November 24 is the birthday of novelist Laurence Sterne,
who was born in Clonmel County, Tipperary, Ireland, in 1713. His
father, Roger, was a professional soldier who served as an officer in
Flanders under the Duke of Marlborough during the War of the Spanish
Succession (1701-1714). His mother, Agnes, the widow of another
English army officer, married Roger while he was on campaign in Dunkirk in
The year of his birth, Sterne's father took a deep cut in
salary; and Sterne's earliest memories were of the family moving from one
Army barracks to another, barely making ends meet. In 1727, his father
was seriously wounded in a duel. He never fully recovered from the
wound and died unexpectedly in March 1731.
Sterne's great grandfather, Richard, was the archbishop of
York and Master of Jesus College. Not knowing what else to do, Sterne
decided to follow him into the priesthood. He received a scholarship
that had been established by his great grandfather for the benefit of the
poor. In his last year of studies, he suffered a hemorrhage of the
lungs, the first sign of the consumption that was to trouble him for the
rest of his life.
Still, with the help of his uncle, Sterne was
ordained a priest. His uncle expected political favors for helping
his nephew through the ordination, and Sterne did his best to repay him.
He wrote articles for his uncle's favorite political causes. When he
stopped, he lost any chance he might have had to move up through the
Forced to support himself and his wife by doing double duty
in two different parishes, Sterne took a job as a substitute preacher at yet a
third parish. He did all of his preaching despite the fact that he had
deep personal doubts about the very existence of God.
Sterne had long wanted to try his hand at writing fiction,
but he was discouraged by his friends, who told him to wait until he
attained a higher office. Finally, Sterne knew he could wait
no longer. In 1759, he wrote a sketch about a quarrel he'd witnessed between his Dean
and a York lawyer, a Swiftian satire of dignitaries of the spiritual courts.
It was an early glimpse at Sterne's substantial powers as a humorist.
At the demands of embarrassed churchmen, however, the book was burned and Sterne was rebuked.
Meanwhile, Sterne's marriage, which was less than perfect,
took a turn for the worse in 1758 when his wife, after learning of her
with a maid-servant, had a nervous breakdown and was placed under a doctor's
care in a private home in York. As Sterne's own health worsened, he
became depressed. To counter his ailments, he began to write a book
that would become The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman,
one of the most light-hearted books in the entire realm of literature.
Sterne completed fourteen chapters in six weeks.
His first attempt at publication was rejected by London
printer Robert Dodsley. He continued working on the novel, expanding
and sharpening it, despite the fact that every sentence, he said, was
“written under the greatest heaviness of heart.” He decided to soften
the satire and describe Tristram's opinions, his eccentric family, and his
ill-fated childhood with a sympathetic humor, sometimes hilarious, sometimes
sweetly melancholic, a modern-day comedic tragedy.
Like author Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and other
works of the day, Tristram Shandy pretends to be an autobiography.
But, as the narrator attempts to tell his own life's story, he is constantly
being sidetracked by various absurdly humorous digressions. Along the
way, the author managed to question the very basis of studies such as modern
ethics, theology, philosophy, sex, and politics. The book is also
filled with black pages, excerpts of obscure theological debates, and a
graphic representation of its own plotline.
It begins, "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed
both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what
they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much
depended upon what they were then doing...Had they duly weighed and
considered all this, and proceeded accordingly I am verily persuaded I
should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which
the reader is likely to see me."
His description of his own conception is interrupted by his
mother, who asks his father, "Pray, my dear...have you not forgot to wind up
Sterne took part in all aspects of Tristram Shandy's
marketing campaign, right down to specifying that the book be small enough
to fit into a gentleman's coat pocket. His efforts paid off
handsomely. The book made Sterne famous. Still, some people were
shocked at learning that the author of such a steamy, anti-religious, and
even vulgar book--as they viewed it--could be a priest. One critic
wrote, "[Sterne's] own character as a clergyman seems much impeached by
printing such gross and vulgar tales, as no decent mind can endure without
Not everyone agreed. Thomas Jefferson said, "The
writings of Sterne...form the best course of morality that was ever
written." Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, "[Sterne is] the most
liberated spirit of all time."
Sterne's work influenced many writers of the 20th century,
from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to Samuel Beckett. Italo Calvino
said, "[Sterne] was the undoubted progenitor of all the avant-garde novels
of our century."
In March of 1768, Sterne fell ill with influenza, and he
died on March 18. Legend has it that soon after burial at London,
Sterne 's body was stolen by grave robbers and sold for the purpose of
dissection to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge. Luckily, his
features were recognized by a student at the dissecting table, and the body
was quietly returned to the grave
Laurence Sterne said, "I am persuaded that every time a man
smiles--but much more so when he laughs--it adds something to this fragment
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