Laurence Sterne  

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"Sterne is perhaps the most blatant forebear of Barth’s brand of parody and self-consciousness about novelistic conventions. The causality of plots, the use of illustrations and footnotes, the demand for moral content, adventures, suspense, the time conventions, the writer’s power, the critic’s demands, chapter divisions, the use of prefaces, cover pages, digressions, stylistic uniformity - these are only a few of Tristram Shandy’s parodied conventions."--Narcissistic Narrative (1980) by Linda Hutcheon

"Sterne has contrived to give a ludicrous turn to those passages which he took from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book, once the favourite of the learned and the witty, and ą source of surreptitious learning to many others besides our author."--Illustrations of Sterne (1798) by John Ferriar

"The story of the dwarf at the theatre in the ‘Sentimental Journey’ is largely a translation from a chapter of Scarron's ‘Roman Comique.’"--Dictionary of National Biography

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Laurence Sterne (1713 – 1768) was an English novelist best-known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, considered an early instance of experimental literature due to conceits such as its black page. Sterne is one of the most important writers of the 18th century and a bestselling writer during his lifetime.

Notes from the Dictionary of National Biography

But the plagiarism of which Sterne has been the victim is retributive justice. Hundreds of writers of all ages and nations are quoted in ‘Tristram Shandy,’ and attest the width of Sterne's reading. ‘My dear Rabelais and dearer Cervantes’ were, with Montaigne, the authors he declared that he loved the best, and their influence is very obvious throughout ‘Tristram.’ In Shakespeare and Lucian he also avowed delight. But he did not always confess his debts to his predecessors, and his plagiarisms, although they fail to detract from the literary interest of his achievement, convict him of effrontery, if not of downright dishonesty. Many impressive phrases did he borrow direct and without acknowledgment from Burton's ‘Anatomy of Melancholy.’ Whole paragraphs in his ‘Sermons’ come from the published works of Bishop Hall and Wollaston. The story of the dwarf at the theatre in the ‘Sentimental Journey’ is largely a translation from a chapter of Scarron's ‘Roman Comique.’ Nor was the general scheme of ‘Tristram’ more original than many of its details. John Dunton's ‘A Voyage round the World, or Pocket Library divided into several volumes: the first of which contains the rare adventures of Don Kainophilus from his cradle to his fifteenth year,’ London [1720?], was beyond reasonable doubt the parent of ‘Tristram Shandy's Life and Opinions,’ with the whimsical and perverse digressions on which the author prided himself. The resemblance between Tristram's and Don Kainophilus's fortunes has been overlooked by later critics, but it led to the publication in 1762 of an adaptation of Dunton's novel under the title of ‘The Life, Travels, and Adventures of Christopher Wagstaffe, Gentleman, grandfather to Tristram Shandy, adapted by the editor’ (London, 8vo). He was clearly acquainted, too, with Arbuthnot's ‘Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus.’ Sterne told the Crofts that many of the ludicrous discussions of the brothers Shandy were due to the less brilliant conferences reported in Béroalde's ‘Moyen de Parvenir’ (1599). Others were clearly suggested by Bouchet's ‘Serées’ (Paris, 1608). Sterne's disquisition on noses was adapted from Bruscambille's ‘Pensées Facetieuses’ (1623). Copies of these three French books were in Sterne's library, and his copy of Béroalde, which bore the inscription ‘L. Sterne à Paris, viii livres,’ afterwards belonged to Heber. It is notable that his sentimental episodes owed on the whole less to his reading than his humorous episodes. But he knew thoroughly the so-called pathetic romance of ‘Le Doyen de Coleraine,’ and he assimilated some of the wearisome sentiment of Marivaux's ‘Le Paysan Parvenu’ which was popular in Mrs. Eliza Haywood's English translation (1735). Sterne's most widely known apophthegm, ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb’ (Sentimental Journey), was a Languedoc proverb which had often been in print in France (cf. John Ferriar , Illustrations of Sterne, London, 1798; Warrington, 1812, 2 vols.). Doubt is admissible whether Uncle Toby owes much (as has been suggested) to the Commodore Trunnion of Smollett's ‘Peregrine Pickle’ (cf. Anna Seward, Letters, ii. 30 Oct. 1788). Another tradition represents Uncle Toby as a portrait of one Captain Hinde of Preston Castle, Hertfordshire, a neighbour of Lord Dacre, who occasionally entertained Sterne (Macmillan's Mag. July 1873, p. 238). But after all Sterne's thefts have been admitted, it is clear that his wealth alike of humour, sensibility, and dramatic instinct enabled him to steal material from all quarters without obscuring his individuality. His style was his own. At its best it is, in Hazlitt's words, ‘the most rapid, the most happy, the most idiomatic of any that is to be found. It is the pure essence of English conversational style.’ It is seen to best advantage throughout the ‘Sentimental Journey.’ In ‘Tristram Shandy’ he at times descends into the rambling incoherence of the buffoon. But his habit of abrupt transition from one topic to another maintains the interest of patient readers. In both books his impertinent grossness occasionally causes irritation. In spite of his trick of masking his predilection for double-entendre by a free use of aposiopesis, his words are often as indecent as his thoughts.

