The materials for a biography of Sterne are by no means abundant. Of the earlier years of his life the only existing record is that preserved in the brief autobiographical memoir which, a few months before his death, he composed, in the usual quaint staccato style of his familiar correspondence, for the benefit of his daughter. Of his childhood; of his school-days; of his life at Cambridge, and in his Yorkshire vicarage; of his whole history, in fact, up to the age of forty-six, we know nothing more than he has there jotted down. He attained that age in the year 1759; and at this date begins that series of his Letters, from which, for those who have the patience to sort them out of the chronological confusion in which his daughter and editress involved them, there is, no doubt, a good deal to be learnt. These letters, however, which extend down to 1768, the year of the writer's death, contain pretty nearly all the contemporary material that we have to depend on. Freely as Sterne mixed in the best literary society, there is singularly little to be gathered about him, even in the way of chance allusion and anecdote, from the memoirs and ana of his time. Of the many friends who would have been competent to write his biography while the facts were yet fresh, but one, John Wilkes, ever entertained—if he did seriously entertain—the idea of performing this pious work; and he, in spite of the entreaties of Sterne's widow and daughter, then in straitened circumstances, left unredeemed his promise to do so. The brief memoir by Sir Walter Scott, which is prefixed to many popular editions of Tristram Shandy and the Sentimental Journey, sets out the so-called autobiography in full, but for the rest is mainly critical; Thackeray's well-known lecture essay is almost wholly so; and nothing, worthy to be dignified by the name of a Life of Sterne, seems ever to have been published, until the appearance of Mr. Percy Fitzgerald's two stout volumes, under this title, some eighteen years ago. Of this work it is hardly too much to say that it contains (no doubt with the admixture of a good deal of superfluous matter) nearly all the information as to the facts of Sterne's life that is now ever likely to be recovered. The evidence for certain of its statements of fact is not as thoroughly sifted as it might have been; and with some of its criticism I, at least, am unable to agree. But no one interested in the subject of this memoir can be insensible of his obligations to Mr. Fitzgerald for the fruitful diligence with which he has laboured in a too long neglected field.
BIRTH, PARENTAGE, AND EARLY YEARS.
SCHOOL AND UNIVERSITY.—HALIFAX AND CAMBRIDGE.
LIFE AT SUTTON.—MARRIAGE.—THE PARISH PRIEST.
"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. I. AND II.
LONDON TRIUMPHS.—FIRST SET OF SERMONS.—"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. III. AND IV.—COXWOLD.—"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. V. AND VI.—FIRST VISIT TO THE CONTINENT.—PARIS.—TOULOUSE.
LIFE IN THE SOUTH.—RETURN TO ENGLAND.—"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. VII. AND VIII.—SECOND SET OF SERMONS
FRANCE AND ITALY.—MEETING WITH WIFE AND DAUGHTER.—RETURN TO ENGLAND.—"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOL. IX.—"THE SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY"
LAST DAYS AND DEATH
STERNE AS A WRITER.—THE CHARGE OF PLAGIARISM.—DR. FERRIAR'S "ILLUSTRATIONS"
STYLE AND GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS.—HUMOUR AND SENTIMENT
CREATIVE AND DRAMATIC POWER.—PLACE IN ENGLISH LITERATURE
BIRTH, PARENTAGE, AND EARLY YEARS.
Towards the close of the month of November, 1713, one of the last of the English regiments which had been detained in Flanders to supervise the execution of the treaty of Utrecht arrived at Clonmel from Dunkirk. The day after its arrival the regiment was disbanded; and yet a few days later, on the 24th of the month, the wife of one of its subalterns gave birth to a son. The child who thus early displayed the perversity of his humour by so inopportune an appearance was Laurence Sterne. "My birthday," he says, in the slipshod, loosely-strung notes by which he has been somewhat grandiloquently said to have "anticipated the labours" of the biographer—"my birthday was ominous to my poor father, who was the day after our arrival, with many other brave officers, broke and sent adrift into the wide world with a wife and two children."
