- Laurence Sterne: A Life by Ian Campbell Ross
Oxford, 512 pp, £25.00, March 2001, ISBN 0 19 212235 5
‘Tristram is the fashion,’ Laurence Sterne boasted, having just arrived in London in 1760 to taste the success of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. His glee seems understandable. This obscure Yorkshire clergyman, known as a wit only to a small circle of eccentric friends, had reached his mid-forties without achieving any kind of fame or affluence. He was unhappily married, bored with parish duties and ill-equipped to climb the ecclesiastical greasy pole, but his talents were finally being recognised. He had borrowed a large sum of money to print the first edition at his own cost, and now his peculiar confidence in the work’s commercial potential was being vindicated. Unknown readers – ‘the world’ – appreciated him. Yet authors in his age were not supposed to display this sort of delight. Openly to enjoy commercial success was bad enough; openly to relish the bubbly business of public enthusiasm was audacious, even scandalous. Fashion was flagrantly not merit. Writers, if they were to be thought of as better than hired hands, were characters who cultivated some kind of superiority to fashion, publicity, even print itself. Sterne affected no such loftiness.
Ian Campbell Ross’s new biography provides an introductory cameo of Sterne’s triumph of self-marketing. He made himself available to his admirers, the measure and embodiment of his fictional imagination. After a week he was writing home to say he was ‘engaged allready to ten Noble men & men of fashion to dine’. He loved performing in the drawing rooms of the beau monde, but also simply parading himself around town. ‘Within a matter of days,’ Ross writes, ‘he had become the man of his book.’ The 20-year-old James Boswell was inspired to verses in which the success of Tristram Shandy was conflated with the novelist’s own éclat. He pictured the author who was also his own character, enjoying his celebrity as he made his appearance in London’s most fashionable pleasure garden.
In Ranelagh’s delightfull round
Squire Tristram oft is flaunting found
A buzzing whisper flys about,
Where’er he comes they point him out;
Each Waiter with an eager eye
Observes him as he passes by:
That there he is, do, Thomas! Look
Who’s wrote such a damn’d clever Book.
‘I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous,’ Sterne later said, famously, in a letter probably designed for future publication. By fame he did not mean immortality, such as Pope might have contemplated. He meant the giddy success of the season, the pleasure of the passing day. In the 18th century, Sterne’s was a mischievously candid ‘confession’. He wrote not for the reasons usually put forward by writers: to entertain one or two private friends, to mend the nation’s morals, to touch the heart of sensibility (though he would later find it convenient to claim all these). Shamelessly, he wrote for and relished celebrity.
For anyone used to the varieties of authorial posturing common in the 18th century and earlier, it comes as a kind of relief to read contemporary accounts of Sterne’s fame, including those deliriously provided in his own surviving letters. Sterne was hardly the first vain author, but he was perhaps the first major English writer who declined to play the old games of gentlemanly reticence or high-minded modesty. At last, we see an author who does not pretend to be above the market, who unreservedly enjoys popularity. At last, someone who does not regret that all sorts of people read his books, or that they pay money for them, or that they like the thrill of rubbing shoulders with their author. Were the sales of Tristram Shandy not evidence that he and his metropolitan readership deserved each other? How this hawker of his own work would have loved a Bragg interview or a guest appearance at Hay-on-Wye.
For the last eight or nine years of his life, from the fevered writing of Volumes I and II of Tristram Shandy in 1759 to his death on another London visit early in 1768, Sterne’s writing kept up with his life. A biography is a special kind of guide to Tristram Shandy because the novel was composed in instalments over these years, new parts being written as Sterne found the time or needed the money. The readers of its first volume had been told by Sterne’s alter ego Tristram that, provided he could make ‘a tolerable bargain with my bookseller’, he was resolved ‘to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year’. In later volumes, even the irregularity with which new parts were produced was made part of the novel’s texture.
