling chronological and psychological durations, he emphasized the dual nature of time, something to which an individual responds both by reason and by emotion. Despite the immediate confusions of the book, with its blank pages, marbled pages, squiggles, erudite references, footnotes, and puzzling time sequence (Tristram is not born until a third of the way through the work), the novel has an artistic structure of its own, a coherence that resides primarily in the character of Tristram, who holds together all of the elements of the novel, shifting his attention from character to character and from idea to idea. Influenced by the work of John Locke, Sterne concentrated less on the passage of time as the clock measures it than on mental time, in which events can move more or less quickly than clock time. Because the consciousness of the narrator is the unifying factor in the novel, Tristram Shandy can be considered a completed work.

The characters in Tristram Shandy deserve special note because of their idiosyncracies. Tristram himself seems so scatterbrained that he cannot organize his thoughts. He is quickly and easily diverted from whatever topic he is discussing to frequent digressions. While Mrs. Shandy, Obadiah, Susanna, and Dr. Slop never escape from actuality, "My Father" and Uncle Toby ride special "hobbyhorses." "My Father" believes that life should be presided over by theory, but he never troubles to see that life is so ordered. Indeed, life seems less important to him than the idea and contemplation of it. He propounds his theory of noses (the longer the better), of names (Tristram is the worst of all possible names), and of education (the Tristapedia) in the course of the novel. Although Uncle Toby is literally too sentimental to harm a fly, he is so obsessed with warfare, military campaigns, and battle strategy that he can regret that the Peace of Utrecht has ended war in Europe.

Tristram Shandy is bawdy, satiric, humorous, sentimental, filled with Sterne's extensive learning and crammed with footnotes and foreign languages. Much of the novel is made up of talk about Sterne's writing chores and his rhetorical relation to the reader. The book stands as a rich catalog of the possibilities of misunderstanding and confusion inherent in language.

A Sentimental Journey

Parson Yorick, who dies in Tristram Shandy, was habitually identified with Sterne, an identification that he himself promoted in 1760 and again in 1766 by publishing his sermons under the title The Sermons of Mr. Yorick. This identification is also apparent in the brief A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), a reworking of volume 7 of Tristram Shandy. In both works Parson Yorick is a whimsical, good-hearted, slightly daffy character. The Journey, employing typical Sternean techniques, follows Yorick on a tour through France and Italy punctuated with misadventures, sexual ploys, and the usual fill of digressions and abrupt shifts in topic and tone. Sterne's Sermons, from which he earned a considerable income, shows the development of a moral theory that is more imaginative than his orthodox religion and more complex as a philosophy.

Sterne's fiction exhibits his ability to give immediacy to a dialogue; to handle dramatic techniques with great skill; to capture idiom with delightful mimicry; to quote frequently—if not always accurately—from the Bible and William Shakespeare and other English authors; and to present his ideas with a witty indecision that charms the reader even as it goads his patience.

The small number of letters that form Sterne's correspondence exhibit his playfulness with language and provide an intensely personal view of him. Unfortunately, many of Sterne's letters were burned by John Botham or mutilated by Sterne's daughter, Lydia, before their first publication in 1775.

Further Reading

Two important biographical studies of Sterne are Wilbur L. Cross, The Life and Times of Laurence Sterne (1908; 3d rev. ed. 1929), and Lodwick Hartley, This Is Laurence (1943). Major critical studies of Tristram Shandy include John L. Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (1954); William B. Piper, Laurence Sterne (1966); Melvyn Nero, Laurence Sterne as Satirist (1969); and William Holtz, Image and Immortality: A Study of Tristram Shandy (1970). Lodwick Hartley, Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century: An Essay and a Bibliography of Sternean Studies, 1900-1965 (1966), is an indispensable review of Sterne scholarship. Valuable essays on Sterne's works are included in Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (1953); Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957); and Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

Additional Sources

Cash, Arthur H. (Arthur Hill), Laurence Sterne, the early & middle years, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.

Cash, Arthur H. (Arthur Hill), Laurence Sterne, the later years, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.

