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Sterne by H.D. Traill

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The materials for a biography of Sterne are by no means abundant.
Of the earlier years of his life the only existing record is that
preserved in the brief autobiographical memoir which, a few months
before his death, he composed, in the usual quaint _staccato_ style of
his familiar correspondence, for the benefit of his daughter. Of his
childhood; of his school-days; of his life at Cambridge, and in his
Yorkshire vicarage; of his whole history, in fact, up to the age of
forty-six, we know nothing more than he has there jotted down. He
attained that age in the year 1759; and at this date begins that
series of his _Letters_, from which, for those who have the patience
to sort them out of the chronological confusion in which his daughter
and editress involved them, there is, no doubt, a good deal to be
learnt. These letters, however, which extend down to 1768, the year
of the writer's death, contain pretty nearly all the contemporary
material that we have to depend on. Freely as Sterne mixed in the best
literary society, there is singularly little to be gathered about him,
even in the way of chance allusion and anecdote, from the memoirs and
_ana_ of his time. Of the many friends who would have been competent
to write his biography while the facts were yet fresh, but one, John
Wilkes, ever entertained--if he did seriously entertain--the idea
of performing this pious work; and he, in spite of the entreaties of
Sterne's widow and daughter, then in straitened circumstances, left
unredeemed his promise to do so. The brief memoir by Sir Walter Scott,
which is prefixed to many popular editions of _Tristram Shandy_ and
the _Sentimental Journey,_ sets out the so-called autobiography in
full, but for the rest is mainly critical; Thackeray's well-known
lecture essay is almost wholly so; and nothing, worthy to be dignified
by the name of a _Life of Sterne_, seems ever to have been published,
until the appearance of Mr. Percy Fitzgerald's two stout volumes,
under this title, some eighteen years ago. Of this work it is hardly
too much to say that it contains (no doubt with the admixture of a
good deal of superfluous matter) nearly all the information as to the
facts of Sterne's life that is now ever likely to be recovered. The
evidence for certain of its statements of fact is not as thoroughly
sifted as it might have been; and with some of its criticism I, at
least, am unable to agree. But no one interested in the subject of
this memoir can be insensible of his obligations to Mr. Fitzgerald
for the fruitful diligence with which he has laboured in a too long
neglected field.





































Towards the close of the month of November, 1713, one of the last of
the English regiments which had been detained in Flanders to supervise
the execution of the treaty of Utrecht arrived at Clonmel from
Dunkirk. The day after its arrival the regiment was disbanded; and
yet a few days later, on the 24th of the month, the wife of one of its
subalterns gave birth to a son. The child who thus early displayed the
perversity of his humour by so inopportune an appearance was Laurence
Sterne. "My birthday," he says, in the slipshod, loosely-strung
notes by which he has been somewhat grandiloquently said to have
"anticipated the labours" of the biographer--"my birthday was ominous
to my poor father, who was the day after our arrival, with many other
brave officers, broke and sent adrift into the wide world with a wife
and two children."

Roger Sterne, however, now late ensign of the 34th, or Chudleigh's
regiment of foot, was after all in less evil case than were many,
probably, of his comrades. He had kinsmen to whom he could look for,
at any rate, temporary assistance, and his mother was a wealthy widow.
The Sternes, originally of a Suffolk stock, had passed from that
county to Nottinghamshire, and thence into Yorkshire, and were at
this time a family of position and substance in the last-named county.
Roger's grandfather had been Archbishop of York, and a man of more
note, if only through the accident of the times upon which he
fell, than most of the incumbents of that see. He had played an
exceptionally energetic part even for a Cavalier prelate in the great
political struggle of the seventeenth century, and had suffered with
fortitude and dignity in the royal cause. He had, moreover, a further
claim to distinction in having been treated with common gratitude
at the Restoration by the son of the monarch whom he had served. As
Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, he had "been active in sending the
University plate to his Majesty," and for this offence he was seized
by Cromwell and carried in military custody to London, whence, after
undergoing imprisonment in various goals, and experiencing other
forms of hardship, he was at length permitted to retire to an obscure
retreat in the country, there to commune with himself until that
tyranny should be overpast. On the return of the exiled Stuarts
Dr. Sterne was made Bishop of Carlisle, and a few years later was
translated to the see of York. He lived to the age of eighty-six, and
so far justified Burnet's accusation against him of "minding chiefly
enriching himself," that he seems to have divided no fewer than four
landed estates among his children. One of these, Simon Sterne,
a younger son of the Archbishop, himself married an heiress, the
daughter of Sir Roger Jaques of Elvington; and Roger, the father of
Laurence Sterne, was the seventh and youngest of the issue of this
marriage. At the time when the double misfortune above recorded befell
him at the hands of Lucina and the War Office, his father had been
some years dead; but Simon Sterne's widow was still mistress of
the property which she had brought with her at her marriage, and to
Elvington, accordingly, "as soon," writes Sterne, "as I was able to be
carried," the compulsorily retired ensign betook himself with his wife
and his two children. He was not, however, compelled to remain long
dependent on his mother. The ways of the military authorities were as
inscrutable to the army of that day as they are in our day to our
own. Before a year had passed the regiment was ordered to be
re-established, and "our household decamped with bag and baggage for
Dublin." This was in the autumn of 1714, and from that time onward,
for some eleven years, the movements and fortunes of the Sterne
family, as detailed in the narrative of its most famous member, form a
history in which the ludicrous struggles strangely with the pathetic.

A husband, condemned to be the Ulysses-like plaything of adverse gods
at the War Office; an indefatigably prolific wife; a succession of
weak and ailing children; misfortune in the seasons of journeying;
misfortune in the moods of the weather by sea and land--under all this
combination of hostile chances and conditions was the struggle to
be carried on. The little household was perpetually "on the move"--a
little household which was always becoming and never remaining
bigger--continually increased by births, only to be again reduced by
deaths--until the contest between the deadly hardships of travel and
the fatal fecundity of Mrs. Sterne was brought by events to a natural
close. Almost might the unfortunate lady have exclaimed, _Quae regio
in terris nostri non plena laboris?_ She passes from Ireland to
England, and from England to Ireland, from inland garrison to sea-port
town and back again, incessantly bearing and incessantly burying
children--until even her son in his narrative begins to speak of
losing one infant at this place, and "leaving another behind" on that
journey, almost as if they were so many overlooked or misdirected
articles of luggage. The tragic side of the history, however,
overshadows the grotesque. When we think how hard a business was
travel even under the most favourable conditions in those days,
and how serious even in our own times, when travel is easy, are the
discomforts of the women and children of a regiment on the march--we
may well pity these unresting followers of the drum. As to Mrs. Sterne
herself, she seems to have been a woman of a pretty tough fibre, and
she came moreover of a campaigning stock. Her father was a "noted
suttler" of the name of Nuttle, and her first husband--for she was a
widow when Roger Sterne married her--had been a soldier also. She
had, therefore, served some years' apprenticeship to the military life
before these wanderings began; and she herself was destined to live to
a good old age. But somehow or other she failed to endow her offspring
with her own robust constitution and powers of endurance. "My father's
children were," as Laurence Sterne grimly puts it, "not made to last
long;" but one cannot help suspecting that it was the hardships of
those early years which carried them off in their infancy with such
painful regularity and despatch, and that it was to the same cause
that their surviving brother owed the beginnings of that fatal malady
by which his own life was cut short.

The diary of their travels--for the early part of Sterne's memoirs
amounts to scarcely more--is the more effective for its very brevity
and abruptness. Save for one interval of somewhat longer sojourn than
usual at Dublin, the reader has throughout it all the feeling of
the traveller who never finds time to unpack his portmanteau. On
the re-enrolment of the regiment in 1714, "our household," says the
narrative, "decamped from York with bag and baggage for Dublin. Within
a month my father left us, being ordered to Exeter; where, in a sad
winter, my mother and her two children followed him, travelling from
Liverpool, by land, to Plymouth." At Plymouth Mrs. Sterne gave birth
to a son, christened Joram; and, "in twelve months time we were all
sent back to Dublin. My mother," with her three children, "took ship
at Bristol for Ireland, and had a narrow escape from being cast away
by a leak springing up in the vessel. At length, after many perils
and struggles, we got to Dublin." Here intervenes the short
breathing-space, of which mention has been made--an interval
employed by Roger Sterne in "spending a great deal of money" on a
"large house," which he hired and furnished; and then "in the year one
thousand seven hundred and nineteen, all unhinged again." The regiment
had been ordered off to the Isle of Wight, thence to embark for Spain,
on "the Vigo Expedition," and "we," who accompanied it, "were driven
into Milford Haven, but afterwards landed at Bristol, and thence by
land to Plymouth again, and to the Isle of Wight;" losing on this
expedition "poor Joram, a pretty boy, who died of the smallpox." In
the Isle of Wight, Mrs. Sterne and her family remained till the Vigo
Expedition returned home; and during her stay there "poor Joram's loss
was supplied by the birth of a girl, Anne," a "pretty blossom," but
destined to fall "at the age of three years." On the return of the
regiment to Wicklow, Roger Sterne again sent to collect his family
around him. "We embarked for Dublin, and had all been cast away by a
most violent storm; but, through the intercession of my mother, the
captain was prevailed upon to turn back into Wales, where we stayed
a month, and at length got into Dublin, and travelled by land to
Wicklow, where my father had, for some weeks, given us over for lost."
Here a year passed, and another child, Devijeher--so called after the
colonel of the regiment--was born. "From thence we decamped to stay
half a year with Mr. Fetherston, a clergyman, about seven miles from
Wicklow, who, being a relative of my mother's, invited us to his
parsonage at Animo.[1]" From thence, again, "we followed the regiment
to Dublin," where again "we lay in the barracks a year." In 1722 the
regiment was ordered to Carrickfergus. "We all decamped, but got no
further than Drogheda; thence ordered to Mullingar, forty miles west,
where, by Providence, we stumbled upon a kind relation, a collateral
descendant from Archbishop Sterne, who took us all to his castle, and
kindly entertained us for a year." Thence, by "a most rueful journey,"
to Carrickfergus, where "we arrived in six or seven days." Here, at
the age of three, little Devijeher obtained a happy release from his
name; and "another child, Susan, was sent to fill his place, who also
left us behind in this weary journey." In the "autumn of this year, or
the spring of the next"--Sterne's memory failing in exactitude at the
very point where we should have expected it to be most precise--"my
father obtained permission of his colonel to fix me at school;" and
henceforth the boy's share in the family wanderings was at an end. But
his father had yet to be ordered from Carrickfergus to Londonderry,
where at last a permanent child, Catherine, was born; and thence to
Gibraltar, to take part in the Defence of that famous Rock, where the
much-enduring campaigner was run through the body in a duel, "about
a goose" (a thoroughly Shandian catastrophe); and thence to Jamaica,
where, "with a constitution impaired" by the sword-thrust earned in
his anserine quarrel, he was defeated in a more deadly duel with the
"country fever," and died. "His malady," writes his son, with a touch
of feeling struggling through his dislocated grammar, "took away his
senses first, and made a child of him; and then in a month or two
walking about continually without complaining, till the moment he sat
down in an arm-chair and breathed his last."

[Footnote 1: "It was in this parish," says Sterne, "that I had that
wonderful escape in falling through a mill race while the mill was
going, and being taken up unhurt; the story is incredible, but known
to all that part of Ireland, where hundreds of the common people
flocked to seeme." More incredible still does it seem that Thoresby
should relate the occurrence of an accident of precisely the same kind
to Sterne's great-grandfather, the Archbishop. "Playing near a mill,
he fell within a claw; there was but one board or bucket wanting in
the whole wheel, but a gracious Providence so ordered it that the void
place came down at that moment, else he had been crushed to death; but
was reserved to be a grand benefactor afterwards." (Thoresby, ii. 15.)
But what will probably strike the reader as more extraordinary even
than this coincidence is that Sterne should have been either unaware
of it, or should have omitted mention of it in the above passage.]