In particular, Sterne’s declining health was allowed to shape the narrative, as when he returned to that promise of two volumes per year at the opening of Volume VII (published more than three years after Volume VI). ‘No--I think, I said, I would write two volumes every year, provided the vile cough which then tormented me, and which to this hour I dread worse than the devil, would but give me leave.’ He had experienced the first symptoms of tubercular illness as an undergraduate at Cambridge, waking one morning in a bed full of blood. Now the symptoms returned – ‘DEATH himself knocked at my door’ – and the novelist’s trip to Southern France for his health (the main reason for the long gap between Volumes VI and VII) became part of his novel. ‘Allons! Said I; the post boy gave a crack with his whip--off I went like a cannon, and in half a dozen bounds got into Dover.’ Writing was life itself, realised in the speed of narration. ‘Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen.’ Sterne’s punctuation – those stretched dashes showing the narrator changing his mind, pausing for pathos or innuendo, or reaching for the next surprise – renders this liveliness. Richardson called his epistolary method ‘writing to the moment’; Sterne’s was a comparable dedication of the novel’s resources to life’s momentariness.
Though he seems consciously to have brought Tristram Shandy to an end after Volume IX (its fifth instalment), this was characteristically so he could embark on A Sentimental Journey, itself unfinished. In essence, Tristram Shandy was designed to be endless. Or rather, it was to be full of temporary endings – pauses, hesitations, interruptions – but without finality. Its nearest equivalent, in this respect, is Byron’s Don Juan, another triumph of digressiveness. ‘I meant it for a poetical Tristram Shandy,’ Byron said of his great comic poem, thinking of how it might be fitted around, and make material of, his life. Tristram Shandy was something entirely different from the instalment fiction of the 19th century, or indeed the great instalment novel of the 18th century, Richardson’s Clarissa. In all these, the ending was encoded in the beginning, even if the novelist had not yet worked out the details. Sterne had devised a novel that could keep feeding its readers with promises of future explanations and anecdotes, but that could be extended or halted as he wished.
Sterne’s years of notoriety themselves became the material of his ongoing fiction which, seen biographically, appears all the more mischievous. The novel’s own critical fortunes also became part of its subject matter. It is typical that, from the beginning, Tristram should cheerfully inform his readers that his creative impulses were determined by the deal he could fix with his bookseller. Commerce and invention were happily allied. Sterne also wrote in the first age of book reviews and composed with the reviewers in mind. In his novel’s opening instalment, he provokingly imagined ‘all the gentleman reviewers’ sitting in solemn judgment on him. In the second instalment he was already absorbing their criticism of the first. ‘-You Messrs. The monthly Reviewers!--how could you cut and slash my jerkin as you did?’ Yet should some reviewer, next month, ‘gnash his teeth, and storm and rage at me, as some of you did last MAY, (in which I remember the weather was very hot)’, the heated critic should not be exasperated at being treated with ‘good temper’. Like the fly that buzzed around Uncle Toby’s nose all through dinner, he would be allowed to buzz off unharmed.
Later, contemplating the much-heralded, still forthcoming ‘amours’ of Uncle Toby, Sterne lets Tristram delight in the antagonism of reviewers: ‘the thing I hope is, that your worships and your reverences are not offended-if you are, depend upon’t, I’ll give you something, my good gentry, next year, to be offended at.’ Here is a book in process, a book being read (often by the self-serious or dimwitted) as well as being written. The understanding, tolerant, witty reader in whom the narrator confides is a rare beast in a world of pious, dogmatic critics, amateur or professional. But then this reader is also, of course, any one of us. Volume VIII of Tristram Shandy (the fourth instalment) dares to reflect ruefully on the poor sales of the third instalment – ‘ten cart-loads of thy fifth and sixth volumes still-still unsold, and art almost at thy wit’s end how to get them off thy hands’. The reader who was still with Sterne at this stage had passed tests that duller spirits had failed. Mischief had its penalties. Tutored by the reactions to one instalment, Sterne would sin further in the next. He clearly thought that all controversy was good controversy; ‘’Tis enough if I divide the world,’ he told his apprehensive Yorkshire friend Stephen Croft.
