Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, on November 24, 1713. On his father’s side, he could claim some distinction: His great-grandfather, Richard Sterne, had been Archbishop of York, and his grandfather, Simon Sterne, was a rich Yorkshire country squire. Roger Sterne, Laurence’s father, was less distinguished. Sterne described his father as “a little smart man—active to the last degree, in all exercises—most patient of fatigue and disappointments, of which it pleased God to give him full measure.” Sterne added that his father was “of a kindly, sweet disposition, void of all design.” Many have seen Roger Sterne as the model for Uncle Toby Shandy. At the age of sixteen, Roger joined the Cumberland Regiment of Foot, and on September 25, 1711, he married Agnes Nuttall. Agnes, according to her son, was the daughter of “a noted sutler in Flanders, in Queen Ann’s wars,” whom Roger married because he was in debt to her father. Actually, she may have been the daughter of a poor but respectable family in Lancashire.
From his birth to the age of ten, Sterne led a nomadic life, wandering from barracks to barracks across Great Britain. During these years, he may have acquired some of the military knowledge that appears throughout Tristram Shandy, or at least that fondness for the military that marks the work. When Sterne was ten, his uncle Richard sent him to school near Halifax, in Yorkshire, and in 1733, Sterne’s cousin sent him to Jesus College, Cambridge, where his great-grandfather had been a master and where both his uncle Jaques and his cousin had gone. At Cambridge, Sterne met John Hall, who later renamed himself John Hall-Stevenson. Hall-Stevenson was to be one of Sterne’s closest friends throughout his life; his library at “Crazy Castle” would furnish much of the abstruse learning in Tristram Shandy, and he would himself appear in both that novel and A Sentimental Journey as Eugenius, the sober adviser. While at Cambridge, Sterne suffered his first tubercular hemorrhage.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in January, 1737, Sterne had to choose a profession. Because his great-grandfather and uncle had both gone into the clergy, Sterne followed their path. After Sterne served briefly in St. Ives and Catton, his uncle Jaques, by then archdeacon of Cleveland and canon and precentor of the York Cathedral, secured for him the living of Sutton on the Forest, a few miles north of York. A second post soon followed; Sterne received the prebend of Givendale, making him part of the York Cathedral chapter and so allowing him to preach his turn there.
At York, Sterne met Elizabeth Lumley, a woman with a comfortable fortune. Their courtship had a strong sentimental tinge to it. Indeed, if Sterne actually wrote to Elizabeth the letters that his daughter published after his death, his is the first recorded use of the word “sentimental,” and the emotions expressed in these letters foreshadow both A Sentimental Journey and the Journal to Eliza. Even if these letters are spurious, Sterne’s description of his courtship in the Memoirs is sufficiently lachrymose to rival the death of Le Fever in Tristram Shandy. Unfortunately for Sterne, he, unlike Tristram, did go on; on March 30, 1741, he married Elizabeth. The unfavorable portrait of Mrs. Shandy owes much to Sterne’s less than sentimental feelings toward his wife, whom he called in March, 1760, the “one Obstacle to my Happiness.”
The year 1741 was also important for Sterne because it marked his first appearance in print. His uncle Jaques was a strong Whig, and he recruited his nephew to write in...