There is, as has been observed, a certain mixture of the comic and the
pathetic in the life-history of this obscure father of a famous
son. His life was clearly not a fortunate one, so far as external
circumstances go; but its misfortunes had no sort of consoling dignity
about them. Roger Sterne's lot in the world was not so much an unhappy
as an uncomfortable one; and discomfort earns little sympathy, and
absolutely no admiration, for its sufferers. He somehow reminds us
of one of those Irish heroes--good-natured, peppery, debt-loaded,
light-hearted, shiftless--whose fortunes we follow with mirthful and
half-contemptuous sympathy in the pages of Thackeray. He was obviously
a typical specimen of that class of men who are destitute alike of the
virtues and failings of the "respectable" and successful; whom many
people love and no one respects; whom everybody pities in their
struggles and difficulties, but whom few pity without a smile.

It is evident, however, that he succeeded in winning the affection of
one who had not too much affection of the deeper kind to spare for any
one. The figure of Roger Sterne alone stands out with any clearness by
the side of the ceaselessly flitting mother and phantasmal children of
Laurence Sterne's Memoir; and it is touched in with strokes so vivid
and characteristic that critics have been tempted to find in it
the original of the most famous portrait in the Shandy gallery. "My
father," says Sterne, "was 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. He was, in his
temper, somewhat rapid and hasty, but of a kindly, sweet disposition,
void of all design, and so innocent in his own intentions, that he
suspected no one; so that you might have cheated him ten times a
day, if nine had not been sufficient for your purpose." This is a
captivating little picture; and it no doubt presents traits which may
have impressed themselves early and deeply on the imagination which
was afterwards to give birth to "My Uncle Toby." The simplicity of
nature and the "kindly, sweet disposition" are common to both the
ensign of real life and to the immortal Captain Shandy of fiction; but
the criticism which professes to find traces of Roger Sterne's "rapid
and hasty temper" in my Uncle Toby is compelled to strain itself
considerably. And, on the whole, there seems no reason to believe that
Sterne borrowed more from the character of his father than any
writer must necessarily, and perhaps unconsciously, borrow from his
observation of the moral and mental qualities of those with whom he
has come into most frequent contact.

That Laurence Sterne passed the first eleven years of his life with
such an exemplar of these simple virtues of kindliness, guilelessness,
and courage ever before him, is perhaps the best that can be said
for the lot in which his early days were cast. In almost all other
respects there could hardly have been--for a quick-witted, precocious,
imitative boy--a worse bringing-up. No one, I should imagine, ever
more needed discipline in his youth than Sterne; and the camp is a
place of discipline for the soldier only. To all others whom necessity
attaches to it, and to the young especially, it is rather a school of
license and irregularity. It is fair to remember these disadvantages
of Sterne's early training, in judging of the many defects as a man,
and laxities as a writer, which marked his later life; though, on the
other hand, there is no denying the reality and value of some of
the countervailing advantages which came to him from his boyish
surroundings. The conception of my Uncle Toby need not have been taken
whole from Roger Sterne, or from any one actual captain of a marching
regiment; but the constant sight of, and converse with, many captains
and many corporals may undoubtedly have contributed much to the vigour
and vitality of Toby Shandy and Corporal Trim. So far as the externals
of portraiture were concerned, there can be no doubt that his art
benefited much from his early military life. His soldiers have the
true stamp of the soldier about them in air and language; and when
his captain and corporal fight their Flemish battles over again we are
thoroughly conscious that we are listening, under the dramatic form,
to one who must himself have heard many a chapter of the same splendid
story from the lips of the very men who had helped to break the pride
of the Grand Monarque under Marlborough and Eugene.




It was not--as we have seen from the Memoir--till the autumn of 1723,
"or the spring of the following year," that Roger Sterne obtained
leave of his colonel to "fix" his son at school; and this would bring
Laurence to the tolerably advanced age of ten before beginning his
education in any systematic way. He records, under date of 1721, that
"in this year I learned to write, &c.;" but it is not probable that
the "&c."--that indolent symbol of which Sterne makes such irritating
use in all his familiar writing--covers, in this case, any wide extent
of educational advance. The boy, most likely, could just read and
write, and no more, at the time when he was fixed at school, "near
Halifax, with an able master:" a judicious selection, no doubt, both
of place as well as teacher. Mr. Fitzgerald, to whose researches we
owe as much light as is ever likely to be thrown upon this obscure and
probably not very interesting period of Sterne's life, has pointed out
that Richard Sterne, eldest son of the late Simon Sterne, and uncle,
therefore, of Laurence, was one of the governors of Halifax Grammar
School, and that he may have used his interest to obtain his nephew's
admission to the foundation as the grandson of a Halifax man, and so,
constructively, a child of the parish. But, be this as it may, it
is more than probable that from the time when he was sent to Halifax
School the whole care and cost of the boy's education was borne by his
Yorkshire relatives. The Memoir says that, "by God's care of me, my
cousin Sterne, of Elvington, became a father to me, and sent me to
the University, &c., &c.;" and it is to be inferred from this that the
benevolent guardianship of Sterne's uncle Richard (who died in 1732,
the year before Laurence was admitted of Jesus College, Cambridge)
must have been taken up by his son. Of his school course--though it
lasted for over seven years--the autobiographer has little to say;
nothing, indeed, except that he "cannot omit mentioning" that anecdote
with which everybody, I suppose, who has ever come across the briefest
notice of Sterne's life is familiar. The schoolmaster "had the ceiling
of the schoolroom new-whitewashed, and the ladder remained there. I,
one unlucky day, mounted it, and wrote with a brush, in large capital
letters, LAU. STERNE for which the usher severely whipped me. My
master was very much hurt at this, and said before me that never
should that name be effaced, for I was a boy of genius, and he was
sure I should come to preferment. This expression made me forget the
blows I had received." It is hardly to be supposed, of course, that
this story is pure romance; but it is difficult, on the other hand,
to believe that the incident has been related by Sterne exactly as it
happened. That the recorded prediction may have been made in jest--or
even in earnest (for penetrating teachers have these prophetic moments
sometimes)--is, of course, possible; but that Sterne's master was
"very much hurt" at the boy's having been justly punished for an act
of wanton mischief, or that he recognized it as the natural privilege
of nascent genius to deface newly-whitewashed ceilings, must have been
a delusion of the humourist's later years. The extreme fatuity which
it would compel us to attribute to the schoolmaster seems inconsistent
with the power of detecting intellectual capacity in any one else. On
the whole, one inclines to suspect that the remark belonged to that
order of half sardonic, half kindly jest which a certain sort
of pedagogue sometimes throws off, for the consolation of a
recently-caned boy; and that Sterne's vanity, either then or
afterwards (for it remained juvenile all his life), translated it into
a serious prophecy. In itself, however, the urchin's freak was only
too unhappily characteristic of the man. The trick of befouling what
was clean (and because it was clean) clung to him most tenaciously all
his days; and many a fair white surface--of humour, of fancy, or of
sentiment--was to be disfigured by him in after-years with stains
and splotches in which we can all too plainly decipher the literary
signature of Laurence Sterne.

At Halifax School the boy, as has been said, remained for about eight
years; that is, until he was nearly nineteen, and for some months
after his father's death at Port Antonio, which occurred in March,
1731. "In the year '32," says the Memoir, "my cousin sent me to the
University, where I stayed some time." In the course of his first year
he read for and obtained a sizarship, to which the college records
show that he was duly admitted on the 6th of July, 1733. The selection
of Jesus College was a natural one: Sterne's great-grandfather,
the afterwards Archbishop, had been its Master, and had founded
scholarships there, to one of which the young sizar was, a year after
his admission, elected. No inference can, of course, be drawn from
this as to Sterne's proficiency, or even industry, in his academical
studies: it is scarcely more than a testimony to the fact of decent
and regular behaviour. He was _bene natus_, in the sense of being
related to the right man, the founder; and in those days he need
be only very _modice doctus_ indeed in order to qualify himself for
admission to the enjoyment of his kinsman's benefactions. Still he
must have been orderly and well-conducted in his ways; and this he
would also seem to have been, from the fact of his having passed
through his University course without any apparent break or hitch, and
having been admitted to his Bachelor's degree after no more than the
normal period of residence. The only remark which, in the Memoir, he
vouchsafes to bestow upon his academical career is, that "'twas there
that I commenced a friendship with Mr. H----, which has been lasting
on both sides;" and it may, perhaps, be said that this _was_, from one
point of view, the most important event of his Cambridge life. For Mr.
H---- was John Hall, afterwards John Hall Stevenson, the "Eugenius" of
_Tristram Shandy_, the master of Skelton Castle, at which Sterne was,
throughout life, to be a frequent and most familiar visitor; and,
unfortunately, also a person whose later reputation, both as a man and
a writer, became such as seriously to compromise the not very robust
respectability of his clerical comrade. Sterne and Hall were distant
cousins, and it may have been the tie of consanguinity which first
drew them together. But there was evidently a thorough congeniality of
the most unlucky sort between them; and from their first meeting, as
undergraduates at Jesus, until the premature death of the elder, they
continued to supply each other's minds with precisely that sort of
occupation and stimulus of which each by the grace of nature stood
least in need. That their close intimacy was ill-calculated to raise
Sterne's reputation in later years may be inferred from the fact
that Hall Stevenson afterwards obtained literary notoriety by the
publication of _Crazy Tales_, a collection of comic but extremely
broad ballads, in which his clerical friend was quite unjustly
suspected of having had a hand. Mr. Hall was also reported,
whether truly or falsely, to have been a member of Wilkes's famous
confraternity of Medmenham Abbey; and from this it was an easy step
for gossip to advance to the assertion that the Rev. Mr. Sterne had
himself been admitted to that unholy order.

Among acquaintances which the young sizar of Jesus might have more
profitably made at Cambridge, but did not, was that of a student
destined, like himself, to leave behind him a name famous in English
letters. Gray, born three years later than Sterne, had entered a
year after him at Cambridge as a pensioner of Peterhouse, and the two
students went through their terms together, though the poet at the
time took no degree. There was probably little enough in common
between the shy, fastidious, slightly effeminate pensioner of
Peterhouse, and a scholar of Jesus, whose chief friend and comrade was
a man like Hall; and no close intimacy between the two men, if they
had come across each other, would have been very likely to arise.
But it does not appear that they could have ever met or heard of each
other, for Gray writes of Sterne, after _Tristram Shandy_ had made
him famous, in terms which clearly show that he did not recall his

In January, 1736, Sterne took his B.A. degree, and quitted Cambridge
for York, where another of his father's brothers now makes his
appearance as his patron. Dr. Jacques Sterne was the second son of
Simon Sterne, of Elvington, and a man apparently of more marked and
vigorous character than any of his brothers. What induced him now to
take notice of the nephew, whom in boyhood and early youth he had left
to the unshared guardianship of his brother, and brother's son,
does not appear; but the personal history of this energetic
pluralist--Prebendary of Durham, Archdeacon of Cleveland, Canon
Residentiary, Precentor, Prebendary, and Archdeacon of York, Rector of
Rise, and Rector of Hornsey-cum-Riston--suggests the surmise that he
detected qualities in the young Cambridge graduate which would
make him useful. For Dr. Sterne was a typical specimen of the
Churchman-politician, in days when both components of the compound
word meant a good deal more than they do now. The Archdeacon was a
devoted Whig, a Hanoverian to the backbone; and he held it his duty
to support the Protestant succession, not only by the spiritual but by
the secular arm. He was a great electioneerer, as befitted times when
the claims of two rival dynasties virtually met upon the hustings, and
he took a prominent part in the great Yorkshire contest of the year
1734. His most vigorous display of energy, however, was made, as was
natural, in "the '45." The Whig Archdeacon, not then Archdeacon of
the East Riding, nor as yet quite buried under the mass of preferments
which he afterwards accumulated, seems to have thought that this
indeed was the crisis of his fortunes, and that, unless he was
prepared to die a mere prebendary, canon, and rector of one or two
benefices, now was the time to strike a blow for his advancement
in the Church. His bustling activity at this trying time was indeed
portentous, and at last took the form of arresting the unfortunate
Dr. Burton (the original of Dr. Slop), on suspicion of holding
communication with the invading army of the Pretender, then on its
march southward from Edinburgh. The suspect, who was wholly innocent,
was taken to London and kept in custody for nearly a year before
being discharged, after which, by way of a slight redress, a letter
of reprimand for his _trop de zele_ was sent by direction of
Lord Carteret to the militant dignitary. But the desired end was
nevertheless attained, and Dr. Sterne succeeded in crowning the
edifice of his ecclesiastical honours.[1]

[Footnote 1: A once-familiar piece of humorous verse describes the
upset of a coach containing a clerical pluralist:

"When struggling on the ground was seen
A Rector, Vicar, Canon, Dean;
You might have thought the coach was full,
But no! 'twas only Dr. Bull."