Roger Sterne, however, now late ensign of the 34th, or Chudleigh's regiment of foot, was after all in less evil case than were many, probably, of his comrades. He had kinsmen to whom he could look for, at any rate, temporary assistance, and his mother was a wealthy widow. The Sternes, originally of a Suffolk stock, had passed from that county to Nottinghamshire, and thence into Yorkshire, and were at this time a family of position and substance in the last-named county. Roger's grandfather had been Archbishop of York, and a man of more note, if only through the accident of the times upon which he fell, than most of the incumbents of that see. He had played an exceptionally energetic part even for a Cavalier prelate in the great political struggle of the seventeenth century, and had suffered with fortitude and dignity in the royal cause. He had, moreover, a further claim to distinction in having been treated with common gratitude at the Restoration by the son of the monarch whom he had served. As Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, he had "been active in sending the University plate to his Majesty," and for this offence he was seized by Cromwell and carried in military custody to London, whence, after undergoing imprisonment in various goals, and experiencing other forms of hardship, he was at length permitted to retire to an obscure retreat in the country, there to commune with himself until that tyranny should be overpast. On the return of the exiled Stuarts Dr. Sterne was made Bishop of Carlisle, and a few years later was translated to the see of York. He lived to the age of eighty-six, and so far justified Burnet's accusation against him of "minding chiefly enriching himself," that he seems to have divided no fewer than four landed estates among his children. One of these, Simon Sterne, a younger son of the Archbishop, himself married an heiress, the daughter of Sir Roger Jaques of Elvington; and Roger, the father of Laurence Sterne, was the seventh and youngest of the issue of this marriage. At the time when the double misfortune above recorded befell him at the hands of Lucina and the War Office, his father had been some years dead; but Simon Sterne's widow was still mistress of the property which she had brought with her at her marriage, and to Elvington, accordingly, "as soon," writes Sterne, "as I was able to be carried," the compulsorily retired ensign betook himself with his wife and his two children. He was not, however, compelled to remain long dependent on his mother. The ways of the military authorities were as inscrutable to the army of that day as they are in our day to our own. Before a year had passed the regiment was ordered to be re-established, and "our household decamped with bag and baggage for Dublin." This was in the autumn of 1714, and from that time onward, for some eleven years, the movements and fortunes of the Sterne family, as detailed in the narrative of its most famous member, form a history in which the ludicrous struggles strangely with the pathetic.
A husband, condemned to be the Ulysses-like plaything of adverse gods at the War Office; an indefatigably prolific wife; a succession of weak and ailing children; misfortune in the seasons of journeying; misfortune in the moods of the weather by sea and land—under all this combination of hostile chances and conditions was the struggle to be carried on. The little household was perpetually "on the move"—a little household which was always becoming and never remaining bigger—continually increased by births, only to be again reduced by deaths—until the contest between the deadly hardships of travel and the fatal fecundity of Mrs. Sterne was brought by events to a natural close. Almost might the unfortunate lady have exclaimed, Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris? She passes from Ireland to England, and from England to Ireland, from inland garrison to sea-port town and back again, incessantly bearing and incessantly burying children—until even her son in his narrative begins to speak of losing one infant at this place, and "leaving another behind" on that journey, almost as if they were so many overlooked or misdirected articles of luggage. The tragic side of the history, however, overshadows the grotesque. When we think how hard a business was travel even under the most favourable conditions in those days, and how serious even in our own times, when travel is easy, are the discomforts of the women and children of a regiment on the march—we may well pity these unresting followers of the drum. As to Mrs. Sterne herself, she seems to have been a woman of a pretty tough fibre, and she came moreover of a campaigning stock. Her father was a "noted suttler" of the name of Nuttle, and her first husband—for she was a widow when Roger Sterne married her—had been a soldier also. She had, therefore, served some years' apprenticeship to the military life before these wanderings began; and she herself was destined to live to a good old age. But somehow or other she failed to endow her offspring with her own robust constitution and powers of endurance. "My father's children were," as Laurence Sterne grimly puts it, "not made to last long;" but one cannot help suspecting that it was the hardships of those early years which carried them off in their infancy with such painful regularity and despatch, and that it was to the same cause that their surviving brother owed the beginnings of that fatal malady by which his own life was cut short.
