Laurence Sterne

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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).


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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...

(This entire section contains 1511 words.)

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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 support of the Whig candidate for York in that year’s election. Sterne wrote, the Whig won, and Sterne received the prebend of North Newbold as a reward. The Whig success was, however, short-lived. When the Walpole government fell in 1742, Sterne wrote a recantation and apology for his part in “the late contested Election,” and thereby earned the enmity of his uncle, an enmity that ended only with Jaques’s death in 1759.

For eighteen years, Sterne lived as a typical provincial clergyman, attending to the needs of his parishioners and publishing two sermons. One of these, “For We Trust We Have a Good Conscience,” Sterne reprints in its entirety in the second volume of Tristram Shandy. In 1751, he received the commissaryship of Pickering and Pocklington, despite his uncle’s efforts to secure this position for Dr. Francis Topham. Sterne and Topham collided again in 1758, when Topham attended to include his son in a patent and thus secure for him a post after his own death. When the dean of York Cathedral blocked the inclusion, a pamphlet war ensued. Sterne fired the final shot; his pamphlet A Political Romance so squashed Topham that he agreed to abandon the fray if Sterne would withdraw the work. Sterne did withdraw A Political Romance, but he was not finished with Topham, who was to appear in Tristram Shandy as Phutatorius and Didius.

A Political Romance is little more than a satiric squib, but it shows that Sterne was familiar with the works of Jonathan Swift. In its use of clothes symbolism as well as in its severity it recalls A Tale of a Tub (1704), and it shows that Swift’s work was running in Sterne’s head between 1758 and 1759. He was making other use of Swift, too. On May 23, 1759, Sterne wrote to Robert Dodsley, “With this You will receive the Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which I choose to offer to You first.” By this time, the first volume of the novel was finished. Although Dodsley refused the copyright for the sum of 50 pounds that Sterne requested, Sterne continued to write, completing a second volume and revising the first to remove “all locality” and make “the wholemore saleable,” as he wrote to Dodsley several months later.

Salable it was. The York edition sold two hundred copies in two days when it appeared in December, 1759, and when Sterne went up to London, he was told that the book was not “to be had in London either for Love or money.” Dodsley, who had been unwilling to risk 50 pounds on the copyright, now purchased it for 250 pounds, gave another 380 pounds to publish the still-unwritten volumes 3 and 4, and yet another 200 pounds for two volumes of Sterne’s sermons. Sterne was honored by the great. Thomas Gray wrote to Thomas Wharton, “Tristram Shandy is still a greater object of admiration, the Man as well as the Book. One is invited to dinner, where he dines, a fortnight beforehand.”

In March, 1760, Sterne also succeeded to the curacy of Coxwold, a better position than his earlier one at Sutton. In May, 1760, he therefore settled at Coxwold, renting Shandy Hall from Earl Fauconberg. Here he worked on the next two volumes of Tristram Shandy, which he brought to London at the end of the year. In 1761, he repeated this pattern, but he did not return to Yorkshire after delivering the manuscript of volumes 5 and 6. Having suffered a tubercular hemorrhage, he set off for the warmer, milder air of France.

There he repeated his earlier triumph in London, and he incidentally acquired materials for book 7 of Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Sterne remained in France for almost two years; when he returned to England, he hastily wrote the next two volumes of Tristram Shandy, which appeared in January, 1765. In October of that year, he brought twelve sermons to London rather than more of his novel. After leaving the manuscript with his publisher, he again set off for the Continent; he would combine the adventures of this trip with those of his earlier one in writing A Sentimental Journey.

In June, 1766, Sterne was back in Coxwold, where he wrote what proved to be the last installment of Tristram Shandy. This he brought with him to London in late December; shortly after his arrival, he met Eliza Draper, the wife of an East India Company clerk twenty years her senior. Though initially unimpressed with her, Sterne was soon madly in love. When Sterne met her, she had already been in England some two years, and she was to return to India less than three months later, yet she was to color Sterne’s last year of life. Before she sailed on the Earl of Chatham on April 3, 1767, Sterne visited her daily, wrote letters to her, drove with her, and exchanged pictures with her. After their separation, Sterne continued his letters; those he wrote between April 13 and the beginning of August, 1767, constitute the Journal to Eliza. When he broke off this journal with the words “I am thine—& thine only, & for ever” to begin A Sentimental Journey, her spirit haunted that work, too, as the Eliza upon whom Yorick calls.

By December, Sterne had finished the first half of A Sentimental Journey and again set off for London and his publisher. On February 27, 1768, A Sentimental Journey, volumes 1 and 2, appeared. Less than a month later, on March 18, Sterne died. He was buried in London on March 22; on June 8, 1769, he was reinterred in the Coxwold churchyard in Yorkshire.