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Sterne at 300

Ray Cavanaugh writes: The literary career of novelist and Tipperary native Laurence Sterne (24/11/1713 to 18/3/1768), who has just turned three hundred, did not begin until he was forty-six, when he self-published two volumes of Tristram Shandy, which would become one of the most famous comic novels of all time. The book’s arrival instantly transformed him from an obscure country parson into the toast of literary London. More than willing to embrace this transition, he proclaimed: “I wrote, not to be fed, but to be famous.”

Not everyone was keen on Sterne’s work. Some critics portrayed the clergyman novelist as a “scandal to the cloth”. But Sterne was unfazed by the criticism, too busy enjoying his meteoric rise in notoriety. Success had been a long time coming for Sterne, born in November 1713 in the wool town of Clonmel, Tipperary, to which his  family had recently relocated from the French port of Dunkirk, where his father, Roger, had been stationed as an army officer. During the early part of Laurence’s life, the family moved often, as his father was shifted to various posts across Ireland. Aside from his birthplace in Tipperary, they lived in Dublin, as well as in various locations in the counties of Antrim, Louth, Westmeath, and Wicklow.

From his father’s side, Sterne came from Yorkshire gentry. In his book Laurence Sterne: A Life, Ian Campbell-Ross relates that Sterne’s background was both advantaged and restricted. Though he had good birth and received a fine education, he “lacked the wealth necessary to support the social position he inherited”. Part of this financial limitation came from the untimely death of his father, who was reportedly killed in a duel occasioned by a dispute over a goose while stationed in Jamaica. A more mundane account holds that he died of a fever. Either way, young Sterne needed the assistance of his Uncle Jacques to finance his education at Cambridge University. Upon graduation, he took holy orders in the Church of England and was granted the vicarship of Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire. He then married Elizabeth Lumley.

Eventually Sterne’s Uncle Jacques reentered his life. A prominent member of the Whig party in Yorkshire, he was now calling on his nephew to repay him for the college tuition by writing political journalism championing the Whig cause. Sterne felt he had little choice but to oblige.

Though he was rather indifferent to the “savage personal abuse” he heaped on Tory opponents, Sterne could be quite sensitive when such vitriol was fired back at him. Eventually growing weary and battered by all the acrimony, he chose to end his involvement in politics, aware that by doing so “he would lose the patronage of his now alienated and vindictive uncle and with it his best hope of further advancement in the Church”.

With his career trajectory now sabotaged, Rev Sterne embarked on a series of adulterous affairs, which he made scant effort to conceal. Some speculate that such antics led to the mental breakdown of his wife, who became convinced she was the “Queen of Bohemia”. Sterne reportedly indulged his wife in her royal delusion.

Though he suffered from no psychological illness, Sterne had his own medical problems, contending with consumption through most of his life. Another biographer, William B Piper, speculates that he may also have contracted syphilis during one of his adulterous encounters. Aside from philandering, Sterne’s amusements consisted of books, fiddling, painting, and shooting. Eventually though, he felt a growing restlessness, a sense that he was meant for other things, perhaps literature.

He had dabbled in poetry and of course written many sermons during his ecclesiastical career. However, his writing became more ambitious by the latter part of the 1750s. In 1759, he printed a prose satire called A Political Romance. This scathing book, with its thinly veiled portrayals of real people, was “barely off the press when the archbishop of York hastily intervened to save the blushes of the Church and peremptorily ordered the entire edition to be burned”.

Later that year the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (or simply Tristram Shandy) were published. To Sterne’s delight, this book was not burned, though one might say a wildfire raged in terms of the work’s popularity. Consisting of nine volumes released in five instalments between 1759 and 1767, Sterne’s novel involves the upbringing of Tristram, who humorously narrates such matters as his own conception, birth and circumcision, as well as the increasingly eccentric pursuits of his combat-wounded uncle.

Containing a number of different stories – along with essays, sermons, and even legal documents – Tristram Shandy was quite different in its structure. For a long time now, novels have had irregular plotlines, with some even having no real discernible plot to speak of. However in Sterne’s day his flouting of the expected normal plot progression constitued a considerable break with tradition.