Sterne, Laurence

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Sterne, Laurence (1713-1768): English, Novelist, Travel writer, Sermon writer.

Born in Ireland on November 24, 1713, Laurence Sterne became one of the greatest and most celebrated English novelists of the eighteenth century because of his masterpiece, Tristram Shandy. Because Sterne was poor, it simply was expected that he would become a clergyman; thus, his career derived not from an inclination or a desire but mere circumstances. Sterne was an ordained minister in the Church of England after attending Jesus College, Cambridge, but this career choice was inappropriate; he was perhaps unsuited for the clergy because of his sensual nature (he engaged in adulterous relationships and contracted syphilis), his bawdy and wicked sense of humor, and his combative nature. Sterne engaged in several bitter quarrels, such as his long dispute with his mother (he refused, for instance, her frequent requests for money) and with his Uncle Jaques (they fought over political matters such as Jaques’s support of Robert Walpole).

Sterne began his writing career by composing political tracts in support of Robert Walpole and other political figures endorsed by his Uncle Jaques, a prominent clergyman who possessed great influence over church politics, and thus over Sterne’s career. Sterne later wrote A Political Romance (1759), in which he supported his friend Dean Fountayne in that clergyman’s quarrel against Francis Topham; Topham held a judicial position within the church and made plans to ensure that his young son would inherit the position, a plan that unquestionably violated church policy. To Sterne’s surprise, Fountayne became angered by Sterne’s tract, an allegory of the episode that supported him. Fountayne felt that Sterne’s biting satire reflected badly upon him as a clergyman. Most copies of the allegory were burned.

Sterne then turned his attention to Tristram Shandy, which he had already started. The first two volumes were published in December 1759. In January 1761, Sterne published volumes three and four, with five and six coming in December 1761. Volumes seven and eight appeared in January 1765, with volume nine coming into print in January 1767, only fourteen months before his death. The publication history is notable for several reasons; for instance, Sterne’s novel, like other books of the era, was published in serial form, unlike literature today. Some people today who peruse a copy of Tristram Shandy assume that the book was published initially in its entirety. But from 1759 to 1767, Sterne’s book was essentially a work in progress, a work that could perhaps have evolved according to public opinion, such as the comments and feedback that Sterne received as the celebrated author (Sterne became famous almost immediately after the first two volumes appeared). One can easily discern that Sterne markedly slowed the pace in which he penned the succeeding volumes of Tristram Shandy, attributable to Sterne’s poor health, for he battled tuberculosis throughout his adult life.

Sterne’s novel tells the stories of the narrator, Tristram Shandy, his father (Walter), and his sentimental Uncle Toby, a soldier who would not hurt a fly--literally. The book focuses on obsessions (hobby-horses), such as Walter’s philosophy and Uncle Toby’s preoccupation with fortifications. Sexuality also plays a prominent role in the novel. When the Widow Wadman falls for the soldier and desires to learn if Uncle Toby can function sexually (she fears that he has been rendered impotent because of a battle wound), she asks him about his wound; he declares that he will let her touch the very spot where he was wounded. She becomes afraid because she knows that modesty would forbid her to see and touch his genitals, but he returns, to her surprise, with a map to show her geographically where he was wounded.

The year before his death, Sterne wrote A Sentimental Journey and Journal to Eliza. The former work is an outstanding travel book concerning the adventures of Parson Yorick, a character from Tristram Shandy who most probably represents the author’s alter ego. This travel narrative is episodic and lacks a cohesive structure; York simply encounters various people, flirts with some, and considers events from a sentimental perspective--a perspective of which he is probably self-conscious. Journal to Eliza, another sentimental work, is based on the emotional, although not necessarily physical, relationship that Sterne enjoyed with a young married woman named Eliza Draper, who subsequently reunited with her husband in India. The journal tells of the narrator’s longing for Eliza and the desire to see her again--a wish that never came true. Apparently, Sterne wrote the journal to her and not to a public audience.

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is unquestionably one of the finest literary achievements of the eighteenth century. The ingenious structure of the book and the adroit manner in which Sterne (or is it Tristram Shandy?) interweaves digressions and delightfully describes the unique and peculiar characters help to make this novel a masterpiece. The novel, along with A Sentimental Journey and Journal to Eliza, manifest Sterne’s skill as a sentimental writer, a talent that influenced later authors such as Oliver Goldsmith and Henry Mackenzie.

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Kraft, Laurence Sterne Revisited, 1996.

Melvyn New, ed., Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne, 1998.

Eric Sterling

Auburn Montgomery