He was not made for a parson; he was the son of a soldier, and was dragged from post to post for ten years; then and afterward he picked up enough military lore to make Uncle Toby talk like an old general about sieges and forts. His mother he later described as “the daughter of … a poor sutter [peddler] who followed the camp in Flanders.”3 However, his great-grandfather had been archbishop of York, and the Sterne family managed to get Laurence to Cambridge on a scholarship. He took his degree there in 1737, but a lung hemorrhage in 1736 foretold a lifelong struggle with tuberculosis. Ordained an Anglican priest (1738), he was given a modest vicarage at Sutton-in-the-Forest, near York. In 1741 he married Elizabeth Lumley, and took her to live with him in his tattered rectory. She entrusted to him her forty pounds a year; he invested some of it in land, and it grew.
Otherwise they were miserable. Both were consumptives, and both were made of nerves. Mrs. Sterne soon concluded that “the largest house in England could not contain them both, on account of their turmoils and disputes.”4 Her cousin, “bluestocking” Elizabeth Montagu, described her as a fretful porcupine, “with whom one could avoid a quarrel only by keeping at a distance.”5 Two children came; one died, the other, Lydia, became conspicuously attached to her mother. Unhappiness increased when Sterne’s mother and sister, who had been living in poverty in Ireland, came to York and appealed to him to settle eight pounds a year upon them out of his wife’s income. The idea aroused no enthusiasm. Sterne gave his mother some money and begged her to go back to Ireland. She remained in York. When she was arrested for vagrancy Sterne refused to bail her out.
After eighteen years of arduous marriage the vicar felt that any really Christian soul would allow him a little adultery. He fell in love with Catherine Fourmantelle, and swore, “I love you to distraction, and will love you to eternity.”6 His wife accused him of infidelity; he denied it; she came so close to insanity that he put her and Lydia in care of “a lunatic doctor,” and continued the liaison.
Amid the tumult he wrote one of the most famous books in English literature. His friends, having read some of the manuscript, begged him to eliminate “gross allusions which could be matter of just offense, especially when coming from a clergyman.” Sorrowfully he deleted some 150 pages. The remainder he sent to the press anonymously; it was published in January, 1760, as The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. Enough scandal and whimsical humor remained in the two volumes to make them the literary event of the London year. Far off in Ferney the furor echoed: “A very unaccountable book,” Voltaire reported, “and an original one; they run mad about it in England.”7 Hume called it “the best book that has been writ by any Englishman these thirty years, bad as it is.”8 At York, where Sterne’s authorship was an open secret and many local figures were recognized in the leading characters, two hundred copies were sold in two days.
It is hard to describe the book, for it has no form or subject, no head or tail. The title is a trick, for the “Gent.” who tells the story, and whose “life and opinions” were to be presented, does not get born until page 209 of Volume IV (of the original nine-volume edition). The substance of the tale is what happened, or was said, while he was being conceived, and while he was growing leisurely in the womb. The first page is the best:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind, … might take their turn from the humors and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world.
“Pray, my Dear,” quoth my mother, “have you not forgot to wind up the clock?”—“Good G—!” cried my father, … “Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?”
From that contretemps onward the book consists of digressions. Sterne had no tale to tell, much less that tale of love which is the burden of most fiction; he wished to amuse himself and the reader with whimsical discourse on everything, but in no order; he galloped around the big and little problems of life like a frisky horse in a field. After writing sixty-four chapters he bethought himself that he had given his book no preface; he inserted one at that point; this allowed him to make fun of his critics. He called his method “the most religious, for I begin with writing the first sentence, and trusting to Almighty God for the second,”9 and to free association for the rest. Rabelais had done something of the sort; Cervantes had allowed Rosi-nante to lead him from episode to episode; Robert Burton had roamed the world before anatomizing melancholy. But Sterne raised inconsequence to a method, and freed all novelists from the need to have a subject or a plot.
The leisure classes of Britain were delighted to see how much ado could be made about nothing, and how a book could be written in Anglo-Saxon English in the age of Johnson. Lusty Britons welcomed the jolly novelty of a clergyman talking about sex and flatulence, and the slit in Uncle Toby’s pants. In March, 1760, Sterne went down to London to sip his success; he was happy to find the two volumes sold out; he took £ 630 for them and two to come. Even the Sermons of Mr. Yorick, published four months afterTristram, found ready sale when it was known that Yorick was Sterne. Invitations came to the author from Chesterfield, Reynolds, Rockingham, even Bishop Warburton, who surprised him with fifty guineas, perhaps to escape adorning some satiric page in future volumes. Sterne bought a carriage and team, and drove in merry triumph back to York, where he preached in the great minster. He was presented to a richer parsonage at Coxwold, fifteen miles from York; he took his wife and daughter to live with him there; and there, with inconsequential facility, he wrote Volumes III-IV of Tristram.