The diary of their travels—for the early part of Sterne's memoirs amounts to scarcely more—is the more effective for its very brevity and abruptness. Save for one interval of somewhat longer sojourn than usual at Dublin, the reader has throughout it all the feeling of the traveller who never finds time to unpack his portmanteau. On the re-enrolment of the regiment in 1714, "our household," says the narrative, "decamped from York with bag and baggage for Dublin. Within a month my father left us, being ordered to Exeter; where, in a sad winter, my mother and her two children followed him, travelling from Liverpool, by land, to Plymouth." At Plymouth Mrs. Sterne gave birth to a son, christened Joram; and, "in twelve months time we were all sent back to Dublin. My mother," with her three children, "took ship at Bristol for Ireland, and had a narrow escape from being cast away by a leak springing up in the vessel. At length, after many perils and struggles, we got to Dublin." Here intervenes the short breathing-space, of which mention has been made—an interval employed by Roger Sterne in "spending a great deal of money" on a "large house," which he hired and furnished; and then "in the year one thousand seven hundred and nineteen, all unhinged again." The regiment had been ordered off to the Isle of Wight, thence to embark for Spain, on "the Vigo Expedition," and "we," who accompanied it, "were driven into Milford Haven, but afterwards landed at Bristol, and thence by land to Plymouth again, and to the Isle of Wight;" losing on this expedition "poor Joram, a pretty boy, who died of the smallpox." In the Isle of Wight, Mrs. Sterne and her family remained till the Vigo Expedition returned home; and during her stay there "poor Joram's loss was supplied by the birth of a girl, Anne," a "pretty blossom," but destined to fall "at the age of three years." On the return of the regiment to Wicklow, Roger Sterne again sent to collect his family around him. "We embarked for Dublin, and had all been cast away by a most violent storm; but, through the intercession of my mother, the captain was prevailed upon to turn back into Wales, where we stayed a month, and at length got into Dublin, and travelled by land to Wicklow, where my father had, for some weeks, given us over for lost." Here a year passed, and another child, Devijeher—so called after the colonel of the regiment—was born. "From thence we decamped to stay half a year with Mr. Fetherston, a clergyman, about seven miles from Wicklow, who, being a relative of my mother's, invited us to his parsonage at Animo." From thence, again, "we followed the regiment to Dublin," where again "we lay in the barracks a year." In 1722 the regiment was ordered to Carrickfergus. "We all decamped, but got no further than Drogheda; thence ordered to Mullingar, forty miles west, where, by Providence, we stumbled upon a kind relation, a collateral descendant from Archbishop Sterne, who took us all to his castle, and kindly entertained us for a year." Thence, by "a most rueful journey," to Carrickfergus, where "we arrived in six or seven days." Here, at the age of three, little Devijeher obtained a happy release from his name; and "another child, Susan, was sent to fill his place, who also left us behind in this weary journey." In the "autumn of this year, or the spring of the next"—Sterne's memory failing in exactitude at the very point where we should have expected it to be most precise—"my father obtained permission of his colonel to fix me at school;" and henceforth the boy's share in the family wanderings was at an end. But his father had yet to be ordered from Carrickfergus to Londonderry, where at last a permanent child, Catherine, was born; and thence to Gibraltar, to take part in the Defence of that famous Rock, where the much-enduring campaigner was run through the body in a duel, "about a goose" (a thoroughly Shandian catastrophe); and thence to Jamaica, where, "with a constitution impaired" by the sword-thrust earned in his anserine quarrel, he was defeated in a more deadly duel with the "country fever," and died. "His malady," writes his son, with a touch of feeling struggling through his dislocated grammar, "took away his senses first, and made a child of him; and then in a month or two walking about continually without complaining, till the moment he sat down in an arm-chair and breathed his last."
[Footnote 1: "It was in this parish," says Sterne, "that I had that wonderful escape in falling through a mill race while the mill was going, and being taken up unhurt; the story is incredible, but known to all that part of Ireland, where hundreds of the common people flocked to seeme." More incredible still does it seem that Thoresby should relate the occurrence of an accident of precisely the same kind to Sterne's great-grandfather, the Archbishop. "Playing near a mill, he fell within a claw; there was but one board or bucket wanting in the whole wheel, but a gracious Providence so ordered it that the void place came down at that moment, else he had been crushed to death; but was reserved to be a grand benefactor afterwards." (Thoresby, ii. 15.) But what will probably strike the reader as more extraordinary even than this coincidence is that Sterne should have been either unaware of it, or should have omitted mention of it in the above passage.]
