A free-thinking, iconoclastic novelist and Anglican cleric, Sterne was a well-known critic of Roman Catholicism and the church’s monastic orders. His second novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick (1768), published shortly before his death, received the censure of the Roman Catholic church in 1819, when an Italian edition translated by Ugo Foscolo was listed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. By eighteenth century standards the novel was considered salacious, but it was its religious commentary that most concerned Catholic officials. At one point in the story, Sterne’s protagonist—an Anglican priest named Yorick, based loosely on the author himself—refuses a Franciscan monk’s request for alms, declaring, “we distinguish, my good Father! betwixt those who wish only to eat the bread of their own labour—and those who eat the bread of other people’s, and have no other plan in life, but to get through it in sloth and ignorance, for the love of God.” Yorick also mocks Catholicism when discussing the three stages “in the empire of a French-woman”: “coquette,” “deist,” and “devôte.” In the last stage, he jests, she “re-peoples” her dominions “with the slaves of the Church.” Ironically, Sentimental Journey expresses significantly more tolerance for Catholicism than much of Sterne’s earlier work, including his collection of sermons, published as Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760), and his first novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767).
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...
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Laurence Sterne was born on November 24, 1713, in Clonmel, Ireland, to a respected Yorkshire family (his great-grandfather, Richard Sterne, had been archbishop of York). His father, Roger Sterne, was a young ensign, and Laurence spent his early years in towns and cities all over England and Ireland. The second of seven children, only three of whom lived to adulthood, he left at age ten for school in Halifax, England. There he was taken under the wing of his uncle Richard Sterne, a community leader who became a second father to him.
Roger Sterne squandered the family’s wealth before his death in Jamaica in 1731. When Richard Sterne died the following year, Laurence, now detached from his mother, was penniless. In 1733, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge; after first working to earn the tuition for his education, he was awarded one of the Sterne scholarships established by his great-grandfather. He studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy (which included geography, ethics, and the natural sciences). He admired the Greek philosopher Plato and the English thinkers John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton. Matriculating in 1735, Sterne received his degree, most likely in early 1737.
Already indebted to associates such as his lifelong friend John Hall, Sterne had few options but to go into the church. He was admitted to the Order of Deacons and given an assistant curacy in St. Ives, an unimpressive post. For two decades, he lived a pastoral life, climbing the parochial hierarchy of Yorkshire with the help of political contacts, which included his uncle, the Archdeacon Jaques Sterne. With each post—prebendary of Givendale, vicar of Sutton, commissary of the Peculiar Court of Tollerton—came increased lands and their incomes. Sterne’s duties were both religious and political. He preached regularly and oversaw cases in the spiritual courts. As a rising clergyman and nephew to Jacques Sterne, he became involved in Yorkshire’s political life, contributing political articles to the York Gazetteer and publishing political pamphlets.
On March 30, 1741, Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley. A daughter, Lydia, was born on October 1, 1745, but she died the following day. A second Lydia was born on December 1, 1747; she would grow to be her father’s beloved and only child. Elizabeth’s health was poor, and the marriage was not happy; Sterne is known to have entertained other women...
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In his introduction to a 1935 limited edition of Tristram Shandy, Christopher Morley wrote, “Perhaps Tristram Shandy should be read first at not over 20 years, and again at not less than 40.” Whether Laurence Sterne would have agreed is questionable, but it is clear that his writing offers a dazzling combination of youthful vitality and experienced wisdom that has wide appeal. Though Sterne’s contemporary reader was a certain type of eighteenth century aristocrat, Sterne’s direct and intimate style speaks to many beyond that limited group and era. His humor and candor, even in more liberal-minded epochs, continue to be disarming in their simple truthfulness. Sterne is not a simple author, for much of his...
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Laurence Sterne, one of the most delightfully eccentric of English novelists, was born in Clonmel, Ireland, on November 24, 1713, the son of an Irish woman and an ensign in the English army whose regiment had just been transferred to Ireland from Dunkirk. Though his parentage was undistinguished, Sterne’s father came from an old family in Yorkshire, where a great-grandfather had been an archbishop. A childhood spent in the rigors of camp-following undoubtedly had a harmful effect on the novelist’s frail constitution, but the experience provided him with details of barracks life and campaign reminiscences that ultimately enriched his great novel with such authentic creations as Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim.
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