Lawrence Sterne

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Sterne, Lawrence, Rev., author of Tristram Shandy, was born at Clonmel, on the 24th November 1713. His father, Roger Sterne, grandson of an Archbishop of York, was an ensign. His mother, Agnes Nuttle, a native of Clonmel, was the daughter of a sutler. They married during the campaign in Flanders. Sterne gives the following picture of his father: "My father 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 a 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." Lawrence was born shortly after their return from the Continent. "My birth-day," he continues, "was ominous to my poor father, who was, the day after our arrival, with many other brave officers, broke, and sent adrift into the world, with a wife and two children."

Much of his early life was passed in the different garrison towns. When seven years of age Mrs. Sterne and her family lived for a time with a relation at Annamoe, in the County of Wicklow. "It was in this parish," says Sterne, "during our stay, 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 for truth in all that part of Ireland, where hundreds of the common people flocked to see me." At eleven years of age he was sent to England, and put to school near Halifax, at the expense of his father's relatives. His father died in Jamaica in 1731, from the effects of a duel fought at Gibraltar a few years before. The widow, though harassed with the care of a large family, survived him twenty-seven years. Lawrence made good progress at school, and in 1733 was sent, through the bounty of a relation and namesake, to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1736, and M.A. in 1740. He is described at this period as "a thin, spare, hollow-chested youth, with joints and members but ill kept together, with curiously bright eyes, and a Voltairean mouth. About the mouth and eye there was no very special air of sanctity." His uncle (a prebendary of Durham and of York) procured for him the small living of Sutton in Yorkshire.

In 1741 he obtained a prebend, and on 30th March was married in York Minster to Elizabeth Lumley. The courtship had lasted for several years. The marriage was by no means a happy one, and the wife was often treated with the coldest neglect — Sterne perpetually falling into violent love fevers with one lady and another. Some years were now passed in attending to the duties of his cure. "I had then," he says, "very good health; books, painting, fiddling, and shooting were my amusements." He and his uncle had a quarrel shortly after his marriage, "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;" yet Sterne did go on doing this dirty work for his uncle for twenty years afterwards. A friend of Mrs. Sterne's presented him with the living of Stillington, near Sutton; and he remained nearly twenty years at Sutton doing the duty of the two places, not more than a mile and a half apart. In 1747 he published a charity sermon — Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath; in 1750 another sermon — The Abuses of Conscience. This last he subsequently introduced in the second volume of Tristram Shandy. Towards the close of 1759 appeared at York the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. Sterne had been unable to induce any London bookseller to run the risk of its publication. The work proved an immediate success, and raised him at once from obscurity to literary fame. Shortly after its appearance he repaired to London to enjoy the popular applause and other advantages in store for the author of so brilliant a work. He was offered £700 for the copyright of the first two volumes, and the expectation of two more, which he promised.

The poet Gray wrote to a friend in June 1760: "Tristram Shandy is still a greater object of admiration — the man as well as the book; one is invited to dinner, when he dines, a fortnight before. As to the volumes yet published, there is much good fun in them, and humour sometimes hit, and sometimes missed. Have you read his Sermons, with his own comick figure, from a painting by Reynolds, at the head of them? They are in a style I think most proper for the pulpit, and show a strong imagination and a sensible heart; but you see him often tottering on the verge of laughter, and ready to throw his periwig in the face of his audience." These sermons, which eventually ran to seven volumes, had a large sale, due to Sterne's reputation as the author of Tristram Shandy. "Any man who has a name, or who has the power of pleasing, will be very generally invited," observed Dr. Johnson; "the man Sterne, I have been told, has had engagements for three months... I did read them [the Sermons], but it was in a stage-coach. I should never have deigned even to look at them had I been at large." The remaining volumes of Tristram Shandy were published as follows: iii. and iv., in 1761; v. and vi., 1762; vii. and viii., 1765; ix., 1767.