There is, as has been observed, a certain mixture of the comic and the pathetic in the life-history of this obscure father of a famous son. His life was clearly not a fortunate one, so far as external circumstances go; but its misfortunes had no sort of consoling dignity about them. Roger Sterne's lot in the world was not so much an unhappy as an uncomfortable one; and discomfort earns little sympathy, and absolutely no admiration, for its sufferers. He somehow reminds us of one of those Irish heroes—good-natured, peppery, debt-loaded, light-hearted, shiftless—whose fortunes we follow with mirthful and half-contemptuous sympathy in the pages of Thackeray. He was obviously a typical specimen of that class of men who are destitute alike of the virtues and failings of the "respectable" and successful; whom many people love and no one respects; whom everybody pities in their struggles and difficulties, but whom few pity without a smile.
It is evident, however, that he succeeded in winning the affection of one who had not too much affection of the deeper kind to spare for any one. The figure of Roger Sterne alone stands out with any clearness by the side of the ceaselessly flitting mother and phantasmal children of Laurence Sterne's Memoir; and it is touched in with strokes so vivid and characteristic that critics have been tempted to find in it the original of the most famous portrait in the Shandy gallery. "My father," says Sterne, "was a little, smart man, active to the last degree in all exercises, most patient of fatigue and disappointments, of which it pleased God to give him full measure. He was, in his temper, somewhat rapid and hasty, but of a kindly, sweet disposition, void of all design, and so innocent in his own intentions, that he suspected no one; so that you might have cheated him ten times a day, if nine had not been sufficient for your purpose." This is a captivating little picture; and it no doubt presents traits which may have impressed themselves early and deeply on the imagination which was afterwards to give birth to "My Uncle Toby." The simplicity of nature and the "kindly, sweet disposition" are common to both the ensign of real life and to the immortal Captain Shandy of fiction; but the criticism which professes to find traces of Roger Sterne's "rapid and hasty temper" in my Uncle Toby is compelled to strain itself considerably. And, on the whole, there seems no reason to believe that Sterne borrowed more from the character of his father than any writer must necessarily, and perhaps unconsciously, borrow from his observation of the moral and mental qualities of those with whom he has come into most frequent contact.
That Laurence Sterne passed the first eleven years of his life with such an exemplar of these simple virtues of kindliness, guilelessness, and courage ever before him, is perhaps the best that can be said for the lot in which his early days were cast. In almost all other respects there could hardly have been—for a quick-witted, precocious, imitative boy—a worse bringing-up. No one, I should imagine, ever more needed discipline in his youth than Sterne; and the camp is a place of discipline for the soldier only. To all others whom necessity attaches to it, and to the young especially, it is rather a school of license and irregularity. It is fair to remember these disadvantages of Sterne's early training, in judging of the many defects as a man, and laxities as a writer, which marked his later life; though, on the other hand, there is no denying the reality and value of some of the countervailing advantages which came to him from his boyish surroundings. The conception of my Uncle Toby need not have been taken whole from Roger Sterne, or from any one actual captain of a marching regiment; but the constant sight of, and converse with, many captains and many corporals may undoubtedly have contributed much to the vigour and vitality of Toby Shandy and Corporal Trim. So far as the externals of portraiture were concerned, there can be no doubt that his art benefited much from his early military life. His soldiers have the true stamp of the soldier about them in air and language; and when his captain and corporal fight their Flemish battles over again we are thoroughly conscious that we are listening, under the dramatic form, to one who must himself have heard many a chapter of the same splendid story from the lips of the very men who had helped to break the pride of the Grand Monarque under Marlborough and Eugene.
SCHOOL AND UNIVERSITY.—HALIFAX AND CAMBRIDGE.