Dr. Jacques Sterne, however, might have been thrown out of one of the
more capacious vehicles of the London General Omnibus Company, with
almost the same misleading effect upon those who only _heard_ of the

There can be little doubt that patronage extended by such an uncle to
such a nephew received its full equivalent in some way or other, and
indeed the Memoir gives us a clue to the mode in which payment was
made. "My uncle," writes Sterne, describing their subsequent rupture,
"quarrelled with me because I would not write paragraphs in the
newspapers; though he was a party-man, I was not, and detested such
dirty work, thinking it beneath me. From that time he became my
bitterest enemy." The date of this quarrel cannot be precisely fixed;
but we gather from an autograph letter (now in the British Museum)
from Sterne to Archdeacon Blackburne that by the year 1750 the two men
had for some time ceased to be on friendly terms. Probably, however,
the breach occurred subsequently to the rebellion of '45, and it may
be that it arose out of the excess of partisan zeal which Dr. Sterne
developed in that year, and which his nephew very likely did not, in
his opinion, sufficiently share. But this is quite consistent with the
younger man's having up to that time assisted the elder in his party
polemics. He certainly speaks in his "Letters" of his having "employed
his brains for an ungrateful person," and the remark is made in a way
and in a connexion which seems to imply that the services rendered
to his uncle were mainly _literary_. If so, his declaration that he
"would not write paragraphs in the newspapers" can only mean that
he would not go on writing them. Be this as it may, however, it
is certain that the Archdeacon for some time found his account in
maintaining friendly relations with his nephew, and that during that
period he undoubtedly did a good deal for his advancement. Sterne was
ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln in March, 1736, only three
months after taking his B.A. degree, and took priest's orders in
August, 1738, whereupon his uncle immediately obtained for him the
living of Sutton-on-the-Forest, into which he was inducted a few days
afterwards. Other preferments followed, to be noted hereafter; and
it must be admitted that until the quarrel occurred about the "party
paragraphs" the Archdeacon did his duty by his nephew after the
peculiar fashion of that time. When that quarrel came, however, it
seems to have snapped more ties than one, for in the Memoir Sterne
speaks of his youngest sister Catherine as "still living, but most
unhappily estranged from me by my uncle's wickedness and her own
folly." Of his elder sister Mary, who was born at Lille a year before
himself, he records that "she married one Weemans in Dublin, who used
her most unmercifully, spent his substance, became a bankrupt, and
left my poor sister to shift for herself, which she was able to do but
for a few months, for she went to a friend's house in the country and
died of a broken heart." Truly an unlucky family.[1] Only three to
survive the hardships among which the years of their infancy were
passed, and this to be the history of two out of the three survivors!

[Footnote 1: The mother, Mrs. Sterne, makes her appearance once more
for a moment in or about the year 1758. Horace Walpole, and after him
Byron, accused Sterne of having "preferred whining over a dead ass to
relieving a living mother," and the former went so far as to declare
"on indubitable authority" that Mrs. Sterne, "who kept a school (in
Ireland), having run in debt on account of an extravagant daughter,
would have rotted in a gaol if the parents of her scholars had not
raised a subscription for her." Even "the indubitable authority,"
however, does not positively assert--whatever may be meant to be
insinuated--that Sterne himself did nothing to assist his mother, and
Mr. Fitzgerald justly points out that to pay the _whole_ debts of a
bankrupt school might well have been beyond a Yorkshire clergyman's
means. Anyhow there is evidence that Sterne at a later date than this
was actively concerning himself about his mother's interests. She
afterwards came to York, whither he went to meet her; and he then
writes to a friend: "I trust my poor mother's affair is by this time
ended to _our_ comfort and hers."]




Great writers who spring late and suddenly from obscurity into fame
and yet die early, must always form more or less perplexing subjects
of literary biography. The processes of their intellectual and
artistic growth lie hidden in nameless years; their genius is not
revealed to the world until it has reached its full maturity, and many
aspects of it, which, perhaps, would have easily explained themselves
if the gradual development had gone on before men's eyes, remain
often unexplained to the last. By few, if any, of the more celebrated
English men of letters is this observation so forcibly illustrated as
it is in the case of Sterne: the obscure period of his life so greatly
exceeded in duration the brief season of his fame, and its obscurity
was so exceptionally profound. He was forty-seven years of age when,
at a bound, he achieved celebrity; he was not five-and-fifty when he
died. And though it might be too much to say that the artist sprang,
like the reputation, full-grown into being, it is nevertheless true
that there are no marks of positive immaturity to be detected even in
the earliest public displays of his art. His work grows, indeed, most
marvellously in vividness and symmetry as he proceeds, but there
are no visible signs of growth in the workman's skill. Even when the
highest point of finish is attained we cannot say that the hand is any
more cunning than it was from the first. As well might we say that the
last light touches of the sculptor's chisel upon the perfected statue
are more skilful than its first vigorous strokes upon the shapeless

It is certain, however, that Sterne must have been storing up his
material of observation, secreting his reflections on life and
character, and consciously or unconsciously maturing his powers of
expression, during the whole of those silent twenty years which have
now to be passed under brief review. With one exception, to be noted
presently, the only known writings of his which belong to this
period are sermons, and these--a mere "scratch" collection of pulpit
discourses, which, as soon as he had gained the public ear, he
hastened in characteristic fashion to rummage from his desk and carry
to the book-market--throw no light upon the problem before us. There
are sermons of Sterne which alike in manner and matter disclose the
author of _Tristram Shandy_; but they are not among those which he
preached or wrote before that work was given to the world. They
are not its ancestors but its descendants. They belong to the
post-Shandian period, and are in obvious imitation of the Shandian
style; while in none of the earlier ones--not even in that famous
homily on a Good Conscience, which did not succeed till Corporal Trim
preached it before the brothers Shandy and Dr. Slop--can we trace
either the trick of style or the turn of thought that give piquancy to
the novel. Yet the peculiar qualities of mind, and the special faculty
of workmanship of which this turn of thought and trick of style were
the product, must of course have been potentially present from the
beginning. Men do not blossom forth as wits, humourists, masterly
delineators of character, and skilful performers on a highly-strung
and carefully-tuned sentimental instrument all at once, after entering
their "forties;" and the only wonder is that a possessor of these
powers--some of them of the kind which, as a rule, and in most men,
seeks almost as irresistibly for exercise as even the poetic instinct
itself--should have been held so long unemployed. There is, however,
one very common stimulus to literary exertions which in Sterne's case
was undoubtedly wanting--a superabundance of unoccupied time. We
have little reason, it is true, to suppose that this light-minded
and valetudinarian Yorkshire parson was at any period of his life an
industrious "parish priest;" but it is probable, nevertheless, that
time never hung very heavily upon his hands. In addition to the
favourite amusements which he enumerates in the Memoir, he was all
his days addicted to one which is, perhaps, the most absorbing of
all--flirtation. Philandering, and especially philandering of the
Platonic and ultra-sentimental order, is almost the one human
pastime of which its votaries never seem to tire; and its constant
ministrations to human vanity may serve, perhaps, to account for their
unwearied absorption in its pursuit. Sterne's first love affair--an
affair of which, unfortunately, the consequences were more lasting
than the passion--took place immediately upon his leaving Cambridge.
To relate it as he relates it to his daughter: "At York I became
acquainted with your mother, and courted her for two years. She owned
she liked me, but thought herself not rich enough or me too poor to
be joined together. She went to her sister's in Staffordshire, and I
wrote to her often. I believe then she was partly determined to have
me, but would not say so. At her return she fell into a consumption,
and one evening that I was sitting by her, with an almost broken heart
to see her so ill, she said: 'My dear Laury, I never can be yours, for
I verily believe I have not long to live! But I have left you every
shilling of my fortune.' Upon that she showed me her will. This
generosity overpowered me. It pleased God that she recovered, and we
were married in 1741." The name of this lady was Elizabeth Lumley, and
it was to her that Sterne addressed those earliest letters which his
daughter included in the collection published by her some eight years
after her father's death. They were added, the preface tells us, "in
justice to Mr. Sterne's delicate feelings;" and in our modern usage
of the word "delicate," as equivalent to infirm of health and probably
short of life, they no doubt do full justice to the passion which they
are supposed to express. It would be unfair, of course, to judge any
love-letters of that period by the standard of sincerity applied in
our own less artificial age. All such compositions seem frigid and
formal enough to us of to-day; yet in most cases of genuine attachment
we usually find at least a sentence here and there in which the
natural accents of the heart make themselves heard above the affected
modulations of the style. But the letters of Sterne's courtship
maintain the pseudo-poetic, shepherd-and-shepherdess strain
throughout; or, if the lover ever abandons it, it is only to make
somewhat maudlin record of those "tears" which flowed a little too
easily at all times throughout his life. These letters, however, have
a certain critical interest in their bearing upon those sensibilities
which Sterne afterwards learned to cultivate in a forcing-frame, with
a view to the application of their produce to the purposes of an
art of pathetic writing which simulates nature with such admirable
fidelity at its best, and descends to such singular bathos at its

The marriage preluded by this courtship did not take place till
Sterne had already been three years Vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, the
benefice which had been procured for him by his uncle the Archdeacon;
through whose interest also he was appointed successively to two
prebends--preferments which were less valuable to him for their
emolument than for the ecclesiastical status which they conferred upon
him, for the excuse which they gave him for periodical visits to the
cathedral city to fulfil the residential conditions of his offices,
and for the opportunity thus afforded him of mixing in and studying
the society of the Close. Upon his union with Miss Lumley, and, in a
somewhat curious fashion, by her means, he obtained in addition the
living of Stillington. "A friend of hers in the South had promised her
that if she married a clergyman in Yorkshire, when the living became
vacant he would make her a compliment of it;" and made accordingly
this singular "compliment" was. At Sutton Sterne remained nearly
twenty years, doing duty at both places, during which time
"books, painting, fiddling, and shooting were," he says, "my chief
amusements." With what success he shot, and with what skill he
fiddled, we know not. His writings contain not a few musical
metaphors and allusions to music, which seem to indicate a competent
acquaintance with its technicalities; but the specimen of his
powers as an artist, which Mr. Fitzgerald has reproduced from his
illustrations of a volume of poems by Mr. Woodhull, does not dispose
one to rate highly his proficiency in this accomplishment. We may
expect that, after all, it was the first-mentioned of his amusements
in which he took the greatest delight, and that neither the brush,
the bow, nor the fowling-piece was nearly so often in his hand as
the book. Within a few miles of Sutton, at Skelton Castle, an almost
unique Roman stronghold, since modernized by Gothic hands, dwelt
his college-friend John Hall Stevenson, whose well-stocked library
contained a choice but heterogeneous collection of books--old French
"ana," and the learning of mediaeval doctors--books intentionally and
books unintentionally comic, the former of which Sterne read with an
only too retentive a memory for their jests, and the latter with an
acutely humorous appreciation of their solemn trifling. Later on it
will be time to note the extent to which he utilized these results of
his widely discursive reading, and to examine the legitimacy of the
mode in which he used them: here it is enough to say generally that
the materials for many a burlesque chapter of _Tristram Shandy_ must
have been unconsciously storing themselves in his mind in many an
amused hour passed by Sterne in the library of Skelton Castle.