Connely, Willard, Laurence Sterne as Yorick, Westport, Conn.:Greenwood Press, 1979. □

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Sterne, Laurence (1713–1768)

STERNE, LAURENCE (17131768)

STERNE, LAURENCE (17131768), English novelist. Sterne is perhaps most famous as the author of Tristram Shandy (17591767), his serially published comic novel that propelled him from his quiet life as an Anglican clergyman in Yorkshire to the heart of London's literary society. The son of an infantry ensign, Sterne grew up living in army barracks in England and Ireland before attending school in Yorkshire at the age of ten. From there, Sterne went to Jesus College, Cambridge, and in 1738 took holy orders, obtaining a living (an endowed ecclesiastical position) at a country parish church near York with the help of his uncle, an influential church lawyer. His career in the ministry was made more lucrative when, in the 1740s, he was employed by his uncle to campaign on behalf of the Whig party in local county elections. In return for this, Sterne received ecclesiastical preferment, becoming a prebendary (recipient of a stipend given to a member of the clergy) of York Minster.

Marrying Elizabeth Lumley in 1741, Sterne added the living of Stillington to his ministerial duties and lived a relatively quiet life in Yorkshire until 1759, when he published his first imaginative prose, A Political Romance (also known as The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat ). This satire on local ecclesiastical courts included uncomplimentary and thinly veiled portraits of Minster clergy and was ordered by the archbishop of York to be burned.

In the same year, and with more success, Sterne also published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. This serialized novel tells the life story of its eponymous hero, beginning with the exact time of his conception, and including long, often absurd or bawdy, digressions about his family, especially his flamboyant father Walter and his soldier brother Toby. Volumes 3 and 4 were published in 1761, 7 and 8 in 1765, and the last volume, 9, in 1767. In the final volume, a conversation between Tristram's mother and the parson Yorick about Walter's bull seems to sum up the entire story inadvertently: "'L-d!' said my mother, 'what is all this story about?''A COCK and a BULL,' said Yorick'And one of the best of its kind I ever heard."' When Sterne visited London in 1759, shortly after the first two volumes had gone on sale, he discovered that his novel was an immediate success and had sold out at the booksellers. Declaring that he wrote "not [to] be fed, but to be Famous," Sterne nevertheless capitalized on his success with Tristram Shandy by persuading his London bookseller to publish a selection of his sermons in 1760.

With his literary reputation established and his financial position secure, in 1762 Sterne headed for France and Italy. For many years, Sterne's wife Elizabeth had suffered from mental illness (at her worst, she believed herself to be the queen of Bohemia); Sterne had suffered with consumption (tuberculosis) since his days at Cambridge, and the trip to Europe was hoped to be beneficial for both. Finally returning to London in 1767, Sterne began an affair with Elizabeth Draper, the wife of an official in the East India Company. When she was forced to move to India with her husband, Sterne began his Journal to Eliza (also called the Bramine's Journal ), which he kept for six months, and which was discovered in 1851. In 1768, Sterne published his next, and final, novel, A Sentimental Journey in France and Italy, which drew on his own experiences of touring in Europe and resurrected the impulsive parson, Yorick, from Tristram Shandy, as its protagonist. As with Tristram Shandy, which satirized the conventions of the contemporary "Life of . . ." narrative (or novel), A Sentimental Journey satirized the conventions of travel writing by claiming to be a journal of a grand tour (a tour of the Continent traditionally undertaken by young Englishmen) and "a quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE," with comic, and famously bawdy, encounters.

As the author of Tristram Shandy, Sterne is credited with being the originator of the "streamof-consciousness" novel, influencing modern authors Virginia Woolf and James Joyce in particular. Even in its day, this book was celebrated because it brought a new level of consciousness to the developing novel by satirizing the manipulation of fact for the purpose of fiction, and by casting comic doubt on the idea of capturing a life in writing. In his own life, Sterne also trod a fine line between fact and fiction, living in "Shandy Hall" and writing to friends under the name of "Yorick." A month after the publication of A Sentimental Journey, Sterne died in his lodgings in London; the Journal to Eliza was published for the first time in 1904.

See also Burney, Frances ; Defoe, Daniel ; English Literature and Language ; Fielding, Henry ; Richardson, Samuel ; Smollett, Tobias .

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Primary Sources

Sterne, Laurence. Letters of Laurence Sterne. Edited by Perry Lewis Curtis. Oxford, 1935.

. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Edited by Ian Campbell Ross. Oxford and New York, 1983; rev. ed., 2000.

. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy with The Journal to Eliza and A Political Romance. Edited by Ian Jack. Oxford and New York, 1968; repr. 1984.

. The Sermons of Laurence Sterne. Edited by Melvyn News. 2 vols. Volumes 4 (text) and 5 (notes) of the Florida Edition of Laurence Sterne. Gainesville, Fla., 1996.

. Sterne's Memoirs: A Hitherto Unrecorded Holograph Now Brought to Light in Facsimile. Edited by Kenneth Monkman. Coxwold, U.K., 1985.

Secondary Sources

Basker, James G. Tobias Smollett: Critic and Journalist. Newark, N.J., 1988.

Loveridge, Mark. Laurence Sterne and the Argument about Design. London, 1988.

New, Melvyn. Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne. New York and London, 1998.

Ross, Ian Campbell. Laurence Sterne: A Life. Oxford and New York, 2001.

Alison Stenton

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Sterne, Laurence

Laurence Sterne (stûrn), 1713–68, English author, b. Ireland. Educated at Cambridge, he entered the Anglican church and was given the living of Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire, in 1738, where he remained until 1759. He came to London the following year and was a great social success. Unhappily married, he was involved with various women during his lifetime, most notably Mrs. Eliza Draper, for whom he wrote the Journal to Eliza (1767). He led a somewhat dissolute life and much of the time was plagued by ill health, dying finally of tuberculosis. In 1760 the first volume of his masterpiece Tristram Shandy appeared. Although it was denounced on moral and literary grounds by Dr. Johnson, Horace Walpole, and others, the book was a popular success and eight subsequent volumes followed (1761–67). As a result of his travels to the Continent (1762–66) he wrote, but left unfinished, A Sentimental Journey (1768). He also published in his lifetime several volumes of sermons. One of the most entertaining and original literary works in English, Tristram Shandy is, in a sense, a parody of a novel. It is a hodgepodge of character sketches, blank pages, dramatic action, transposed chapters, and various digressions. Sterne constantly obtrudes himself into the novel and is by turns witty, satiric, sentimental, knowledgeable, and obscene. Beneath this apparent chaos, however, is a structure based on the association of ideas. In Tristram Shandy Sterne enlarged the scope of the novel from the mere recording of external incidents to the depiction of a complex of internal impressions, thoughts, and feelings.

See the Shakespeare Head Press edition of his works (7 vol., 1926–27); his letters (ed. by L. P. Curtis, 1935); his memoirs ed. by D. Grant (1950); biographies by W. L. Cross (3d rev. ed. 1967), W. B. Piper (1965), D. Thomson (1973), and A. H. Cash (2 vol.,1975–86); studies by L. C. Hartley (1966), J. M. Stedmond (1967), J. Traugott, comp. (1968), and Valerie G. Myer (1984).

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Sterne, Laurence

Sterne, Laurence (1713–68). Novelist and humorist. Son of a low-ranking infantry officer but educated through a cousin's bounty at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he embraced Locke's philosophy and contracted tuberculosis, Sterne was ordained and collated to a Yorkshire living (1738). Voracious reader, moderately successful rural parson though a persistent philanderer, his satire on local ecclesiastical courts jeopardized preferment but encouraged him to entrust the parish to a curate and concentrate on writing. Tristram Shandy (1759) prompted both applause and abuse for its sentimentality and salaciousness, though, freeing the novel from straightforward narrative, it has since been seen as begetter of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing. Sterne revelled in the literary esteem and social notoriety he found in London, but was forced to forsake England briefly for France for health reasons, this providing material for his Sentimental Journey (1767). His corpse was exhumed by London resurrectionists but escaped dissection for secret reburial, being finally interred at Coxwold (his last Yorkshire living) in 1969.

A. S. Hargreaves

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Sterne, Laurence

Sterne, Laurence (1713–68) British novelist, b. Ireland. Sterne achieved immediate acclaim following the publication of the first two volumes of the novel Tristram Shandy (1760). Sterne's playful, anarchic experiments with form foreshadowed modernism. He adopted the persona of the parson in Tristram Shandy for The Sermons of Mr Yorick (1760–69), and his second novel, A Sentimental Journey (1768).

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