It was not—as we have seen from the Memoir—till the autumn of 1723, "or the spring of the following year," that Roger Sterne obtained leave of his colonel to "fix" his son at school; and this would bring Laurence to the tolerably advanced age of ten before beginning his education in any systematic way. He records, under date of 1721, that "in this year I learned to write, &c.;" but it is not probable that the "&c."—that indolent symbol of which Sterne makes such irritating use in all his familiar writing—covers, in this case, any wide extent of educational advance. The boy, most likely, could just read and write, and no more, at the time when he was fixed at school, "near Halifax, with an able master:" a judicious selection, no doubt, both of place as well as teacher. Mr. Fitzgerald, to whose researches we owe as much light as is ever likely to be thrown upon this obscure and probably not very interesting period of Sterne's life, has pointed out that Richard Sterne, eldest son of the late Simon Sterne, and uncle, therefore, of Laurence, was one of the governors of Halifax Grammar School, and that he may have used his interest to obtain his nephew's admission to the foundation as the grandson of a Halifax man, and so, constructively, a child of the parish. But, be this as it may, it is more than probable that from the time when he was sent to Halifax School the whole care and cost of the boy's education was borne by his Yorkshire relatives. The Memoir says that, "by God's care of me, my cousin Sterne, of Elvington, became a father to me, and sent me to the University, &c., &c.;" and it is to be inferred from this that the benevolent guardianship of Sterne's uncle Richard (who died in 1732, the year before Laurence was admitted of Jesus College, Cambridge) must have been taken up by his son. Of his school course—though it lasted for over seven years—the autobiographer has little to say; nothing, indeed, except that he "cannot omit mentioning" that anecdote with which everybody, I suppose, who has ever come across the briefest notice of Sterne's life is familiar. The schoolmaster "had the ceiling of the schoolroom new-whitewashed, and the ladder remained there. I, one unlucky day, mounted it, and wrote with a brush, in large capital letters, LAU. STERNE for which the usher severely whipped me. My master was very much hurt at this, and said before me that never should that name be effaced, for I was a boy of genius, and he was sure I should come to preferment. This expression made me forget the blows I had received." It is hardly to be supposed, of course, that this story is pure romance; but it is difficult, on the other hand, to believe that the incident has been related by Sterne exactly as it happened. That the recorded prediction may have been made in jest—or even in earnest (for penetrating teachers have these prophetic moments sometimes)—is, of course, possible; but that Sterne's master was "very much hurt" at the boy's having been justly punished for an act of wanton mischief, or that he recognized it as the natural privilege of nascent genius to deface newly-whitewashed ceilings, must have been a delusion of the humourist's later years. The extreme fatuity which it would compel us to attribute to the schoolmaster seems inconsistent with the power of detecting intellectual capacity in any one else. On the whole, one inclines to suspect that the remark belonged to that order of half sardonic, half kindly jest which a certain sort of pedagogue sometimes throws off, for the consolation of a recently-caned boy; and that Sterne's vanity, either then or afterwards (for it remained juvenile all his life), translated it into a serious prophecy. In itself, however, the urchin's freak was only too unhappily characteristic of the man. The trick of befouling what was clean (and because it was clean) clung to him most tenaciously all his days; and many a fair white surface—of humour, of fancy, or of sentiment—was to be disfigured by him in after-years with stains and splotches in which we can all too plainly decipher the literary signature of Laurence Sterne.
At Halifax School the boy, as has been said, remained for about eight years; that is, until he was nearly nineteen, and for some months after his father's death at Port Antonio, which occurred in March, 1731. "In the year '32," says the Memoir, "my cousin sent me to the University, where I stayed some time." In the course of his first year he read for and obtained a sizarship, to which the college records show that he was duly admitted on the 6th of July, 1733. The selection of Jesus College was a natural one: Sterne's great-grandfather, the afterwards Archbishop, had been its Master, and had founded scholarships there, to one of which the young sizar was, a year after his admission, elected. No inference can, of course, be drawn from this as to Sterne's proficiency, or even industry, in his academical studies: it is scarcely more than a testimony to the fact of decent and regular behaviour. He was bene natus, in the sense of being related to the right man, the founder; and in those days he need be only very modice doctus indeed in order to qualify himself for admission to the enjoyment of his kinsman's benefactions. Still he must have been orderly and well-conducted in his ways; and this he would also seem to have been, from the fact of his having passed through his University course without any apparent break or hitch, and having been admitted to his Bachelor's degree after no more than the normal period of residence. The only remark which, in the Memoir, he vouchsafes to bestow upon his academical career is, that "'twas there that I commenced a friendship with Mr. H——, which has been lasting on both sides;" and it may, perhaps, be said that this was, from one point of view, the most important event of his Cambridge life. For Mr. H—— was John Hall, afterwards John Hall Stevenson, the "Eugenius" of Tristram Shandy, the master of Skelton Castle, at which Sterne was, throughout life, to be a frequent and most familiar visitor; and, unfortunately, also a person whose later reputation, both as a man and a writer, became such as seriously to compromise the not very robust respectability of his clerical comrade. Sterne and Hall were distant cousins, and it may have been the tie of consanguinity which first drew them together. But there was evidently a thorough congeniality of the most unlucky sort between them; and from their first meeting, as undergraduates at Jesus, until the premature death of the elder, they continued to supply each other's minds with precisely that sort of occupation and stimulus of which each by the grace of nature stood least in need. That their close intimacy was ill-calculated to raise Sterne's reputation in later years may be inferred from the fact that Hall Stevenson afterwards obtained literary notoriety by the publication of Crazy Tales, a collection of comic but extremely broad ballads, in which his clerical friend was quite unjustly suspected of having had a hand. Mr. Hall was also reported, whether truly or falsely, to have been a member of Wilkes's famous confraternity of Medmenham Abbey; and from this it was an easy step for gossip to advance to the assertion that the Rev. Mr. Sterne had himself been admitted to that unholy order.