But before finally quitting this part of my subject it may be as well,
perhaps, to deal somewhat at length with a matter which will doubtless
have to be many times incidentally referred to in the course of this
study, but which I now hope to relieve myself from the necessity of
doing more than touch upon hereafter. I refer of course to Sterne's
perpetually recurring flirtations. This is a matter almost as
impossible to omit from any biography of Sterne as it would be to omit
it from any biography of Goethe. The English humourist did not, it
is true, engage in the pastime in the serious, not to say scientific,
spirit of the German philosopher-poet; it was not deliberately made by
the former as by the latter to contribute to his artistic development;
but it is nevertheless hardly open to doubt that Sterne's philandering
propensities did exercise an influence upon his literary character and
work in more ways than one. That his marriage was an ill-assorted and
unhappy union was hardly so much the cause of his inconstancy as its
effect. It may well be, of course, that the "dear L.," whose moral and
mental graces her lover had celebrated in such superfine, sentimental
fashion, was a commonplace person enough. That she was really a woman
of the exquisite stolidity of Mrs. Shandy, and that her exasperating
feats as an _assentatrix_ did, as has been suggested, supply the model
for the irresistibly ludicrous colloquies between the philosopher
and his wife, there is no sufficient warrant for believing. But it
is quite possible that the daily companion of one of the most
indefatigable jesters that ever lived may have been unable to see
a joke; that she regarded her husband's wilder drolleries as mere
horse-collar grimacing, and that the point of his subtler humour
escaped her altogether. But even if it were so, it is, to say the
least of it, doubtful whether Sterne suffered at all on this ground
from the wounded feelings of the _mari incompris_, while it is next to
certain that it does not need the sting of any such disappointment
to account for his alienation. He must have had plenty of time and
opportunity to discover Miss Lumley's intellectual limitations during
the two years of his courtship; and it is not likely that, even if
they were as well marked as Mrs. Shandy's own, they would have
done much of themselves to estrange the couple. Sympathy is not the
necessity to the humourist which the poet finds, or imagines, it to be
to himself: the humourist, indeed, will sometimes contrive to extract
from the very absence of sympathy in those about him a keener relish
for his reflections. With sentiment, indeed, and still more with
sentimentalism, the case would of course be different; but as for Mr.
Sterne's demands for sympathy in that department of his life and art,
one may say without the least hesitation that they would have been
beyond the power of any one woman, however distinguished a disciple of
the "Laura Matilda" school, to satisfy. "I must ever," he frankly
says in one of the "Yorick to Eliza" letters, "I must ever have some
Dulcinea in my head: it harmonizes the soul;" and he might have added
that he found it impossible to sustain the harmony without frequently
changing the Dulcinea. One may suspect that Mrs. Sterne soon had cause
for jealousy, and it is at least certain that several years before
Sterne's emergence into notoriety their estrangement was complete. One
daughter was born to them in 1745, but lived scarcely mare than long
enough to be rescued from the _limbus infantium_ by the prompt
rites of the Church. The child was christened Lydia, and died on the
following day. Its place was filled in 1747 by a second daughter, also
christened Lydia, who lived to become the wife of M. de Medalle, and
the not very judicious editress of the posthumous "Letters." For
her as she grew up Sterne conceived a genuine and truly fatherly
affection, and it is in writing to her and of her that we see him at
his best; or rather one might say it is almost only then that we can
distinguish the true notes of the heart through that habitual falsetto
of sentimentalism which distinguishes most of Sterne's communications
with the other sex. There was no subsequent issue of the marriage,
and, from one of the letters most indiscreetly included in Madame de
Medalle's collection, it is to be ascertained that some four years or
so after Lydia's birth the relations between Sterne and Mrs. Sterne
ceased to be conjugal, and never again resumed that character.

It is, however, probable, upon the husband's own confessions, that he
had given his wife earlier cause for jealousy, and certainly from the
time when he begins to reveal himself in correspondence there seems to
be hardly a moment when some such cause was not in existence--in the
person of this, that, or the other lackadaisical damsel or coquettish
matron. From Miss Fourmantelle, the "dear, dear Kitty," to whom Sterne
was making violent love in 1759, the year of the York publication
of _Tristram Shandy_, down to Mrs. Draper, the heroine of the famous
"Yorick to Eliza" letters, the list of ladies who seem to have kindled
flames in that susceptible breast is almost as long and more real
than the roll of mistresses immortalized by Horace. How Mrs. Sterne at
first bore herself under her husband's ostentatious neglect there
is no direct evidence to show. That she ultimately took refuge in
indifference we can perceive, but it is to be feared that she was not
always able to maintain the attitude of contemptuous composure. So, at
least, we may suspect from the evidence of that Frenchman who met
"le bon et agreable Tristram," and his wife, at Montpellier, and who,
characteristically sympathizing with the inconstant husband, declared
that his wife's incessant pursuit of him made him pass "d'assez
mauvais moments," which he bore "with the patience of an angel."
But, on the whole, Mrs. Sterne's conduct seems by her husband's own
admissions to have been not wanting in dignity.

As to the nature of Sterne's love-affairs I have come, though not
without hesitation, to the conclusion that they were most, if not all
of them, what is called, somewhat absurdly, Platonic. In saying this,
however, I am by no means prepared to assert that they would all of
them have passed muster before a prosaic and unsentimental British
jury as mere indiscretions, and nothing worse. Sterne's relations
with Miss Fourmantelle, for instance, assumed at last a profoundly
compromising character, and it is far from improbable that the worst
construction would have been put upon them by one of the plain-dealing
tribunals aforesaid. Certainly a young woman who leaves her mother at
York, and comes up to London to reside alone in lodgings, where she is
constantly being visited by a lover who is himself living _en garcon_
in the metropolis, can hardly complain if her imprudence is fatal to
her reputation; neither can he if his own suffers in the same way.
But, as I am not of those who hold that the conventionally "innocent"
is the equivalent of the morally harmless in this matter, I cannot
regard the question as worth any very minute investigation. I am
not sure that the habitual male flirt, who neglects his wife to sit
continually languishing at the feet of some other woman, gives much
less pain and scandal to others, or does much less mischief to himself
and the objects of his adoration, than the thorough-going profligate;
and I even feel tempted to risk the apparent paradox that, from
the artistic point of view, Sterne lost rather than gained by the
generally Platonic character of his amours. For, as it was, the
restraint of one instinct of his nature implied the over-indulgence
of another which stood in at least as much need of chastenment. If his
love-affairs stopped short of the gratification of the senses, they
involved a perpetual fondling and caressing of those effeminate
sensibilities of his into that condition of hyper-aesthesia which,
though Sterne regarded it as the strength, was in reality the
weakness, of his art.

Injurious, however, as was the effect which Sterne's philanderings
exercised upon his personal and literary character, it is not likely
that, at least at this period of his life at Sutton, they had in any
degree compromised his reputation. For this he had provided in
other ways, and principally by his exceedingly injudicious choice
of associates. "As to the squire of the parish," he remarks in the
Memoir, "I cannot say we were on a very friendly footing, but at
Stillington the family of the C[rofts] showed us every kindness: 'twas
most agreeable to be within a mile and a half of an amiable family who
were ever cordial friends;" and who, it may be added, appear to have
been Sterne's only reputable acquaintances. For the satisfaction of
all other social needs he seems to have resorted to a companionship
which it was hardly possible for a clergyman to frequent without
scandal--that, namely, of John Hall Stevenson and the kindred spirits
whom he delighted to collect around him at Skelton--familiarly known
as "Crazy" Castle. The club of the "Demoniacs," of which Sterne makes
mention in his letters, may have had nothing very diabolical about it
except the name; but, headed as it was by the suspected ex-comrade
of Wilkes and his brother monks of Medmenham, and recruited by gay
militaires like Colonels Hall and Lee, and "fast" parsons like the
Rev. "Panty" Lascelles (mock godson of Pantagruel), it was certainly
a society in which the Vicar of Sutton could not expect to enroll
himself without offence. We may fairly suppose, therefore, that it
was to his association with these somewhat too "jolly companions" that
Sterne owed that disfavour among decorous country circles, of which
he shows resentful consciousness in the earlier chapters of _Tristram

But before we finally cross the line which separates the life of the
obscure country parson from the life of the famous author, a word or
two must be said of that piece of writing which was alluded to a few
pages back as the only known exception to the generally "professional"
character of all Sterne's compositions of the pre-Shandian era. This
was a piece in the allegoric-satirical style, which, though not very
remarkable in itself, may not improbably have helped to determine its
author's thoughts in the direction of more elaborate literary efforts.
In the year 1758 a dispute had arisen between a certain Dr. Topham, an
ecclesiastical lawyer in large local practice, and Dr. Fountayne, the
then Dean of York. This dispute had originated in an attempt on the
part of the learned civilian, who appears to have been a pluralist of
an exceptionally insatiable order, to obtain the reversion of one of
his numerous offices for his son, alleging a promise made to him on
that behalf by the Archbishop. This promise--which had, in fact, been
given--was legally impossible of performance, and upon the failure
of his attempt the disappointed Topham turned upon the Dean, and
maintained that by _him_, at any rate, he had been promised another
place of the value of five guineas per annum, and appropriately known
as the "Commissaryship of Pickering and Pocklington." This the Dean
denied, and thereupon Dr. Topham fired off a pamphlet setting forth
the circumstances of the alleged promise, and protesting against the
wrong inflicted upon him by its non-performance. At this point Sterne
came to Dr. Fountayne's assistance with a sarcastic apologue entitled
the "History of a good Warm Watchcoat," which had "hung up many years
in the parish vestry," and showing how this garment had so excited
the cupidity of Trim, the sexton, that "nothing would serve him but
he must take it home, to have it converted into a warm under-petticoat
for his wife and a jerkin for himself against the winter." The
symbolization of Dr. Topham's snug "patent place," which he wished
to make hereditary, under the image of the good warm watchcoat, is of
course plain enough; and there is some humour in the way in which the
parson (the Archbishop) discovers that his incautious assent to Trim's
request had been given _ultra vires._ Looking through the parish
register, at the request of a labourer who wished to ascertain his
age, the parson finds express words of bequest leaving the watch-coat
"for the sole use of the sextons of the church for ever, to be worn by
them respectively on winterly cold nights," and at the moment when he
is exclaiming, "Just Heaven! what an escape have I had! Give this
for a petticoat to Trim's wife!" he is interrupted by Trim himself
entering the vestry with "the coat actually ript and cut out" ready
for conversion into a petticoat for his wife. And we get a foretaste
of the familiar Shandian impertinence in the remark which follows,
that "there are many good similes subsisting in the world, but which I
have neither time to recollect nor look for," which would give you an
idea of the parson's astonishment at Trim's impudence. The emoluments
of "Pickering and Pocklington" appear under the figure of a "pair of
black velvet plush breeches" which ultimately "got into the possession
of one Lorry Slim (Sterne himself, of course), an unlucky wight, by
whom they are still worn: in truth, as you will guess, they are very
thin by this time."

The whole thing is the very slightest of "skits;" and the quarrel
having been accommodated before it could be published, it was
not given to the world until after its author's death. But it is
interesting, as his first known attempt in this line of composition,
and the grasping sexton deserves remembrance, if only as having handed
down his name to a far more famous descendant.




Hitherto we have had to construct our conception of Sterne out of
materials of more or less plausible conjecture. We are now at last
approaching the region of positive evidence, and henceforward, down
almost to the last scene of all, Sterne's doings will be chronicled,
and his character revealed, by one who happens, in this case, to be
the best of all possible biographers--the man himself. Not that such
records are by any means always the most trustworthy of evidence.
There are some men whose real character is never more effectually
concealed than in their correspondence. But it is not so with Sterne.
The careless, slipshod letters which Madame de Medalle "pitchforked"
into the book-market, rather than edited, are highly valuable as
pieces of autobiography. They are easy, naive, and natural, rich in
simple self-disclosure in almost every page; and if they have more
to tell us about the man than the writer, they are yet not wanting
in instructive hints as to Sterne's methods of composition and his
theories of art.