Sterne received the additional preferment of the curacy of Coxwold, in Yorkshire, from his friend Lord Falconbridge; he took a house in York for his wife and his child, Lydia, spending most of his own time in London and on the Continent. He resided much at Skelton Castle, or "Crazy Castle," as he called it, the seat of his friend, Mr. Hall. In 1762, he visited France, with his wife and daughter. He returned to England alone, and in 1764 went to Italy for the benefit of his health, then much impaired. We do not find him again in England until 1767, when lie resided with his wife and daughter at York until he had written all that we have of his Sentimental Journey, which appeared in February 1768. Horace Walpole in writing to a friend, characterized this work as "very pleasing, though too much dilated, and infinitely preferable to his tiresome Tristram Shandy, of which I could never get through three volumes. In these there is great good nature and strokes of delicacy." Thackeray thus concludes a notice of the Sentimental Journey: "And with this pretty dance and chorus the volume artfully concludes. Even here one can't give the whole description. There is not a page in Sterne's writing but has something that were better away — a latent corruption — a hint as of an impure presence." Sterne was in miserable health when the Sentimental Journey appeared, and survived but a few days.

He died in a poor lodging in New Bond-street, London, in presence of a hired nurse and a footman who had been sent by a friend to enquire for him, 18th March 1768, aged 54. His last words were: "Now it is come." His remains, followed by only two mourners, were laid in the burying-ground of Hanover-square church. Disinterred and sold to the surgeons, they were a few days afterwards recognized by a friend, when too late for decent preservation, on the dissecting table in the medical school at Cambridge. A subscription of £1,000 and the proceeds of the sale of his sermons kept his widow and daughter from want. The former survived about four years. The latter married a Mr. De Medaille, and lived until the year 1790. In 1775 she published three volumes, containing letters and a short autobiography of her father. Some of the letters are of an extraordinary character to have been preserved by a wife and published by a daughter. Sterne was at times a plagiarist. He drew upon Rabelais, Burton, and other authors little read at the time. But this cannot dim the brilliancy and the originality of his genius. His "Uncle Toby," "Corporal Trim," and "Yorick" stand out as real personages, almost next to Shakspere's creations.

The English Cyclopaedia contains the following discriminating criticism: "In the mere art of writing, also, his execution, amid much apparent extravagance, is singularly careful and perfect; it will be found that every touch has been well considered, has its proper purpose and meaning, and performs its part in producing the effect; but the art of arts, the ars celare artem, never was possessed in a higher degree by any writer than by Sterne. His greatest work, out of all comparison, is undoubtedly Tristram Shandy; although, among foreigners, the Sentimental Journey seems to stand, in the highest estimation." Coleridge thus reprehends his moral laxity: "Sterne cannot be too severely censured for using the best dispositions of our nature as the panders and condiments for the basest." Sir Walter Scott dwells on his inequality of workmanship: "In the power of approaching and touching the finer feeling of the heart, he has never been excelled, if, indeed, he has ever been equalled, and may at once be recorded as one of the most affected and one of the most simple of writers — as one of the greatest plagiarists, and one of the most original geniuses whom England has produced." "If I were requested," wrote Leigh Hunt, in a somewhat similar strain, "to name the book of all others which combined wit and humour under their highest appearance of levity with the profoundest wisdom, it would be Tristram Shandy."

Thackeray was the most unsparing of Sterne's critics: "I suppose Sterne had.. artistical sensibility; he used to blubber perpetually in his study, and, finding his tears infectious, and that they brought him a great popularity, he exercised the lucrative gift of weeping, he utilized it, and cried on every occasion. I own that I don't value or respect much the cheap dribble of those fountains. He fatigues me with his perpetual disquiet and his uneasy appeals to my risible or sentimental faculties. He is always looking in my face, watching his effect, uncertain whether I think him an impostor or not — posture-making, coaxing, and imploring me. 'See what sensibility I have — own now that I'm very clever — do cry now, you can't resist this.' The humour of Swift and Rabelais, whom he pretended to succeed, poured from them as naturally as song does from a bird; they lose no manly dignity with it, but laugh their hearty great laugh out of their broad chests as nature bade them. But this man, who can make you laugh, who can make You cry, too — never lets his reader alone, or will permit his audience repose: when you are quiet, he fancies he must rouse you, and turns over head and heels, or sidles up and whispers a nasty story. The man is a great jester, not a great humourist." There are numerous references to Sterne in all the series of Notes and Queries.

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

40. Biographical Division of English Cyclopaedia, with Supplement: Charles Knight, 7 vols. London, 1856-'72.

46. Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson; with Notes and Illustrations: Edward Malone, London, 1848.

167. Humourists of the Eighteenth Century: William M. Thackeray. London, 1853.

254. Notes and Queries. London, 1850-'78.
O'Callaghan, John C., see No. 186.

317. Sterne, Lawrence, Life: Percy FitzGerald. 2 vols. London, 1864.

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