Among acquaintances which the young sizar of Jesus might have more profitably made at Cambridge, but did not, was that of a student destined, like himself, to leave behind him a name famous in English letters. Gray, born three years later than Sterne, had entered a year after him at Cambridge as a pensioner of Peterhouse, and the two students went through their terms together, though the poet at the time took no degree. There was probably little enough in common between the shy, fastidious, slightly effeminate pensioner of Peterhouse, and a scholar of Jesus, whose chief friend and comrade was a man like Hall; and no close intimacy between the two men, if they had come across each other, would have been very likely to arise. But it does not appear that they could have ever met or heard of each other, for Gray writes of Sterne, after Tristram Shandy had made him famous, in terms which clearly show that he did not recall his fellow-undergraduate.
In January, 1736, Sterne took his B.A. degree, and quitted Cambridge for York, where another of his father's brothers now makes his appearance as his patron. Dr. Jacques Sterne was the second son of Simon Sterne, of Elvington, and a man apparently of more marked and vigorous character than any of his brothers. What induced him now to take notice of the nephew, whom in boyhood and early youth he had left to the unshared guardianship of his brother, and brother's son, does not appear; but the personal history of this energetic pluralist—Prebendary of Durham, Archdeacon of Cleveland, Canon Residentiary, Precentor, Prebendary, and Archdeacon of York, Rector of Rise, and Rector of Hornsey-cum-Riston—suggests the surmise that he detected qualities in the young Cambridge graduate which would make him useful. For Dr. Sterne was a typical specimen of the Churchman-politician, in days when both components of the compound word meant a good deal more than they do now. The Archdeacon was a devoted Whig, a Hanoverian to the backbone; and he held it his duty to support the Protestant succession, not only by the spiritual but by the secular arm. He was a great electioneerer, as befitted times when the claims of two rival dynasties virtually met upon the hustings, and he took a prominent part in the great Yorkshire contest of the year 1734. His most vigorous display of energy, however, was made, as was natural, in "the '45." The Whig Archdeacon, not then Archdeacon of the East Riding, nor as yet quite buried under the mass of preferments which he afterwards accumulated, seems to have thought that this indeed was the crisis of his fortunes, and that, unless he was prepared to die a mere prebendary, canon, and rector of one or two benefices, now was the time to strike a blow for his advancement in the Church. His bustling activity at this trying time was indeed portentous, and at last took the form of arresting the unfortunate Dr. Burton (the original of Dr. Slop), on suspicion of holding communication with the invading army of the Pretender, then on its march southward from Edinburgh. The suspect, who was wholly innocent, was taken to London and kept in custody for nearly a year before being discharged, after which, by way of a slight redress, a letter of reprimand for his trop de zele was sent by direction of Lord Carteret to the militant dignitary. But the desired end was nevertheless attained, and Dr. Sterne succeeded in crowning the edifice of his ecclesiastical honours.
[Footnote 1: A once-familiar piece of humorous verse describes the upset of a coach containing a clerical pluralist:
"When struggling on the ground was seen A Rector, Vicar, Canon, Dean; You might have thought the coach was full, But no! 'twas only Dr. Bull."
Dr. Jacques Sterne, however, might have been thrown out of one of the more capacious vehicles of the London General Omnibus Company, with almost the same misleading effect upon those who only heard of the mishap.]