It was in the year 1759 that the Vicar of Sutton and Prebendary of
York--already, no doubt, a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence
to many worthy people in the county--conceived the idea of astonishing
and scandalizing them still further after a new and original fashion.
His impulses to literary production were probably various, and not all
of them, or perhaps the strongest of them, of the artistic order. The
first and most urgent was, it may be suspected, the simplest and most
common of all such motive forces. Sterne, in all likelihood, was in
want of money. He was not, perhaps, under the actual instruction of
that _magister artium_ whom the Roman satirist has celebrated; for he
declared, indeed, afterwards, that "he wrote not to be fed, but to be
famous." But the context of the passage shows that he only meant to
deny any absolute compulsion to write for mere subsistence. Between
this sort of constraint and that gentler form of pressure which arises
from the wish to increase an income sufficient for one's needs, but
inadequate to one's desires, there is a considerable difference; and
to repudiate the one is not to disclaim the other. It is, at any
rate, certain that Sterne engaged at one time of his life in a rather
speculative sort of farming, and we have it from himself in a passage
in one of his letters, which may be jest, but reads more like
earnest, that it was his losses in this business that first turned his
attention to literature.[1] His thoughts once set in that direction,
his peculiar choice of subject and method of treatment are easily
comprehensible. Pantagruelic burlesque came to him, if not naturally,
at any rate by "second nature." He had a strong and sedulously
cultivated taste for Rabelaisian humour; his head was crammed with all
sorts of out-of-the-way learning constantly tickling his comic sense
by its very uselessness; he relished more keenly than any man the
solemn futilities of mediaeval doctors, and the pedantic indecencies
of casuist fathers; and, along with all these temptations to an
enterprise of the kind upon which he entered, he had been experiencing
a steady relaxation of deterrent restraints. He had fallen out with
his uncle some years since,[2] and the quarrel had freed him from at
least one influence making for clerical propriety of behaviour. His
incorrigible levities had probably lost him the countenance of most of
his more serious acquaintances; his satirical humour had as probably
gained him personal enemies not a few, and it may be that he had
gradually contracted something of that "naughty-boy" temper, as we
may call it, for which the deliberate and ostentatious repetition of
offences has an inexplicable charm. It seems clear, too, that, growth
for growth with this spirit of bravado, there had sprung up--in
somewhat incongruous companionship, perhaps--a certain sense of wrong.
Along with the impulse to give an additional shock to the prejudices
he had already offended, Sterne felt impelled to vindicate what he
considered the genuine moral worth underlying the indiscretions of the
offender. What, then, could better suit him than to compose a novel
in which he might give full play to his simious humour, startle more
hideously than ever his straighter-laced neighbours, defiantly defend
his own character, and caricature whatever eccentric figure in the
society around him might offer the most tempting butt for ridicule?

[Footnote 1: "I was once such a puppy myself," he writes to a certain
baronet whom he is attempting to discourage from speculative farming
of this sort, "and had my labour for my pains and two hundred pounds
out of pocket. Curse on farming! (I said). Let us see if the pen will
not succeed better than the spade."]

[Footnote 2: He himself, indeed, makes a particular point of this in
explaining his literary venture. "Now for your desire," he writes to
a correspondent in 1759, "of knowing the reason of my turning author?
why, truly I am tired of employing my brains for other people's
advantage. 'Tis a foolish sacrifice I have made for some years for an
ungrateful person."--_Letters_, i. 82.]

All the world knows how far he ultimately advanced beyond the
simplicity of the conception, and into what far higher regions of art
its execution led him. But I find no convincing reason for believing
that _Tristram Shandy_ had at the outset any more seriously artistic
purpose than this; and much indirect evidence that this, in fact, it

The humorous figure of Mr. Shandy is, of course, the Cervantic centre
of the whole; and it was out of him and his crotchets that Sterne,
no doubt, intended from the first to draw the materials of that often
unsavoury fun which was to amuse the light-minded and scandalize the
demure. But it can hardly escape notice that the two most elaborate
portraits in Vol. I.--the admirable but very flatteringly idealized
sketch of the author himself in Yorick, and the Gilrayesque caricature
of Dr. Slop--are drawn with a distinctly polemical purpose, defensive
in the former case and offensive in the latter. On the other hand,
with the disappearance of Dr. Slop caricature of living persons
disappears also; while, after the famous description of Yorick's
death-bed, we meet with no more attempts at self-vindication. It
seems probable, therefore, that long before the first two volumes
were completed Sterne had discovered the artistic possibilities of
"My Uncle Toby" and "Corporal Trim," and had realized the full
potentialities of humour contained in the contrast between the
two brothers Shandy. The very work of sharpening and deepening the
outlines of this humorous antithesis, while it made the crack-brained
philosopher more and more of a burlesque unreality, continually added
new touches of life and nature to the lineaments of the simple-minded
soldier; and it was by this curious and half-accidental process that
there came to be added to the gallery of English fiction one of the
most perfect and delightful portraits that it possesses.

We know from internal evidence that _Tristram Shandy_ was begun in the
early days of 1759; and the first two volumes were probably completed
by about the middle of the year. "In the year 1760," writes Sterne, "I
went up to London to publish my two first volumes of _Shandy_." And it
is stated in a note to this passage, as cited in Scott's memoir, that
the first edition was published "the year before" in York. There is,
however, no direct proof that it was in the hands of the public before
the beginning of 1760, though it is possible that the date of its
publication may just have fallen within the year. But, at all
events, on the 1st of January, 1760, an advertisement in the _Public
Advertiser_ informed the world that "this day" was "published, printed
on superfine writing-paper, &c., _The Life and Opinions of Tristram
Shandy_. York. Printed for and sold by John Hinxham, Bookseller in
Stonegate." The great London publisher, Dodslecy, to whom the book
had been offered, and who had declined the venture, figures in the
advertisement as the principal London bookseller from whom it was
to be obtained. It seems that only a few copies were in the first
instance sent up to the London market; but they fell into good hands,
for there is evidence that _Tristram Shandy_ had attracted the notice
of at least one competent critic in the capital before the month of
January was out. But though the metropolitan success of the book
was destined to be delayed for still a month or two, in York it had
already created a _furore_ in more senses than one. For, in fact,
and no wonder, it had in many quarters given the deepest offence. Its
Rabelaisian license of incident and allusion was calculated to offend
the proprieties--the provincial proprieties especially--even in that
free-spoken age; and there was that in the book, moreover, which a
provincial society may be counted on to abominate, with a keener
if less disinterested abhorrence than any sins against decency. It
contained, or was supposed to contain, a broadly ludicrous caricature
of one well-known local physician; and an allusion, brief, indeed, and
covert, but highly scandalous, to a certain "droll foible" attributed
to another personage of much wider celebrity in the scientific
world. The victim in the latter case was no longer living; and this
circumstance brought upon Sterne a remonstrance from a correspondent,
to which he replied in a letter so characteristic in many respects as
to be worth quoting. His correspondent was a Dr. * * * * * (asterisks
for which it is now impossible to substitute letters); and the burden
of what seem to have been several communications in speech and writing
on the subject was the maxim, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." With such
seriousness and severity had his correspondent dwelt upon this adage,
that "at length," writes Sterne, "you have made me as serious and as
severe as yourself; but, that the humours you have stirred up might
not work too potently within me, I have waited four days to cool
myself before I could set pen to paper to answer you." And thus he
sets forth the results of his four days' deliberation:

"'De mortuis nil nisi bonum.' I declare I have considered the wisdom
and foundation of it over and over again as dispassionately and
charitably as a good Christian can, and, after all, I can find nothing
in it, or make more of it than a nonsensical lullaby of some nurse,
put into Latin by some pedant, to be chanted by some hypocrite to the
end of the world for the consolation of departing lechers. 'Tis, I
own, Latin, and I think that is all the weight it has, for, in plain
English, 'tis a loose and futile position below a dispute. 'You are
not to speak anything of the dead but what is good.' Why so? Who
says so? Neither reason nor Scripture. Inspired authors have done
otherwise, and reason and common sense tell me that, if the characters
of past ages and men are to be drawn at all, they are to be drawn like
themselves, that is, with their excellences and their foibles; and it
as much a piece of justice to the world, and to virtue, too, to do the
one as the other. The ruling passion, _et les egarements du coeur_,
are the very things which mark and distinguish a man's character,
in which I would as soon leave out a man's head as his hobby-horse.
However, if, like the poor devil of a painter, we must conform to the
pious canon, 'De mortuis,' &c., which I own has a spice of piety in
the _sound_ of it, and be obliged to paint both our angels and our
devils out of the same pot, I then infer that our Sydenhams and our
Sangrados, our Lucretias and our Messalinas, our Somersets and our
Bolingbrokes, are alike entitled to statues, and all the historians or
satirists who have said otherwise since they departed this life,
from Sallust to S----e, are guilty of the crimes you charge me with,
'cowardice and injustice.' But why cowardice? 'Because 'tis not
courage to attack a dead man who can't defend himself.' But why do you
doctors attack such a one with your incision knife? Oh! for the good
of the living. 'Tis my plea."

And, having given this humorous twist to his argument, he glides off
into extenuatory matter. He had not even, he protests, made as much as
a surgical incision into his victim (Dr. Richard Mead, the friend of
Bentley and of Newton, and a physician and physiologist of high repute
in his day); he had but just scratched him, and that scarce skin-deep.
As to the "droll foible" of Dr. Mead, which he had made merry with,
"it was not first reported (even to the few who can understand the
hint) by me, but known before by every chambermaid and footman within
the bills of mortality"--a somewhat daring assertion, one would
imagine, considering what the droll foible was; and Dr. Mead,
continues Sterne, great man as he was, had, after all, not fared worse
than "a man of twice his wisdom"--to wit Solomon, of whom the same
remark had been made, that "they were both great men, and, like all
mortal men, had each their ruling passion."

The mixture of banter and sound reasoning in this reply is, no doubt,
very skilful. But, unfortunately, neither the reasoning nor the
banter happens to meet the case of this particular defiance of the
"De mortuis" maxim, and as a serious defence against a serious charge
(which was what the occasion required) Sterne's answer is altogether
futile. For the plea of "the good of the living," upon which, after
all, the whole defence, considered seriously, rests, was quite
inapplicable as an excuse for the incriminated passage. The only
living persons who could possibly be affected by it, for good or
evil, were those surviving friends of the dead man, to whom Sterne's
allusion to what he called Dr. Mead's "droll foible" was calculated to
cause the deepest pain and shame.

The other matter of offence to Sterne's Yorkshire readers was of a
much more elaborate kind. In the person of Dr. Slop, the grotesque
man-midwife, who was to have assisted, but missed assisting, at
Tristram's entry into the world, the good people of York were not slow
to recognize the physical peculiarities and professional antecedents
of Dr. Burton, the local accoucheur, whom Archdeacon Sterne had
arrested as a Jacobite. That the portrait was faithful to anything
but the external traits of the original, or was intended to reproduce
anything more than these, Sterne afterwards denied; and we have
certainly no ground for thinking that Burton had invited ridicule on
any other than the somewhat unworthy ground of the curious ugliness
of his face and figure. It is most unlikely that his success as a
practitioner in a branch of the medical art in which imposture is the
most easily detected, could have been earned by mere quackery; and
he seems, moreover, to have been a man of learning in more kinds than
one. The probability is that the worst that could be alleged against
him was a tendency to scientific pedantry in his published
writings, which was pretty sure to tickle the fancy of Mr. Sterne.
Unscrupulously, however, as he was caricatured, the sensation which
appears to have been excited in the county by the burlesque portrait
could hardly have been due to any strong public sympathy with the
involuntary sitter. Dr. Burton seems, as a suspected Jacobite, to have
been no special favourite with the Yorkshire squirearchy in general,
but rather the reverse thereof. Ucalegon, however, does not need to be
popular to arouse his neighbour's interest in his misfortunes; and the
caricature of Burton was doubtless resented on the _proximus ardet_
principle by many who feared that their turn was coming next.

