Laurence Sterne Biography

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(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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0111201587-Sterne.jpg Laurence Sterne (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 1,748 words.)