This interweaving of life and fiction during Sterne’s last years is a godsend to the literary biographer. Yet there remains a big problem: what to do with all those years of obscurity. Ross’s major predecessor as a Sterne biographer, Arthur Cash, coped with the difficulty by writing, in effect, two books. The first volume, Laurence Sterne: The Early and Middle Years, was published in 1975 and left Sterne in 1760, on the road from York to London, hurrying to embrace his literary destiny. We had to wait 11 years for Laurence Sterne: The Later Years. In the interim, scholarship altered Sterne, and Cash himself seemed to change his mind about what kind of writer his subject was. This made it all the clearer that the two volumes were, in effect, two separate undertakings. The first, carefully researched and often rather good on the sharp practices of ecclesiastical politics in the diocese of York, remained to be read only by academic specialists.
Ross’s narrative is not so divided, and makes sense of – and makes us interested in – Sterne’s life before Tristram in a way that does unify his book. Sterne knew from early on what it was to have ambition and a sense of gentility, without the certainty of being able to do them justice. Ross’s biography takes this as its leading theme. It gives us a historical study of what was, until Sterne’s last years, an ‘ordinary’ life – an account of an impecunious, admittedly idiosyncratic, member of the middling classes as he tried to make his way in the world. We know this particular story because Sterne became famous, but the tale of his career disappointments and his shabby gentility was not unusual. Its telling is the best part of Ross’s book, a less detailed biography than Cash’s, but also a more elegant and shapely one. All the jokes about patronage and the mock-dedications in Tristram Shandy, as well as the earnest attempts to win the favour of the high and the mighty, seem the more pointed when we know of Sterne’s years seeking preferment and advantage from patrons. His success was not a triumph of social mobility like Richardson’s, but it must have seemed the belated fulfilment of abilities that society had long thwarted. No wonder Sterne was not embarrassed to turn himself into ‘one of the leading literary entrepreneurs of his day’. The powers that be had not rewarded his talents, so let fashion and the literary marketplace do so.
His father’s adult life, too, had been a hunt for preferment. Roger Sterne, an army ensign, failed to achieve promotion until a few months before his death. After dragging his family around Ireland with his regiment, he sent the ten-year-old Laurence to be looked after by his brother’s family near Halifax. He died of malaria eight years later on active service in Jamaica, without ever seeing his son again. Thirty-five years later, Sterne scribbled for his daughter Lydia a brief memoir which included a sharp, affectionate recollection of his misfortunate father. He was ‘a little Smart Man-active to the last Degree in all Exercises-most patient of Fatigue and Disappointmts of wch it pleased God to give him full Measure’. Soldiers invariably get a good press in Sterne’s fiction, usually being shown as stoical and generous. Ross suggests that Sterne’s affectionate portraits of soldiers were both tributes to a loved father and deeply felt sketches of social and financial precariousness.
Sterne’s rich Uncle Richard, with whom he had boarded, had given him a sight of privilege without its possession. His uncle’s son, also Richard, befriended his impecunious cousin and helped fund him through his time at Jesus College, Cambridge. His great-grandfather, eventually Archbishop of York, had been master of the college and had left money to fund scholarships for deserving undergraduates of limited means. One of these duly went to his great-grandson. Sterne had reason to think that he was better than his circumstances had made him. After Cambridge, he did what many intelligent young men without money would do, and became a clergyman, eased into modest preferment by influential relatives. Another uncle, Jaques Sterne, an affluent and worldly churchman, with whom he would later quarrel, was a considerable help in the early years. But there was a quid pro quo. Archdeacon Jaques Sterne, right-hand man to the enthusiastically Whig Archbishop of York, was always involved in some political campaign or feud and expected Sterne to repay favours with his pen. Since Cash’s account of Sterne’s early life, much about Sterne’s activities as a controversialist has been uncovered, mostly thanks to Kenneth Monkman. Here is new material to be digested into a biographical account, though perhaps only the enthusiast will read the small print of Sterne’s journalistic input to the York Courant and his squabbles with local would-be power-brokers.
