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‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ is a comic masterpiece

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about Laurence Sterne first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 597 published on 23 June 1973.

Dr Slop falls off horse,  picture, image, illustration

Dr Slop falls from his horse – a scene from 'Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' by Laurence Sterne

The classroom was empty when young Laurence Sterne, one of the pupils at the Heath Grammar School, near Halifax, opened the door. He looked around quickly, noting the pots of paint, brushes and a ladder left behind by some painters. Suddenly, seizing one of the brushes, he climbed up the ladder and began painting LAU STERNE in bold white letters on the dark wooden beam which ran right across the newly-whitewashed ceiling.

Finishing his handiwork, Laurence started to go down the ladder again. But, just as he reached the ground, he heard the door open behind him. His heart sank as he turned and saw one of the strictest of his teachers standing there. Seeing what Laurence had done, the master wasted no time in giving the boy a sound beating.

This was Laurence Sterne’s first bid for fame, and he soon forgot his beating when he heard his headmaster say that the name would never be removed for Sterne was a genius and would surely one day be famous.

It was not until 1759, more than twenty years later, that this prediction came true. But it was the same light-hearted ambition to be famous which spurred Sterne on to write his book “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” In it, he tells the rambling and boisterous tale of the people who lived at Shandy Hall. Sterne himself said, when the book was finally published, “I wrote not to be fed but to be famous,” and famous he suddenly was, for the book was an immediate success.

Until his rise to fame, Sterne had led the life of a moderately well-to-do clergyman, living with his wife and one daughter in the north of England. But now the dazzle of London society tempted him and he left his quiet Yorkshire home to go south. In London, he was received enthusiastically, going out to dinners and parties every evening and meeting many famous people of the day. He even had his portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the finest portrait painter in England.

Such a whirlwind existence was an intoxicating experience for Sterne, and he threw himself wholeheartedly into enjoying it – so much so that he fell ill and had to go to France to convalesce!

But, although he had such a great capacity for fun and such a ready sense of humour, his life also had much sadness in it. He had an unstable childhood, always moving from place to place, for his father was a low-ranking army officer, who had to go wherever he was posted. So it was that Laurence came to be born in Clonmel in Ireland, in 1713.

Most of his brothers and sisters died as children, and Laurence himself only narrowly escaped drowning in a millpond, when he was seven years old. Then, later in life, his marriage was not very happy, and even the fame which he had sought so keenly did not last long for him as he died only nine years after “Tristram Shandy” was published.

Despite all this, his sense of humour triumphed. He always saw the funny side of life, and the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy, Uncle Toby, Dr. Slop and many others who appear in his book are drawn from his own observations of the people around him. Even his persistent ill-health was bravely used as material for some light-hearted descriptions of illness.

Sterne wrote three other full-length books, apart from “Tristram Shandy,” but the book which brought his first success in his lifetime is still the one for which he is best known today. “Tristram Shandy” could perhaps best be described as the original shaggy-dog story, and probably his childhood, spent in Ireland, where he must often have experienced this special brand of Irish humour, influenced him in writing in such a way. He even ends the whole nine-volume work by saying that the story has been “A cock and a bull . . . and one of the best of its kind I ever heard.”

The fame he won with “Tristram Shandy” was strongly mixed with scandal, for Sterne debunked the current fashion for writing in a very learned style, and also wrote of things which were considered irreverent and even immoral. Yet, as his description of the painful journey of Dr. Slop to Shandy Hall shows, the strongest impact of the book is its sense of fun and its half-laughing, half-sympathetic descriptions of ridiculous people and events.

Nowadays the works of Sterne are probably not widely read, and even quite soon after his death, in 1768, they fell from popularity. But, despite the old-fashioned language, the situations and people he describes are still funny today, for Sterne has chosen characters and events which are timeless and not restricted to any particular century.

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