In December of that year 1760 he went to London to see these volumes through the press. They were adversely reviewed, but the edition was sold out in four months. Now Tristram reached birth by forceps, which deformed his nose; whereupon the author sailed forth on a long discourse on the philosophy of noses, in the style of the most learned pundits. The shape of a child’s nose, said one authority, was determined by the softness or hardness of the nursing breast: “by sinking into it, … as into so much butter, the nose was comforted, nourished, plumped up, refreshed, refocillated.”10
After half a year in London Sterne returned to his wife, who told him she had been happier without him. He withdrew into his manuscript, and wrote Volumes V-VI; in these Tristram was almost forgotten, and Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim, with their war memories and toy forts, occupied the stage. In November, 1761, the parson went off again to London, and on the last day of the year he saw V-VI published. They were well received. He flirted with Mrs. Elizabeth Vesey, one of the “bluestockings”; vowed he would give the last rag of his priesthood for a touch of her divine hand;11 had a lung hemorrhage, and fled to the south of France. He stopped long enough in Paris to attend some dinners at d’Holbach’s “synagogue of atheists,” where Diderot took a lasting fancy to him. Hearing that his wife was ill, and that Lydia was developing asthma, Sterne invited them to join him in France. All three settled down near Toulouse (July, 1762).
In March, 1764, he left his wife and daughter, with their consent, and returned to Paris, London, and Coxwold. He wrote Volumes VII-VIII of Tristram, received advance payment for them, and sent part of the proceeds to Mrs. Sterne. The new volumes appeared in January, 1765, to waning acclaim; the Shandy-Toby vein was running thin. In October Sterne began a tour of eight months in France and Italy. On his way north he joined his family in Burgundy; they asked to remain in France; he paid their expenses and returned to Coxwold (July, 1766). Between hemorrhages he wrote Volume IX. He went to London to see it born (January, 1767), and enjoyed the furor caused by his skirting the brink of sex in describing Uncle Toby’s wooing of Mrs. Wadman. Scandalized readers wrote to newspapers and the Archbishop of York, demanding that this shameless parson be unfrocked and evicted; the prelate refused. Sterne meanwhile collected subscriptions, totaling £ 1,050, for a promised Sentimental Journey. He sent more money to his wife, and made love to Elizabeth Draper.
She was the wife of an East India Company official then (March, 1767) stationed in India. She had married him at fourteen, when he was thirty-four. Sterne sent her his books, and proposed to follow them with his hand and his heart. For a while they saw each other daily, and exchanged tender missives. The ten “Letters to Eliza” voice the last sad passion of a man dying of tuberculosis. “ ’Tis true, I am ninety-five in constitution, and you but twenty-five; … but what I want in youth I will make up in wit and good humor. Not Swift so loved his Stella, Scarron’ his Maintenon, or Waller his Sacharissa, as I will love and sing thee, my wife elect!”—for “my wife cannot live long.”12 Ten minutes after dispatching this letter he had a severe hemorrhage, and he bled till four in the morning. In April, 1767, Mrs. Draper, summoned by her husband, sailed for India. From April 13 to August 4 Sterne kept a “Journal to Eliza,” a “diary of the miserable feelings of a person separated from a Lady for whose society he languished.” “I will take thee on any terms, Eliza! I shall be … so just, so kind to thee, I will deserve not to be miserable hereafter.”13 In the journal under April 21: “Parted with twelve ounces of blood.” A doctor told him he had syphilis; he protested it was “impossible, … for I have had no commerce whatever with the sex—not even with my wife, … these fifteen years.” “We will not reason about it,” said the physician, “but you must undergo a course of mercury.”14 Other doctors confirmed the diagnosis; one assured him that “taints of the blood laid dormant twenty years.” He yielded, protesting his virtue.
By June he had recovered, and returned to Coxwold. While writing A Sentimental Journey he suffered more hemorrhages, and realized that he had not long to live. He went to London, saw the little book published (February, 1768), and for the last time enjoyed the undiminished affection of his friends. As Tristram had recalled Rabelais, so the new volume reflected the rising influence of Richardson and Rousseau. But Sterne’s virtue was less irrefragable than Richardson’s, and his tears less hot and sincere than Rousseau’s. Perhaps it was this book, and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), that made sentiment and sentimental fashionable words in England. Byron thought that Sterne “preferred whining over a dead ass to relieving a living mother.”15
While Sterne was enjoying his final triumph in London he caught a cold, which grew into pleurisy. He wrote to a Mrs. James a pitiful letter asking her to care for Lydia if Mrs. Sterne should die. Death came to him on March 18, 1768, in an inn on Old Bond Street, with no friends near. He was fifty-two years old. He had a bit of the mountebank in him, and made himself “a motley to the view”; but we can understand his sensitivity to women, and the strain that an unhappy marriage placed upon a man capable of such subtle perceptions and delicate artistry. He suffered much, gave much, and wrote one of the most peculiar books in all the history of literature.