Sterne later said that he ‘detested such dirty work: thinking it beneath me’. No doubt it was also beneath Defoe, Fielding and Smollett, the other great 18th-century novelists who made their progress through the dirty ways of political journalism. For how else might an amateur with a talent for prose, especially if he had a satirical itch, employ himself? It is tough work for Ross, and sometimes the reader, to animate the ecclesiastical politics that sent Sterne back to his writing desk to produce A Political Romance in 1759. Perhaps Trollope could have done something with the bemusingly detailed story of animosities among senior York clergymen that prompted Sterne’s occasional satire, and then resulted in all known copies of it being burned by order of the Archbishop. It matters only because it clearly set Sterne to thinking about the ways of satire, and it was as a satire (rather than as a ‘novel’) that Tristram Shandy began.
Meanwhile, as the vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, some eight miles from York, Sterne was performing his duties, as far as Ross can tell, kindly but not conscientiously, trying his luck at farming and achieving some local celebrity for that peculiar 18th-century performance art: the giving of sermons. A former servant later remembered that ‘he never preached at Sutton but the congregation were in tears.’ When he had become a celebrity, men as notoriously irreligious as John Wilkes and David Hume attended church services to hear him preach. ‘Tristram pleads his cause well, tho’ he does not believe one word of it,’ Wilkes noted with satisfaction. Reading his sermons, Thomas Gray thought that they showed ‘a sensible heart’, but that you could see Sterne ‘often tottering on the verge of laughter, & ready to throw his periwig in the face of his audience’.
Sterne was ever a provider of pathos, though any reader of A Sentimental Journey will know the self-mockery with which he liked to leaven it. Before Tristram Shandy came along, preaching was Sterne’s main way to extra cash. Soon he was being invited to perform ‘substitute turns’ from the pulpit in York Minster at a pound a go. As Ross points out (with the help of Melvyn New’s Florida edition of the Sermons) Sterne’s homilies were typical of their age in being highly derivative. In printed versions, only their characteristic punctuation – those long Shandean dashes – remain to hint at what must have been the preacher’s histrionic pauses and transitions. He caused a stir by publishing his first volume of sermons under the pseudonym ‘Mr Yorick’, the name of the local vicar in Tristram Shandy. The Monthly Review admired the sermons themselves, yet called the manner of their publication ‘the greatest outrage against Sense and Decency that has been offered since the first establishment of Christianity’. The book, published with a long list of VIP subscribers, was even more of a commercial success than Tristram Shandy. The fact that he was a clergyman did shock people. And he apparently insisted always on wearing his clerical black – ‘Shandying it’, as he put it – around the drawing rooms of London, a jester in a priest’s costume. Fashionable Londoners competed for an invitation to one of the many dinners at which Sterne was present. He appeared in biographical snippets in contemporary magazines as a witty, facetious cleric, soon ‘almost indistinguishable in the public’s mind from his own creations’.
Ross gives Sterne’s Christian beliefs little more credit than Wilkes or Gray did. He thinks he saw God as a kind of ‘ideal sentimentalist’, ever ready to throb in tune with our private distresses. His evidence for this is the occasional religious language of Sterne’s Journal to Eliza, a record that Sterne kept of his feelings and activities after his beloved Elizabeth Draper left for India in April 1767. She was a married woman and more than thirty years younger than him. He became devoted to her. We know next to nothing about what she thought of this, except that she did not discourage him. As Ross notes, the ‘characteristically 18th-century feature of their sentimental friendship was that it was mostly conducted by letter’. The Journal is the rather embarrassing record of his susceptibilities, composed for her future benefit (she was supposed to keep a parallel account). ‘The result is a remarkable portrait of the artist as a sick man.’ Sterne was certainly ill, but the reader of the Journal (unpublished until the 20th century) is likely to feel that he was also sick with sentimentality.