To all the complaints and protests which reached him on the subject
Sterne would in any case, probably, have been indifferent; but he was
soon to receive encouragement which would have more than repaid a
man of his temper for twice the number of rebukes. For London cared
nothing for Yorkshire susceptibilities and Yorkshire fears. Provincial
notables might be libelled, and their friends might go in fear
of similar treatment, but all that was nothing to "the town," and
_Tristram Shandy_ had taken the town by storm. We gather from a
passage in the letter above quoted that as early as January 30
the book had "gained the very favourable opinion" of Mr. Garrick,
afterwards to become the author's intimate friend; and it is certain
that by the time of Sterne's arrival in London, in March, 1760,
_Tristram Shandy_ had become the rage.

To say of this extraordinary work that it defies analysis would be the
merest inadequacy of commonplace. It was meant to defy analysis; it
is of the very essence of its scheme and purpose that it should do so;
and the mere attempt to subject it systematically to any such process
would argue an altogether mistaken conception of the author's intent.
Its full "official" style and title is _The Life and Opinions of
Tristram Shandy, Gent.,_ and it is difficult to say which it contains
the less about--the opinions of Tristram Shandy or the events of
his life. As a matter of fact, its proper description would be "The
Opinions of Tristram Shandy's Father, with some Passages from the Life
of his Uncle." Its claim to be regarded as a biography of its nominal
hero is best illustrated by the fact that Tristram is not born till
the third volume, and not breeched till the sixth; that it is not till
the seventh that he begins to play any active part in the narrative,
appearing then only as a completely colourless and unindividualized
figure, a mere vehicle for the conveyance of Sterne's own Continental
_impressions de voyage_; and that in the last two volumes, which
are entirely taken up with the incident of his uncle's courtship, he
disappears from the story altogether. It is to be presumed, perhaps,
though not very confidently, that the reader would have seen more
of him if the tale had been continued; but how much or how little
is quite uncertain. The real hero of the book is at the outset Mr.
Shandy, senior, who is, later on, succeeded in this place of dignity
by my Uncle Toby. It not only served Sterne's purpose to confine
himself mainly to these two characters, as the best whereon to display
his powers, but it was part of his studied eccentricity to do so. It
was a "point" to give as little as possible about Tristram Shandy in
a life of Tristram Shandy; just as it was a point to keep the reader
waiting throughout the year 1760 for their hero to be so much as born.
In the first volume, therefore, the author does literally everything
but make the slightest progress with his story. Starting off abruptly
with a mock physiologic disquisition upon the importance of a
proper ordering of their mental states on the part of the intending
progenitors of children, he philosophizes gravely on this theme for
two or three chapters; and then wanders away into an account of the
local midwife, upon whose sole services Mrs. Shandy, in opposition
to her husband, was inclined to rely. From the midwife it is an easy
transition to her patron and protector, the incumbent of the parish,
and this, in its turn, suggests a long excursus on the character,
habits, appearance, home, friends, enemies, and finally death, burial,
and epitaph of the Rev. Mr. Yorick. Thence we return to Mr. and Mrs.
Shandy, and are made acquainted, in absurdly minute detail, with an
agreement entered into between them with reference to the place of
sojourn to be selected for the lady's accouchement, the burlesque
deed which records this compact being actually set out at full length.
Thence, again, we are beckoned away by the jester to join him in
elaborate and not very edifying ridicule of the Catholic doctrine
of ante-natal baptism; and thence--but it would be useless to follow
further the windings and doublings of this literary hare.

Yet though the book, as one thus summarizes it, may appear a mere
farrago of digressions, it nevertheless, after its peculiar fashion,
advances. Such definite purpose as underlies the tricks and grimaces
of its author is by degrees accomplished; and before we reach the end
of the first volume the highly humorous, if extravagantly idealized,
figure of Mr. Shandy takes bodily shape and consistency before our
eyes. It is a mistake, I think, of Sir Walter Scott's to regard the
portrait of this eccentric philosopher as intended for a satire upon
perverted and deranged erudition--as the study of a man "whom too much
and too miscellaneous learning had brought within a step or two of
madness." Sterne's conception seems to me a little more subtle and
less commonplace than that. Mr. Shandy, I imagine, is designed to
personify not "crack-brained learning" so much as "theory run mad." He
is possessed by a sort of Demon of the Deductive, ever impelling him
to push his premises to new conclusions without ever allowing him time
to compare them with the facts. No doubt we are meant to regard him as
a learned man; but his son gives us to understand distinctly and very
early in the book that his crotchets were by no means those of a weak
receptive mind, overladen with more knowledge than it could digest,
but rather those of an over-active intelligence, far more deeply and
constantly concerned with its own processes than with the thoughts
of others. Tristram, indeed, dwells pointedly on the fact that his
father's dialectical skill was not the result of training, and that he
owed nothing to the logic of the schools. "He was certainly," says his
son, "irresistible both in his orations and disputations," but
that was because "he was born an orator _([Greek: Theodidaktos])_.
Persuasion hung upon his lips, and the elements of logic and rhetoric
were so blended in him, and withal he had so shrewd a guess at the
weaknesses and passions of his respondent, that Nature might have
stood up and said, 'This man is eloquent.' And yet," continues the
filial panegyric,

"He had never read Cicero nor Quintilian de Oratore, nor Aristotle,
nor Longinus among the ancients, nor Vossius, nor Skioppius, nor
Ramus, nor Farnaby among the moderns: and what is more astonishing
he had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtilty
struck into his mind by one single lecture upon Crackenthorpe or
Burgersdicius or any Dutch commentator: he knew not so much as
in what the difference of an argument _ad ignorantiam_ and an argument
_ad hominem_ consisted; and when he went up along with me to
enter my name at Jesus College, in * * * *, it was a matter of just
wonder with my worthy tutor and two or three Fellows of that learned
society that a man who knew not so much as the names of his tools
should be able to work after that fashion with them."

Surely we all know men of this kind, and the
consternation--comparable only to that of M. Jourdain under the
impromptu carte-and-tierce of his servant-maid--which their sturdy
if informal dialectic will often spread among many kinds of "learned
societies." But such men are certainly not of the class which Scott
supposed to have been ridiculed in the character of Walter Shandy.

Among the crotchets of this born dialectician was a theory as to the
importance of Christian names in determining the future behaviour
and destiny of the children to whom they are given; and, whatever
admixture of jest there might have been in some of his other fancies,
in this his son affirms he was absolutely serious. He solemnly
maintained the opinion "that there was a strange kind of magic bias
which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed
upon our character and conduct." How many Caesars and Pompeys, he
would say, by mere inspiration of their names have been rendered
worthy of them! And how many, he would add, are there who might have
done exceeding well in the world had not their characters and spirits
been totally depressed and Nicodemus'd into nothing! He was astonished
at parents failing to perceive that "when once a vile name was
wrongfully or injudiciously given, 'twas not like a case of a man's
character, which, when wronged, might afterwards be cleared; and
possibly some time or other, if not in the man's life, at least after
his death, be somehow or other set to rights with the world." This
name-giving injury, he would say, "could never be undone; nay, he
doubted whether an Act of Parliament could reach it; he knew, as well
as you, that the Legislature assumed a power over surnames; but for
very strong reasons, which he could give, it had never yet adventured,
he would say, to go a step further."

With all this extravagance, however, there was combined an admirable
affectation of sobriety. Mr. Shandy would have us believe that he
was no blind slave to his theory. He was quite willing to admit the
existence of names which could not affect the character either
for good or evil--Jack, Dick, and Tom, for instance; and such the
philosopher styled "neutral names," affirming of them, "without a
satire, that there had been as many knaves and fools at least as wise
and good men since the world began, who had indifferently borne them,
so that, like equal forces acting against each other in contrary
directions, he thought they mutually destroyed each other's
effects; for which reason he would often declare he would not give a
cherry-stone to choose among them. Bob, which was my brother's name,
was another of these neutral kinds of Christian names which operated
very little either way; and as my father happened to be at Epsom when
it was given him, he would ofttimes thank Heaven it was no worse."
Forewarned of this peculiarity of Mr.

Shandy's, the reader is, of course, prepared to hear that of all
the names in the universe the philosopher had the most unconquerable
aversion for Tristram, "the lowest and most contemptible opinion of it
of anything in the world." He would break off in the midst of one
of his frequent disputes on the subject of names, and "in a spirited
epiphonema, or rather erotesis," demand of his antagonist "whether he
would take upon him to say he had ever remembered, whether he had
ever read, or whether he had ever heard tell of a man called Tristram
performing anything great or worth recording. No, he would say.
Tristram! the thing is impossible." It only remained that he should
have published a book in defence of the belief, and sure enough "in
the year sixteen," two years before the birth of his second son, "he
was at the pains of writing an express dissertation simply upon the
word Tristram, showing the world with great candour and modesty the
grounds of his great abhorrence to the name." And with this idea
Sterne continues to amuse himself at intervals till the end of the

That he does not so persistently amuse the reader it is, of course,
scarcely necessary to say. The jest has not substance enough--few of
Sterne's jests have--to stand the process of continual attrition to
which he subjects it. But the mere historic gravity with which the
various turns of this monomania are recorded--to say nothing of the
seldom failing charm of the easy, gossiping style--prevents the thing
from ever becoming utterly tiresome. On the whole, however, one begins
to grow impatient for more of the same sort as the three admirable
chapters on the Rev. Mr. Yorick, and is not sorry to get to the
opening of the second volume, with its half-tender, half-humorous, and
wholly delightful account of Uncle Toby's difficulties in describing
the siege operations before Namur, and of the happy chance by which
these difficulties made him ultimately the fortunate possessor of a

Throughout this volume there are manifest signs of Sterne's unceasing
interest in his own creations, and of his increasing consciousness of
creative power. Captain Toby Shandy is but just lightly sketched-in
the first volume, while Corporal Trim has not made his appearance on
the scene at all; but before the end of the second we know both of
them thoroughly, within and without. Indeed, one might almost say
that in the first half-dozen chapters which so excellently recount
the origin of the corporal's fortification scheme, and the wounded
officer's delighted acceptance of it, every trait in the simple
characters--alike yet so different in their simplicity--of master and
of man becomes definitely fixed in the reader's mind. And the total
difference between the second and the first volume in point of
fulness, variety, and colour is most marked. The artist, the inventor,
the master of dialogue, the comic dramatist, in fact, as distinct from
the humorous essayist, would almost seem to have started into being
as we pass from the one volume to the other. There is nothing in the
drolleries of the first volume--in the broad jests upon Mr. Shandy's
crotchets, or even in the subtler humour of the intellectual collision
between these crotchets and his brother's plain sense--to indicate the
kind of power displayed in that remarkable colloquy _a quatre_, which
begins with the arrival of Dr. Slop and ends with Corporal Trim's
recital of the Sermon on Conscience. Wit, humour, irony, quaint
learning, shrewd judgment of men and things, of these Sterne had
displayed abundance already; but it is not in the earlier but in the
later half of the first instalment of _Tristram Shandy_ that we first
become conscious that he is something more than the possessor of all
these things; that he is gifted with the genius of creation, and has
sent forth new beings into that world of immortal shadows which to
many of us is more real than our own.




Sterne alighted from the York mail, just as Byron "awoke one morning,"
to "find himself famous." Seldom indeed has any lion so suddenly
discovered been pursued so eagerly and by such a distinguished crowd
of hunters. The chase was remarkable enough to have left a lasting
impression on the spectators; for it was several years after (in 1773)
that Dr. Johnson, by way of fortifying his very just remark that "any
man who has a name or who has the power of pleasing will be generally
invited in London," observed gruffly that "the man Sterne," he was
told, "had had engagements for three months." And truly it would
appear from abundant evidence that "the man Sterne" gained such a
social triumph as might well have turned a stronger head than his.
Within twenty-four hours after his arrival his lodgings in Pall Mall
were besieged by a crowd of fashionable visitors; and in a few weeks
he had probably made the acquaintance of "everybody who was anybody"
in the London society of that day.

