At Sterne’s Funeral

Adam Smyth

We gathered last Thursday at 23-25 Brook Street – where Handel lived from 1723 to 1759, and composed the Messiah, and where Hendrix lived in 1968-69, when Electric Ladyland came out – for funeral biscuits with caraway seeds, and schooners of sherry, before the four-minute walk through a cold Mayfair evening to St George’s Church, Hanover Square.

‘How to start?’ said Patrick Wildgust, the curator of Shandy Hall, his jacket sleeves rolled up as he leaned forward on the lectern. St George’s is large, full of vertical space that makes words resonate. ‘In which direction should we proceed?’ William Kent’s 1724 Last Supper hung behind him. This wasn’t a re-enactment of Laurence Sterne’s 1768 funeral, Wildgust said, but a collection of fragments: ‘a scattered tribute’.

The church was full of people occupying a role somewhere between audience and cortège. Fans of the black page, the marbled page, the typographical wit, the missing chapter, the eloquent em dash, the sentimentality, the satire of sentimentality, of Corporal Trim, Dr Slop, Parson Yorick, Widow Wadman, of the life story that loses pace with the life (‘the more I write, the more I shall have to write – and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read’). ‘No writing seems to flow more exactly into the very folds and creases of the individual mind,’ Virginia Woolf wrote.

Some of the women wore black hats. The tone was wry and melancholy and affectionate. Behind us, up high, only his ducking head visible, David Owen Norris pulled the stops out for William Boyce’s ‘Organ Voluntary VI’. The Hilliard Ensemble sang ‘Time wastes too fast’ from volume 9 of Tristram Shandy.

Rev. Richard Coles was suddenly high in the pulpit to the right, puffed up in surplice and collar, reading the story of Le Fever from volume 6: the dying lieutenant and his adoring son, Billy, left an orphan. Coles smiled at Susanne Heinrich’s interspersed and melancholy viola da gamba. ‘The hand of death pressed heavy upon his eye-lids,’ Coles proclaimed, ‘when my uncle Toby, who had rose up an hour before his wonted time, entered the lieutenant’s room, and without preface or apology sat himself down upon the chair, by the bedside … and asked him how he did.’

In Tristram Shandy, the five chapters of Le Fever become one more digression in a book of deferrals (‘I am so impatient to return to my own story,’ Tristram exclaims, before telling us of Le Fever’s funeral, and of Yorick’s sermon at Le Fever’s funeral, and of the copy of Yorick’s sermon he has found, ‘rolled up … with a half sheet of dirty blue paper … which to this day smells horribly of horse drugs’), but the Critical Review of January 1762 called Le Fever’s death ‘beautifully pathetic’. It was frequently excerpted in volumes of literary and moral set pieces, such as the hugely popular 1782 Beauties of Sterne (‘Selected for the Heart of Sensibility’).

When Sterne died on Friday 18 March 1768 at 4 p.m. in his lodgings on Old Bond Street, he had a witness too. ‘I went into the room,’ wrote John Macdonald, a footman dispatched by Sterne’s friend John Crauford to check on the fading author, ‘and he was just a-dying. I waited ten minutes; but in five he said: “Now it is come.” He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.’

In the pulpit, Coles reached the end of Le Fever’s story: ‘ – the pulse flutter’d – stopp’d – went on – throbb’d – stopp’d again – mov’d – stopp’d – shall I go on? – No.’

We don’t know much about Sterne’s funeral: according to Wildgust, the account book records an expense of 16 shillings and 6 pence, which isn’t much. But A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy – two volumes, instead of the four promised to subscribers – had been published less than three weeks before Sterne’s death, and fashionable literary types might have flocked to the church. Sterne’s name was in the air. Ian Campbell Ross’s biography describes how Sterne’s body, shortly after the funeral, was interred in another graveyard belonging to St George’s, but located beyond Tyburn, with only two or three mourners.

A year later, the Public Advertiser reported that Sterne’s body had been stolen from its grave and sold for dissection at anatomy classes at Cambridge University. The great Shakespeare editor Edmond Malone remembered that he’d talked to someone ‘present at the dissection’, led by the professor of anatomy Charles Collignon, who claimed ‘he recognised Sterne’s face the moment he saw the body.’

The organ played ‘The Dead March’ from Handel’s Saul, and we filtered out into the Hanover Square night. ‘And are we not here now, continued the corporal, (striking the end of his stick perpendicularly upon the floor, so as to give an idea of health and stability) – and are we not – (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment!’


  • 5 April 2018 at 1:28am
    Penelope Sky says:
    I inherited my father's 1925 copy of Tristram Shandy, which I finally read in 1974. I was drawn by the title and the beauty of the typeface and the beautiful thick paper it's printed on. The outside pages look as though they'd been cut apart with a paper knife. I especially loved the dedication:

    "To the Right Honourable

    Mr PITT"

    I expect to jump back into this book before the year is out.