Sterne's sermons are as a rule professional efforts on common-sense lines, and mainly interest the literary critic by the perspicuity, orderliness, and restrained eloquence of which they prove his literary style to be capable. He claimed that they were ‘dramatic’ (Tristram, ii. 231), and admitted that passages were stolen. His careless philosophy of life and his impatience of gravity led him into other incongruities which tend to profanity. The parable of the prodigal son suggests to him remarks on the advantages of foreign travel, and the desirability of confiding one's son when on the grand tour to a tutor of gentlemanly habits and worldly experience. Cardinal Newman admitted Sterne's eloquence when quoting from his sermon (xlii) on the literary value of the bible (Newman, Idea of a University, 1889, pp. 270–2).

But after full account has been taken of Sterne's numerous deflections from the paths of literary rectitude—of his indecency, his buffoonery, his mawkishness, his plagiarisms, his wanton digressiveness—he remains, as the author of ‘Tristram Shandy,’ a delineator of the comedy of human life before whom only three or four humorous writers, in any tongue or of any age, can justly claim precedence. Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, Dr. Slop, Mr. and Mrs. Shandy, Obadiah, and the Widow Wadman are of the kin—however the degrees of kinship may be estimated—of Pantagruel and Don Quixote, of Falstaff and Juliet's Nurse, of Monsieur Jourdain and Tartuffe. For the guerilla warfare that he incidentally waged in his own freakish fashion throughout the novel on the pedantries and pretences of learning he deserves many of the honours that have been paid to Pope and Swift. No modern writer has shown a more certain touch in transferring to his canvas commonplace domestic scenes which only a master's hand can invest with point or interest. It is this kind of power especially that glorifies ‘A Sentimental Journey.’ Defects due to the author's overstrained sensibility practically count for nothing against the artistic and finished beauty of the series of vignettes which Sterne, by his sureness of insight and descriptive faculty, created in ‘A Sentimental Journey’ out of the simplest and most pedestrian episodes of travel.


Sterne's early writing life was unremarkable. He wrote letters, had two ordinary sermons published (in 1747 and 1750), and tried his hand at satire. He was involved in, and wrote about, local politics in 1742. His major publication prior to Tristram Shandy was the satire A Political Romance (1759), aimed at conflicts of interest within York Minster. A posthumously published piece on the art of preaching, A Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais, appears to have been written in 1759. Sterne did not begin work on Tristram Shandy until he was 46 years old.

Sterne is best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for which he became famous not only in England, but throughout Europe. Translations of the work began to appear in all the major European languages almost upon its publication, and Sterne influenced European writers as diverse as Diderot and the German Romanticists. His work had also noticeable influence over Brazilian author Machado de Assis, who made exceptional (and outstandingly original) usage of the digressive technique in the masterful novel Epitaph for a Small Winner. Indeed, the novel, in which Sterne manipulates narrative time and voice, parodies accepted narrative form, and includes a healthy dose of "bawdy" humor, was largely dismissed in England as being too corrupt. Samuel Johnson's verdict in 1776 was that "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." This is strikingly different from the views of European critics of the day, who praised Sterne and Tristram Shandy as innovative and superior. Voltaire called it "clearly superior to Rabelais", and later Goethe praised Sterne as "the most beautiful spirit that ever lived." Both during his life and for a long time after, efforts were made by many to reclaim Sterne as an arch-sentimentalist; parts of Tristram Shandy, such as the tale of Le Fever, were excerpted and published separately to wide acclaim from the moralists of the day. The success of the novel and its serialized nature also allowed many imitators to publish pamphlets concerning the Shandean characters and other Shandean-related material even while the novel was yet unfinished.

The novel itself is difficult to describe. The story starts with the narration, by Tristram, of his own conception. It proceeds by fits and starts, but mostly by what Sterne calls "progressive digressions" so that we do not reach Tristram's birth before the third volume. The novel is rich in characters and humor, and the influences of Rabelais and Cervantes are present throughout. The novel ends after 9 volumes, published over a decade, but without anything that might be considered a traditional conclusion. Sterne inserts sermons, essays and legal documents into the pages of his novel; and he explores the limits of typography and print design by including marbled pages and, most famously, an entirely black page within the narrative. Many of the innovations that Sterne introduced, adaptations in form that should be understood as an exploration of what constitutes the novel, were highly influential to Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and more contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Italo Calvino referred to Tristram Shandy as the "undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century." The Russian Formalist writer Viktor Shklovsky regarded Tristram Shandy as the archetypal, quintessential novel, of which all other novels are mere subsets: "Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature."

However, the leading critical opinions of Tristram Shandy tend to be markedly polarised in their evaluations of its significance. Since the 1950s, following the lead of D.W. Jefferson, there are those who argue that, whatever its legacy of influence may be, Tristram Shandy in its original context actually represents a resurgence of a much older, Renaissance tradition of "Learned Wit" - owing a debt to such influences as the Scriblerian approach.

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a less influential book, although it was better received by English critics of the day. The book has many stylistic parallels with Tristram Shandy, and indeed, the narrator is one of the minor characters from the earlier novel. Although the story is more straightforward, A Sentimental Journey can be understood to be part of the same artistic project to which Tristram Shandy belongs.

Two volumes of Sterne's Sermons were published during his lifetime; more copies of his Sermons were sold in his lifetime than copies of Tristram Shandy, and for a while he was better known in some circles as a preacher than as a novelist. The sermons though are conventional in both style and substance. Several volumes of letters were published after his death, as was Journal to Eliza, a more sentimental than humorous love letter to a woman Sterne was courting during the final years of his life. Compared to many eighteenth century authors Sterne's body of work is quite small.

See also

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