How thoroughly he relished the delights of celebrity is revealed, with
a simple vanity which almost disarms criticism, in many a passage
of his correspondence. In one of his earliest letters to Miss
Fourmantelle we find him proudly relating to her how already he "was
engaged to ten noblemen and men of fashion." Of Garrick, who had
warmly welcomed the humourist whose merits he had been the first to
discover, Sterne says that he had "promised him at dinner to numbers
of great people." Amongst these great people who sought him out for
themselves was that discerning patron of ability in every shape, Lord
Rockingham. In one of the many letters which Madame de Medalle flung
dateless upon the world, but which from internal evidence we can
assign to the early months of 1760, Sterne writes that he is about to
"set off with a grand retinue of Lord Rockingham's (in whose suite I
move) for Windsor" to witness, it should seem, an installation of
a Knight of the Garter. It is in his letters to Miss Fourmantelle,
however, that his almost boyish exultation at his London triumph
discloses itself most frankly. "My rooms," he writes, "are filling
every hour with great people of the first rank, who strive who shall
most honour me." Never, he believes, had such homage been rendered to
any man by devotees so distinguished. "The honours paid me were the
greatest that were ever known from the great."

The self-painted portrait is not, it must be confessed, altogether
an attractive one. It is somewhat wanting in dignity, and its air of
over-inflated complacency is at times slightly ridiculous. But we must
not judge Sterne in this matter by too severe a standard. He was by
nature neither a dignified nor a self-contained man: he had a head
particularly unfitted to stand sudden elevation; and it must be
allowed that few men's power of resisting giddiness at previously
unexplored altitudes was ever so severely tried. It was not only "the
great" in the sense of the high in rank and social distinction by
whom he was courted; he was welcomed also by the eminent in genius and
learning; and it would be no very difficult task for him to flatter
himself that it was the latter form of recognition which, he really
valued most. Much, at any rate, in the way of undue elation may be
forgiven to a country clergyman who suddenly found himself the centre
of a court, which was regularly attended by statesmen, wits, and
leaders of fashion, and with whom even bishops condescended to open
gracious diplomatic communication. "Even all the bishops," he writes,
"have sent their compliments;" and though this can hardly have been
true of the whole Episcopal Bench, it is certain that Sterne received
something more than a compliment from one bishop, who was a host in
himself. He was introduced by Garrick to Warburton, and received high
encouragement from that formidable prelate.[1]

[Footnote 1: It is admitted, moreover, in the correspondence with Miss
Fourmantelle that Sterne received something more substantial from the
Bishop, in the shape of a purse of gold; and this strange present gave
rise to a scandal on which something will be said hereafter.]

The year 1760, however, was to bring to Sterne more solid gains than
that of mere celebrity, or even than the somewhat precarious money
profits which depend on literary vogue. Only a few weeks after his
arrival in town he was presented by Lord Falconberg with the curacy of
Coxwold, "a sweet retirement," as he describes it, "in comparison of
Sutton," at which he was in future to pass most of the time spent
by him in Yorkshire. What obtained him this piece of preferment is
unknown. It may be that _Tristram Shandy_ drew the Yorkshire peer's
attention to the fact that there was a Yorkshireman of genius living
within a few miles of a then vacant benefice in his lordship's gift,
and that this was enough for him. But Sterne himself says--in writing
a year or so afterwards to a lady of his acquaintance--"I hope I have
been of some service to his lordship, and he has sufficiently requited
me;" and in the face of this plain assertion, confirmed as it is by
the fact that Lord Falconberg was on terms of friendly intimacy with
the Vicar of Coxwold at a much later date than this, we may dismiss
idle tales about Sterne's having "black-mailed" the patron out of a
presentation to a benefice worth no more, after all, than some 70L a
year net.

There is somewhat more substance, however, in the scandal which got
abroad with reference to a certain alleged transaction between Sterne
and Warburton. Before Sterne had been many days in London, and while
yet his person and doings were the natural subjects of the newest
gossip, a story found its way into currency to the effect that the
new-made Bishop of Gloucester had found it advisable to protect
himself against the satiric humour of the author of the _Tristram
Shandy_ by a substantial present of money. Coming to Garrick's ears,
it was repeated by him--whether seriously or in jest--to Sterne,
from whom it evoked a curious letter, which in Madame de Medalle's
collection has been studiously hidden away amongst the correspondence
of seven years later. "'Twas for all the world," he began, "like a cut
across my finger with a sharp pen-knife. I saw the blood--gave it a
suck, wrapt it up, and thought no more about it.... The story you told
me of Tristram's pretended tutor this morning"--(the scandal was, that
Warburton had been threatened with caricature in the next volume of
the novel, under the guise of the hero's tutor)--"this vile story, I
say, though I then saw both how and where it wounded, I felt little
from it at first, or, to speak more honestly (though it ruins my
simile), I felt a great deal of pain from it, but affected an air,
usual in such accidents, of feeling less than I had." And he goes on
to repudiate, it will be observed, not so much the moral offence of
corruption, in receiving money to spare Warburton, as the intellectual
solecism of selecting him for ridicule. "What the devil!" he
exclaims, "is there no one learned blockhead throughout the schools
of misapplied science in the Christian world to make a tutor of for
my Tristram--are we so run out of stock that there is no one
lumber-headed, muddle-headed, mortar-headed, pudding-head chap amongst
our doctors...but I must disable my judgment by choosing a Warburton?"
Later on, in a letter to his friend, Mr. Croft, at Stillington, whom
the scandal had reached through a "society journal" of the time, he
asks whether people would suppose he would be "such a fool as to fall
foul of Dr. Warburton, my best friend, by representing him so weak a
man; or by telling such a lie of him as his giving me a purse to buy
off the tutorship of Tristram--or that I should be fool enough to own
that I had taken a purse for that purpose?" It will be remarked that
Sterne does not here deny having received a purse from Warburton,
but only his having received it by way of black-mail: and the most
mysterious part of the affair is that Sterne did actually receive the
strange present of a "purse of gold" from Warburton (whom at that time
he did not know nor had ever seen); and that he admits as much in one
of his letters to Miss Fourmantelle. "I had a purse of guineas given
me yesterday by a Bishop," he writes, triumphantly, but without
volunteering any explanation of this extraordinary gift. Sterne's
letter to Garrick was forwarded, it would seem, to Warburton; and the
Bishop thanks Garrick for having procured for him "the confutation of
an impertinent story the first moment I heard of it." This, however,
can hardly count for much. If Warburton had really wished Sterne to
abstain from caricaturing him, he would be as anxious--and for much
the same reasons--to conceal the fact as to suppress the caricature.
He would naturally have the disclosure of it reported to Sterne
for formal contradiction, as in fulfilment of a virtual term in the
bargain between them. The epithet of "irrevocable scoundrel," which
he afterwards applied to Sterne, is of less importance, as proceeding
from Warburton, than it would have been had it come from any one not
habitually employing Warburton's peculiar vocabulary; but it at least
argues no very cordial feeling on the Bishop's side. And, on the
whole, one regrets to feel, as I must honestly confess that I do feel,
far less confident of the groundlessness of this rather unpleasant
story than could be wished. It is impossible to forget, however, that
while the ethics of this matter were undoubtedly less strict in those
days than they are--or, at any rate, are recognized as being--in our
own, there is nothing in Sterne's character to make us suppose him to
have been at all in advance of the morality of his time.

The incumbent-designate did not go down at once to take possession of
his temporalities. His London triumph had not yet run its course. The
first edition of Vols. I. and II. of _Tristram Shandy_ was exhausted
in some three months. In April, Dodsley brought out a second; and,
concurrently with the advertisement of its issue, there appeared--in
somewhat incongruous companionship--the announcement, "Speedily will
be published, The Sermons of Mr. Yorick." The judicious Dodsley, or
possibly the judicious Sterne himself (acute enough in matters of
this kind), had perceived that now was the time to publish a series of
sermons by the very unclerical lion of the day. There would--they,
no doubt, thought--be an undeniable piquancy, a distinct flavour of
semi-scandalous incongruity in listening to the Word of Life from the
lips of this loose-tongued droll; and the more staid and serious the
sermon, the more effective the contrast. There need not have been
much trouble in finding the kind of article required; and we may be
tolerably sure that, even if Sterne did not perceive that fact for
himself, his publisher hastened to inform him that "anything would
do." Two of his pulpit discourses, the Assize Sermon and the Charity
Sermon, had already been thought worthy of publication by their author
in a separate form; and the latter of these found a place in the
series; while the rest seem to have been simply the chance sweepings
of the parson's sermon-drawer. The critics who find wit, eccentricity,
flashes of Shandyism, and what not else of the same sort in these
discourses, must be able--or so it seems to me--to discover these
phenomena anywhere. To the best of my own judgment the Sermons
are--with but few and partial exceptions--of the most commonplace
character; platitudinous with the platitudes of a thousand pulpits,
and insipid with the _crambe repetita_ of a hundred thousand homilies.
A single extract will fully suffice for a specimen of Sterne's
pre-Shandian homiletic style; his post-Shandian manner was very
different, as we shall see. The preacher is discoursing upon the
well-worn subject of the inconsistencies of human character:

"If such a contrast was only observable in the different stages of
a man's life, it would cease to be either a matter of wonder or of
just reproach. Age, experience, and much reflection may naturally
enough be supposed to alter a man's sense of things, and so entirely
to transform him that, not only in outward appearance but in the
very cast and turn of his mind, he may be as unlike and different
from the man he was twenty or thirty years ago as he ever was from
anything of his own species. This, I say, is naturally to be accounted
for, and in some cases might be praiseworthy too; but the observation
is to be made of men in the same period of their lives that in
the same day, sometimes on the very same action, they are utterly
inconsistent and irreconcilable with themselves. Look at the man in
one light, and he shall seem wise, penetrating, discreet, and brave;
behold him in another point of view, and you see a creature all over
folly and indiscretion, weak and timorous as cowardice and
indiscretion can make him. A man shall appear gentle, courteous,
and benevolent to all mankind; follow him into his own house,
maybe you see a tyrant morose and savage to all whose happiness
depends upon his kindness. A third, in his general behaviour,
is found to be generous, disinterested, humane, and friendly. Hear
but the sad story of the friendless orphans too credulously trusting
all their whole substance into his hands, and he shall appear more
sordid, more pitiless and unjust than the injured themselves have
bitterness to paint him. Another shall be charitable to the poor,
uncharitable in his censures and opinions of all the rest of the
world besides: temperate in his appetites, intemperate in his tongue;
shall have too much conscience and religion to cheat the man who
trusts him, and perhaps as far as the business of debtor and creditor
extends shall be just and scrupulous to the uttermost mite; yet in
matters of full or great concern, where he is to have the handling
of the party's reputation and good name, the dearest, the tenderest
property the man has, he will do him irreparable damage, and rob him
there without measure or pity."--Sermon XI.--_On Evil Speaking_.

