Today I am celebrating the birthday of Laurence Sterne, author of the novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. He was born in 1713, in County Tipperary in Ireland whilst his father was stationed there as a soldier. His family were from Yorkshire and, after being ordained, he became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, a little north of York, in 1738.
Then, in 1759, after his dean became involved in some sort of squabble within the church, Sterne wrote a book about the event in support of his friend. It is called ‘A Political Romance’ and was later partially republished under the title ‘The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat.’ Without having read it, it seems to have taken a petty provincial squabble and made it funny by elevating it into something far more epic. The Church was pretty embarrassed about it. The book was burned. Sterne had wrecked his chances of ever making any career advances within the Church, but he had found his true calling, At the age of 46, he realised what he really wanted to be was a writer.
That same year, he wrote and published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. There are nine volumes all together, published between 1759 and 1767. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is supposedly a life story of the central character. It is narrated by Tristram himself, but he keeps getting distracted and leaving his story, making such huge diversions that he isn’t actually born until volume three. Consequently, we actually learn very little about Tristram’s life, but we learn plenty of other things. He tells us about the domestic upsets and misunderstandings in his family whilst all the time breaking off to write huge discourses on sexual practices and insults, on obstetrics and siege warfare. It is a sort of early form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel that would later influence the work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.
Of Tristram’s life, we learn about his ill-fated beginnings, when his mother asked his father, at the moment of their son’s conception, whether he had forgotten to wind the clock. We hear how his nose was crushed by the forceps of Dr Slop. This was a terrible thing mainly because his father believed, if a man were to make anything of his life, he must have a large and attractive nose. Tristram tells us how he came to have the name Tristram, even though his father thought it was the unluckiest name in the world, instead of the auspicious name he was meant to have; which was Tristmegistus. We also find out about how he was accidentally circumcised when he was small by a falling sash window that he was weeing out of.
Sterne’s first two volumes were published at his own expense, it’s an unusual book and quite bawdy. It’s not at all what people expected from a novel. It does not progress in a linear way from one event to the next. Not all the pages have text on them. For example, when his favourite character, Parson Yorick, dies in book one, he inserts a completely black page to represent that. There are also blank pages to represent where part of the narrative has been torn out and another blank page for the reader to fill in their own description of Widow Wadman’s beauty. In the first edition he also included a marbled page which represents the chaotic nature of his narrative. Marbling was pretty new in England at the time. Each one was made by hand, so each copy of the book had a unique pattern in it. In volume six there are graphs with great looping lines that are meant to represent the progress of the narrative. His book was hugely popular, it turned out people really liked this bawdy and strange book. When he went to London the following year, 1760, he was gratified to find he was quite famous. Not everyone was impressed though. Dr Johnson didn’t like it at all, and remarked: “Nothing odd will do long, Tristram Shandy did not last.”
Sterne was very well read and drew his influences from all over the place. He was massively interested in the philosophical ideas of John Locke and the essays of Montaigne and well as the writing of Rabelais and Cervantes. Tristram’s father’s feelings about the nose come straight from Rabelais and the character of Uncle Toby, who is obsessed by battle re-enactments is not dissimilar to Don Quixote. It was not until years after his death that people started to notice that he had lifted ideas and sometimes whole passages from other works and rearranged them to give them new meaning in the context of Tristram Shandy. One of his sources was Robert Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’, which is another huge, sprawling work which is full of digressions and difficult to negotiate. It isn’t a work of fiction though, it’s all about what makes people sad and what we should probably do about it. Sterne parodies Burton’s use of weighty quotations to support his ideas and some of his odd chapter titles are drawn from the quaint categories in Burton’s book.
The ninth and final volume ends with a story about a bull belonging to Tristram’s father. The bull is expected to service all the cows in the neighbourhood and the discussion is about whether he is equal to the task. Tristram’s mother asks what their story is all about. This is the final sentence: “A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.” This could apply to the story about the bull, but equally, as ‘a cock and bull story’ means a fanciful and unbelievable tale, it could equally apply to the entire novel. The phrase ‘cock and bull’ in reference to a story first appears in English in Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’: “Some mens whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot.”
Whilst Sterne was no fan of being overly serious about things, I don’t want to present him as entirely frivolous. In 1776, at the height of the debate about slavery, a former slave, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne asking for his support. Here his reply:
“There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them? — but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so.”