Shandying It

John Mullan

  • Laurence Sterne: A Life by Ian Campbell Ross, edited by
    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.

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