There is clearly nothing particularly striking in all that, even
conveyed as it is in Sterne's effective, if loose and careless, style;
and it is no unfair sample of the whole. The calculation, however, of
the author and his shrewd publisher was that, whatever the intrinsic
merits or demerits of these sermons, they would "take" on the strength
of the author's name; nor, it would seem, was their calculation
disappointed. The edition of this series of sermons now lying before
me is numbered the sixth, and its date is 1764; which represents a
demand for a new edition every nine months or so, over a space of
four years. They may, perhaps, have succeeded, too, in partially
reconciling a certain serious-minded portion of the public to the
author. Sterne evidently hoped that they might; for we find him
sending a copy to Warburton, in the month of June, immediately after
the publication of the book, and receiving in return a letter of
courteous thanks, and full of excellent advice as to the expediency
of avoiding scandal by too hazardous a style of writing in the future.
Sterne, in reply, protests that he would "willingly give no offence to
mortal by anything which could look like the least violation of either
decency or good manners;" but--and it is an important "but"--he cannot
promise to "mutilate everything" in _Tristram_ "down to the prudish
humour of every particular" (individual), though he will do his best;
but, in any case, "laugh, my Lord, I will, and as loudly as I can."
And laugh he did, and in such Rabelaisian fashion that the Bishop
(somewhat inconsistently for a critic who had welcomed Sterne on
the appearance of the first two volumes expressly as the "English
Rabelais") remarked of him afterwards with characteristic vigour, in
a letter to a friend, that he fears the fellow is an "irrevocable

The volumes, however, which earned "the fellow" this Episcopal
benediction were not given to the world till the next year. At the
end of May or beginning of June, 1760, Sterne went to his new home
at Coxwold, and his letters soon begin to show him to us at work upon
further records of Mr. Shandy's philosophical theory-spinning and the
simpler pursuits of his excellent brother. It is probable that this
year, 1760, was, on the whole, the happiest year of Sterne's life.
His health, though always feeble, had not yet finally given way;
and though the "vile cough" which was to bring him more than once to
death's door, and at last to force it open, was already troubling him,
he had that within him which made it easy to bear up against all
such physical ills. His spirits, in fact, were at their highest. His
worldly affairs were going at least as smoothly as they ever went.
He was basking in that sunshine of fame which was so delightful to a
temperament differing from that of the average Englishman, as does the
physique of the Southern races from that of the hardier children of
the North; and lastly, he was exulting in a new-born sense of creative
power which no doubt made the composition of the earlier volumes of
_Tristram_ a veritable labour of love.

But the witty division of literary spinners into silkworms and
spiders--those who spin because they are full, and those who do so
because they are empty--is not exhaustive. There are human silk-worms
who become gradually transformed into spiders--men who begin writing
in order to unburden a full imagination, and who, long after that
process has been completely performed, continue writing in order to
fill an empty belly; and though Sterne did not live long enough to
"write himself out," there are certain indications that he would
not have left off writing if and when he felt that this stage of
exhaustion had arrived. His artistic impulses were curiously combined
with a distinct admixture of the "potboiler" spirit; and it was with
something of the complacency of an annuitant that he looked forward to
giving the public a couple of volumes of _Tristram Shandy_ every year
as long as they would stand it. In these early days, however, there
was no necessity even to discuss the probable period either of the
writer's inspiration or of the reader's appetite. At present the
public were as eager to consume more Shandyism as Sterne was ready to
produce it: the demand was as active as the supply was easy. By the
end of the year Vols. III. and IV. were in the press, and on January
27, 1761, they made their appearance. They had been disposed of in
advance to Dodsley for 380_l._--no bad terms of remuneration in
those days; but it is still likely enough that the publisher made
a profitable bargain. The new volumes sold freely, and the public
laughed at them as heartily as their two predecessors. Their author's
vogue in London, whither he went in December, 1760, to superintend
publication, was as great during the next spring as it had been in
the last. The tide of visitors again set in all its former force and
volume towards the "genteel lodgings." His dinner list was once more
full, and he was feasted and flattered by wits, beaux, courtiers,
politicians, and titled-lady lion-hunters as sedulously as ever. His
letters, especially those to his friends the Crofts, of Stillington,
abound, as before, in touches of the same amusing vanity. With how
delicious a sense of self-importance must he have written these words:
"You made me and my friends very merry with the accounts current at
York of my being forbad the Court, but they do not consider what a
considerable person they make of me when they suppose either my going
or not going there is a point that ever enters the K.'s head; and
for those about him, I have the honour either to stand so personally
well-known to them, or to be so well represented by those of the first
rank, as to fear no accident of the kind." Amusing, too, is it to note
the familiarity, as of an old _habitue_ of Ministerial antechambers,
with which this country parson discusses the political changes of
that interesting year; though scarcely more amusing, perhaps, than the
solemnity with which his daughter disguises the identity of the new
Premier under the title B----e; and by a similar use of initials
attempts to conceal the momentous state secret that the D. of R. had
been removed from the place of Groom of the Chambers, and that Sir
F.D. had succeeded T. as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Occasionally,
however, the interest of his letters changes from personal to public,
and we get a glimpse of scenes and personages that have become
historical. He was present in the House of Commons at the first grand
debate on the German war after the Great Commoner's retirement from
office--"the pitched battle," as Sterne calls it, "wherein Mr. P.
was to have entered and thrown down the gauntlet" in defence of his
military policy. Thus he describes it:

"There never was so full a House--the gallery full to the top--I
was there all the day; when lo! a political fit of the gout seized the
great combatant--he entered not the lists. Beckford got up and
begged the House, as he saw not his right honourable friend there,
to put off the debate--it could not be done: so Beckford rose up
and made a most long, passionate, incoherent speech in defence of
the German war, but very severe upon the unfrugal manner it was
carried on, in which he addressed himself principally to the C[hancellor]
of the E[xchequer], and laid on him terribly.... Legge
answered Beckford very rationally and coolly. Lord K. spoke long.
Sir F. D[ashwood] maintained the German war was most pernicious....
Lord B[arrington] at last got up and spoke half an hour
with great plainness and temper, explained many hidden things relating
to these accounts in favour of the late K., and told two or
three conversations which had passed between the K. and himself
relative to these expenses, which cast great honour upon the K.'s
character. This was with regard to the money the K. had secretly
furnished out of his own pocket to lessen the account of the
Hanover-score brought us to discharge. Beckford and Barrington
abused all who fought for peace and joined in the cry for it,
and Beckford added that the reasons of wishing a peace now were
the same as at the Peace of Utrecht--that the people behind the
curtain could not both maintain the war and their places too, so
were for making another sacrifice of the nation to their own interests.
After all, the cry for a peace is so general that it will certainly
end in one."

And then the letter, recurring to personal matters towards the close,
records the success of Vols. III. and IV.:

"One half of the town abuse my book as bitterly as the other half cry
it up to the skies--the best is they abuse and buy it, and at such a
rate that we are going on with a second edition as fast as possible."
This was written only in the first week of March, so that the edition
must have been exhausted in little more than a month. It was, indeed,
another triumph; and all through this spring up to midsummer did
Sterne remain in London to enjoy it. But, with three distinct flocks
awaiting a renewal of his pastoral ministrations in Yorkshire, it
would scarcely have done for him, even in those easy-going days of
the Establishment, to take up his permanent abode at the capital; and
early in July he returned to Coxwold.

From the middle of this year, 1761, the scene begins to darken, and
from the beginning of the next year onward Sterne's life was little
better than a truceless struggle with the disease to which he was
destined, prematurely, to succumb. The wretched constitution which,
in common with his short-lived brothers and sisters, he had inherited
probably from his father, already began to show signs of breaking
up. Invalid from the first, it had doubtless been weakened by the
hardships of Sterne's early years, and yet further, perhaps, by the
excitements and dissipations of his London life; nor was the change
from the gaieties of the capital to hard literary labour in a country
parsonage calculated to benefit him as much as it might others. Shandy
Hall, as he christened his pretty parsonage at Coxwold, and as the
house, still standing, is called to this day, soon became irksome
to him. The very reaction begotten of unwonted quietude acted on his
temperament with a dispiriting rather than a soothing effect. The
change from his full and stimulating life in London to the dull
round of clerical duties in a Yorkshire village might well have been
depressing to a mind better balanced and ballasted than his. To him,
with his light, pleasure-loving nature, it was as the return of the
schoolboy from pantomimes and pony-riding to the more sober delights
of Dr. Swishtail's; and, in a letter to Hall Stevenson, Sterne reveals
his feelings with all the juvenile frankness of one of the Doctor's

"I rejoice you are in London--rest you there in peace; here 'tis the
devil. You were a good prophet. I wish myself back again, as you
told me I should, but not because a thin, death-doing, pestiferous
north-east wind blows in a line directly from Crazy Castle turret
fresh upon me in this cuckoldly retreat (for I value the north-east
wind and all its powers not a straw), but the transition from rapid
motion to absolute rest was too violent. I should have walked about
the streets of York ten days, as a proper medium to have passed
through before I entered upon my rest; I stayed but a moment, and
I have been here but a few, to satisfy me. I have not managed my
miseries like a wise man, and if God for my consolation had not
poured forth the spirit of Shandyism unto me, which will not suffer
me to think two moments upon any grave subject, I would else just
now lay down and die."

It is true he adds, in the next sentence, that in half an hour's time
"I'll lay a guinea I shall be as merry as a monkey, and forget it
all," but such sudden revulsions of high spirits can hardly be allowed
to count for much against the prevailing tone of discontented _ennui_
which pervades this letter.

Apart, moreover, from Sterne's regrets of London, his country home
was becoming from other causes a less pleasant place of abode. His
relations with his wife were getting less and less cordial every year.
With a perversity sometimes noticeable in the wives of distinguished
men, Mrs. Sterne had failed to accept with enthusiasm the _role_
of distant and humbly admiring spectator of her brilliant husband's
triumphs. Accept it, of course, she did, being unable, indeed, to help
herself; but it is clear that when Sterne returned home after one of
his six months' revels in the gaieties of London, his wife, who had
been vegetating the while in the retirement of Yorkshire, was not in
the habit of welcoming him with effusion. Perceiving so clearly that
her husband preferred the world's society to hers, she naturally,
perhaps, refused to disguise her preference of her own society to his.
Their estrangement, in short, had grown apace, and had already
brought them to that stage of mutual indifference which is at once so
comfortable and so hopeless--secure alike against the risk of "scenes"
and the hope of reconciliation, shut fast in its exemption from
_amantium irae_ against all possibility of _redintegratio amoris._
To such perfection, indeed, had the feeling been cultivated on both
sides, that Sterne, in the letter above quoted, can write of his
conjugal relations in this philosophic strain:

"As to matrimony I should be a beast to rail at it, for my wife is
easy, but the world is not, and had I stayed from her a second longer
it would have been a burning shame--else she declares herself
happier without me. But not in anger is this declaration made (the
most fatal point, of course, about it), but in pure, sober, good sense,
built on sound experience. She hopes you will be able to strike a
bargain for me before this twelvemonth to lead a bear round Europe,
and from this hope from you I verily believe it is that you are
so high in her favour at present. She swears you are a fellow of wit,
though humorous;[2] a funny, jolly soul, though somewhat splenetic,
and (hating the love of women) as honest as gold. How do you
like the simile?"

There is, perhaps, a touch of affected cynicism in the suggestion that
Mrs. Sterne's liking for one of her husband's friends was wholly based
upon the expectation that he would rid her of her husband; but mutual
indifference must, it is clear, have reached a pretty advanced stage
before such a remark could, even half in jest, be possible. And with
one more longing, lingering look at the scenes which he had quitted
for a lot like that of the Duke of Buckingham's dog, upon whom his
master pronounced the maledictory wish that "he were married and lived
in the country," this characteristic letter concludes:

"Oh, Lord! now are you going to Ranelagh to-night, and I am sitting
sorrowful as the prophet was when the voice cried out to him
and said, 'What do'st thou here, Elijah?' 'Tis well that the spirit
does not make the same at Coxwold, for unless for the few sheep
left me to take care of in the wilderness, I might as well, nay, better,
be at Mecca. When we find we can, by a shifting of places, run
away from ourselves, what think you of a jaunt there before we
finally pay a visit to the Vale of Jehoshaphat? As ill a fame as we
have, I trust I shall one day or other see you face to face, so tell the
two colonels if they love good company to live righteously and soberly,
_as you do_, and then they will have no doubts or dangers within
or without them. Present my best and warmest wishes to them,
and advise the eldest to prop up his spirits, and get a rich dowager
before the conclusion of the peace. Why will not the advice suit
both, _par nobile fratrum?_"

[Footnote 1: It is curious to note, as a point in the chronology of
language, how exclusive is Sterne's employment of the words "humour,"
"humourists," in their older sense of "whimsicality," "an eccentric."
The later change in its meaning gives to the word "though" in the
above passage an almost comic effect.]

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