WHEN it came to writing novels, Laurence Sterne, born in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, 300 years ago this week, certainly enjoyed experimenting. Pages strewn with long dashes, asterisks and the odd hand sign; a torn out chapter; two pages completely smudged with printer’s ink; and a section playfully left blank for the reader to write their own character description.
Tradition has it that Sterne was born in a house in Mary Street, and later lived in a lane off Clonmel High Street, close to the West Gate.
His father was a British army officer, and during Sterne’s infancy the family stayed in barracks in Wicklow and Dublin. At 10 years old he was taken to stay with his uncle in Yorkshire, and was never to see his father again as Sterne Snr died in Jamaica.
Once, while at school near Halifax, he was whipped for writing his name on the schoolroom ceiling. After graduating from Cambridge, Sterne began his career as a cleric.
In 1741 he married Elizabeth Lumley, a clergyman’s daughter, who bore several children, only one of whom, Lydia, survived. They settled into the vicarage at Sutton-on-the-Forest, a “bye-corner of the kingdom”. An attempt to supplement their income from farming was disastrous — even their geese escaped.
Although an eloquent preacher, Sterne, like many Georgian clerics, neither had a sense of vocation, nor was especially diligent. One story goes that on his way to preach, his dog sniffed out a flock of partridges, and Sterne went straight home for his gun, leaving his congregation waiting.
Bored with life in the country, by 1744 he was spending his leisure in York with its assembly rooms, theatres and horseracing; or visiting ‘Crazy Castle’ (Skelton Hall) where he drank wine and told bawdy tales.
At 46, while curate of Coxwold, he suddenly turned his back on the church and became a novelist. Until then he had written very little and published even less — mainly political articles for local newspapers, and a satire on church courts.
With the publication of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760), a novel that “ridiculed what needed ridiculing”, he emerged as a European cult figure.
His publisher had been sceptical about taking on such a “cock and bull story”, with its quirky arrangement, whimsical digressions, and peculiar content, which included a chapter on the length of noses.
Sterne printed the first 500 copies at his own expense to test the market in York. Readers laughed at war-game obsessed Uncle Toby, the circumcising sash- window accident, and the tale of the hot chestnut down the vicar’s breeches. When the book was reprinted in London it sold out, and its author revelled in his instant fame.
Leaving ‘sweet’ Coxwold for the capital, Sterne delighted dinner guests with his naughty quips and was hailed as ‘Parson Yorick’ from his book. He had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and mixed in exalted company.
Although he hoped to be remembered as the new Swift, in the literary world his reception was mixed. Thomas Carlyle called Sterne “our finest, specimen of humour”. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have paid homage to Sterne’s influence on the development of the modern novel. But many vilified him as “smutty Sterne”, who wrote filth for filth’s sake. Samuel Richardson bitterly referred to his “uncommon indecencies”; Dr Johnson felt Sterne’s “licentious and dissolute” conversation was a disgrace to the cloth.
Critics also attacked his personal life. Byron called him a dog for neglecting his mother who lived in poverty in Ireland. Others berated his visits to York prostitutes, and his string of mistresses – from Kitty Fourmantelle, the glamorous singer, to Eliza Draper, young wife of an East India Company official. The discovery of him in bed with a servant wrecked his marriage and led to his wife’s nervous breakdown.
Sterne himself had long been a sick man, suffering from syphilis and TB, and his convalescent trips abroad provided him with valuable material for A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768).
A few weeks after its publication, alone in his London lodgings, Sterne died of pleurisy. Deeply in debt, he was buried in a pauper’s grave in St George’s churchyard at Hanover Square. Shortly afterwards, body snatchers are said to have collected his corpse which ended up on a dissecting table at Cambridge University, where it was recognised by a student, and speedily returned.
In 1969 scholars took Sterne’s bones to Coxwold, the quiet Yorkshire village he had been so anxious to leave for the excitement of London. The irony of this final journey would no doubt have amused him greatly.
* Clonmel Library is currently celebrating Sterne’s birth with an exhibition. More info about Sterne at laurencesternetrust.org.uk
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