Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish novelist, essayist, and Anglican clergyman.
November 24, 1713
March 18, 1768
Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel, Ireland, on November 24, 1713, the son of an Irishwoman and an ensign in the English army whose regiment had just been transferred to Ireland from Dunkirk. Though his parentage was undistinguished, Sterne’s father came from an old family in Yorkshire, where a great-grandfather had been an archbishop. A childhood spent in the rigors of camp-following likely had a harmful effect on Sterne’s constitution, but the experience provided him with details of barracks life and campaign reminiscences that would ultimately enrich his great novel with such authentic creations as Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. Laurence Sterne
Between 1723 and 1731, the year of his father’s death, Sterne was in school at Halifax, Yorkshire. In 1733, after two years of idleness at Elvington, he was enrolled as a sizar in Jesus College, Cambridge, through the grudging benevolence of relatives. At Cambridge he indulged in the easy, convivial university life of the time. He discovered an incapacity for mathematics and a contempt for formal logic, and he did considerable reading, developing a deep admiration for John Locke, whose philosophy was to be the most important single influence on his thinking. He also formed a close friendship with John Hall-Stevenson, later the hypochondriac author of Crazy Tales (1762). Cambridge granted Sterne a bachelor's degree in 1737 and a master's degree in 1740.
Sterne took holy orders as a matter of expediency rather than religious conviction. He was ordained deacon in 1737 and inducted into the vicarage of Sutton-on-the-Forest in 1738. Two years later he received a prebendal stall in the York Cathedral. In 1744 he acquired the parish of Stillington, near Sutton.
In 1741, after a sentimental courtship, Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley. A daughter, Lydia, was born in 1747. The Sternes were never really compatible; Elizabeth was said to be ill-tempered, a condition certainly not improved by her husband’s interests in other women. Among his affairs was one with Catherine (“Kitty”) Fourmantelle, a singer from London who came to York in 1759.
In Sutton, Sterne spent twenty years of relative obscurity, serving two parishes with some conscientiousness, unsuccessfully farming his glebe, and making occasional trips to York to preach his turn in the cathedral or to dabble in diocesan politics. He found amusement in hunting, skating, fiddling, and painting, as well as in social gatherings at Newburgh Priory, the seat of Lord Fauconberg, and in the ribald carousals of the “Demoniacks” at Hall-Stevenson’s Skelton Castle. He later immortalized his role of “heteroclite parson” in his portrait of Yorick.
In 1759 Sterne's participation in local church politics produced a satire called A Political Romance (later republished in watered-down form as The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat). Though all but a few copies were burned to prevent embarrassment to the diocese, its success among Sterne’s friends gave him the impetus to embark on The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67), the first two volumes of which came out in York in December of the same year. Introduced to London through the enthusiasm of the actor David Garrick, the novel so impressed the capital with its whimsicality, eccentric humor, and indecorum that it was immediately successful, and when Sterne journeyed to London in the spring of 1760, he found himself a social lion.
However, disapprobation soon followed success. Literary men such as Horace Walpole, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Richardson condemned Tristram Shandy for various evils ranging from tediousness to indecency, and a flood of hostile articles, pamphlets, and bad imitations poured from the press. When Sterne published the first two volumes of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760–69) in 1760, the comminatory chorus grew.
Returning to Yorkshire, Sterne received from Lord Fauconberg the living of Coxwold, to which “sweet retirement” he moved his family. Here for the rest of his life his home was a rambling gabled house that he called Shandy Hall. In January 1761, he was again in London to see two more volumes of Tristram Shandy published. Though the critical reception was now unfavorable, the books sold well. Sterne returned to Coxwold, completed two more volumes, and was back in November for their publication. This time his reputation soared again. The story of Le Fever, Trim’s animadversions on death, and Uncle Toby’s campaigns had won near-universal acclaim.
Weakened by a serious hemorrhage from his chronically weak lungs, Sterne set out for France in 1762 in a “race with death.” Recovering in Paris, he was lionized by the cream of French intellectual society. He later settled with his family in Toulouse. Back in Coxwold in 1764, he completed volumes seven and eight of Tristram Shandy, including an account of his tour through France and the affair of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman. These came out in January 1765. Two more volumes of sermons followed in January 1766.
Once again on the Continent in 1766, Sterne had a “joyous” winter in France and Italy. Though hemorrhages were becoming more frequent, he returned during the year to his desk in Coxwold, and by January 1767, he was on hand in London for the appearance of the ninth volume of Tristram Shandy. During this winter he indulged in his famous sentimental affair with Eliza Draper, the young wife of an official of the East India Company, for whom he kept the Journal to Eliza (1904) after her departure for Bombay.
Late in February 1768, Sterne published A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. He could enjoy its triumphant reception only briefly, however, as an attack of influenza that developed into pleurisy proved more than his disease-wracked body could bear. He died in London on March 18, 1768, and was buried at St. George’s, Hanover Square.
Sterne’s work, like his life, is marked with a refreshing unconventionality. Though the Sermons lack religious conviction and originality of material, they preach a warm benevolence and a comfortable morality in a style that can be at once graceful and dramatic. A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, in which Sterne substituted his traveler’s sentimental adventures for the conventional accounts of nations, peoples, and memorable sights in travel books, is a nearly perfect small masterpiece.
The humor of Tristram Shandy is plainly in the tradition of François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, and Jonathan Swift, and its borrowings range from Robert Burton to miscellaneous curiosa. Superficially, the novel may seem like a mere engaging hodgepodge full of tricks, including black, marbled, and blank pages, omitted chapters, unorthodox punctuation and typography, and numerous digressions. But Tristram Shandy is far from planless. By insisting on the importance of opinions about action rather than on that of action itself, Sterne opened unexplored avenues into the inner lives of his characters and achieved a new architectonic principle based on the mind as Locke had illuminated it in his Essay on Human Understanding (1690). At the same time, Sterne achieved a new concept of time in fiction, a fascinating awareness of the life process itself, and a fresh concept of comedy based on the idea of individual isolation in a world where each person is a product of his or her own peculiar association of ideas.