Biography makes you see the sentimentalism differently. What appears as magnanimity in Tristram Shandy and subtle self-mockery in A Sentimental Journey looks much more like self-indulgence and silly fantasy when pursued in Sterne’s life. The worst thing about the lachrymose Journal is that Sterne so enjoyed reading it back to himself. On the evidence of the Journal and some of his letters, the language of sentimental weakness, deployed with such inscrutable irony in A Sentimental Journey, was also put to use to butter up girls. Eliza was probably an untouchable object of desire, but Ross is more straightforward than previous biographers about the evidence that Sterne had long been flagrantly unfaithful to his wife. The story told after his death by a notably disloyal friend was that his wife Elizabeth ‘once caught him with the maid, when she pulled him out of bed on the Floor and soon after went out of her senses, when she fancied herself the Queen of Bohemia’. John Croft, the brother of Sterne’s local squire, dined out on stories of Sterne, many of them malicious, and this was one. Ross thinks it has some ‘germ of truth’. He is also less willing than Cash was to absolve Sterne from the disapproval of posterity at the ways in which he carried on his flirtations. He admits, for instance, that there’s good evidence that Sterne took a love letter he had written to one woman and copied it out to send to another. The ‘pathetic set-piece’ that it contained had so pleased the amorous, sentimental author that he could not resist using it again. Of course, 18th-century letter writers did this sort of thing all the time, but Sterne had always vaunted his correspondence as intimate and spontaneous beyond the conventions of his age. Not like Pope, he was always saying.
Spontaneity was, after all, what Sterne’s writing offered. This was partly an effect of conversational brio, as if only improvisation could give us the impression of an individual person. Yet there is also the deeper and more comical thought that the narrator might often be as surprised as the reader at what comes next. Tristram Shandy asks us to recognise ‘all the powers of time and chance, which severally check us in our careers’. In his sermons, Sterne may have declared that those events that ‘fall out quite contrary both to our intentions and our hopes’ should not be called ‘chance’. They are ‘still the regular dispensations’ of God’s ‘superintending power’. In his fiction, however, cock-ups are just that. Tristram Shandy is a true embodiment of Enlightenment empiricism, exploring the ludicrous ways in which character is formed out of accident. This binds Sterne’s fiction to biography because his work expresses, as Ross rightly emphasises, simply ‘the unpredictability of life’. This is what makes it singular. All those other novelists, with plots shaped providentially or (in the case of Clarissa) tragically, do something different. An end is always foreseen. Sterne, however, made his fiction do justice to a world in which we really cannot know what is going to happen.
So his opportunism – throwing out more volumes when chance or financial necessity dictated – creatively shaped his writing. It was to be true to life’s inconsequentiality, its odd contingencies. Tristram was the ‘sport of small accidents’ like his creator, and these became his destiny. Life was shaped by a squeaking hinge, a missing weight in a window sash, the inability of your father to put on his trousers in a hurry. ‘Nothing odd will do long,’ Samuel Johnson said, judging Tristram Shandy to be the success of a passing season. Johnson had the Enlightenment faith in generality, against which Sterne’s graph of character seemed merely eccentric.
For once Johnson was wrong. At the recent memorial service for Roy Porter, chronicler of and enthusiast for an English Enlightenment, an especially appropriate reading was the wonderful opening of Tristram Shandy, where Tristram explains his botched conception as a consequence of his father’s ludicrous, idiosyncratic habits of regularity. In tune with Porter’s work on the history of medicine, it even has a section of mock-solemn, bogus medical theory (on which he once wrote a wry, scholarly essay). Sterne’s novel was, he used to say, his favourite book. One of the speakers remembered how Roy had always been fascinated and delighted by accounts of human foibles – by the sheer oddness of people – and it seems inevitable that he should therefore have loved Tristram Shandy. Of course it has Sterne’s life in it, but it also has the life of all our foibles.