There can be little doubt that patronage extended by such an uncle to such a nephew received its full equivalent in some way or other, and indeed the Memoir gives us a clue to the mode in which payment was made. "My uncle," writes Sterne, describing their subsequent rupture, "quarrelled with me because I would not write paragraphs in the newspapers; though he was a party-man, I was not, and detested such dirty work, thinking it beneath me. From that time he became my bitterest enemy." The date of this quarrel cannot be precisely fixed; but we gather from an autograph letter (now in the British Museum) from Sterne to Archdeacon Blackburne that by the year 1750 the two men had for some time ceased to be on friendly terms. Probably, however, the breach occurred subsequently to the rebellion of '45, and it may be that it arose out of the excess of partisan zeal which Dr. Sterne developed in that year, and which his nephew very likely did not, in his opinion, sufficiently share. But this is quite consistent with the younger man's having up to that time assisted the elder in his party polemics. He certainly speaks in his "Letters" of his having "employed his brains for an ungrateful person," and the remark is made in a way and in a connexion which seems to imply that the services rendered to his uncle were mainly literary. If so, his declaration that he "would not write paragraphs in the newspapers" can only mean that he would not go on writing them. Be this as it may, however, it is certain that the Archdeacon for some time found his account in maintaining friendly relations with his nephew, and that during that period he undoubtedly did a good deal for his advancement. Sterne was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln in March, 1736, only three months after taking his B.A. degree, and took priest's orders in August, 1738, whereupon his uncle immediately obtained for him the living of Sutton-on-the-Forest, into which he was inducted a few days afterwards. Other preferments followed, to be noted hereafter; and it must be admitted that until the quarrel occurred about the "party paragraphs" the Archdeacon did his duty by his nephew after the peculiar fashion of that time. When that quarrel came, however, it seems to have snapped more ties than one, for in the Memoir Sterne speaks of his youngest sister Catherine as "still living, but most unhappily estranged from me by my uncle's wickedness and her own folly." Of his elder sister Mary, who was born at Lille a year before himself, he records that "she married one Weemans in Dublin, who used her most unmercifully, spent his substance, became a bankrupt, and left my poor sister to shift for herself, which she was able to do but for a few months, for she went to a friend's house in the country and died of a broken heart." Truly an unlucky family. Only three to survive the hardships among which the years of their infancy were passed, and this to be the history of two out of the three survivors!
[Footnote 1: The mother, Mrs. Sterne, makes her appearance once more for a moment in or about the year 1758. Horace Walpole, and after him Byron, accused Sterne of having "preferred whining over a dead ass to relieving a living mother," and the former went so far as to declare "on indubitable authority" that Mrs. Sterne, "who kept a school (in Ireland), having run in debt on account of an extravagant daughter, would have rotted in a gaol if the parents of her scholars had not raised a subscription for her." Even "the indubitable authority," however, does not positively assert—whatever may be meant to be insinuated—that Sterne himself did nothing to assist his mother, and Mr. Fitzgerald justly points out that to pay the whole debts of a bankrupt school might well have been beyond a Yorkshire clergyman's means. Anyhow there is evidence that Sterne at a later date than this was actively concerning himself about his mother's interests. She afterwards came to York, whither he went to meet her; and he then writes to a friend: "I trust my poor mother's affair is by this time ended to our comfort and hers."]
LIFE AT SUTTON.—MARRIAGE.—THE PARISH PRIEST.
Great writers who spring late and suddenly from obscurity into fame and yet die early, must always form more or less perplexing subjects of literary biography. The processes of their intellectual and artistic growth lie hidden in nameless years; their genius is not revealed to the world until it has reached its full maturity, and many aspects of it, which, perhaps, would have easily explained themselves if the gradual development had gone on before men's eyes, remain often unexplained to the last. By few, if any, of the more celebrated English men of letters is this observation so forcibly illustrated as it is in the case of Sterne: the obscure period of his life so greatly exceeded in duration the brief season of his fame, and its obscurity was so exceptionally profound. He was forty-seven years of age when, at a bound, he achieved celebrity; he was not five-and-fifty when he died. And though it might be too much to say that the artist sprang, like the reputation, full-grown into being, it is nevertheless true that there are no marks of positive immaturity to be detected even in the earliest public displays of his art. His work grows, indeed, most marvellously in vividness and symmetry as he proceeds, but there are no visible signs of growth in the workman's skill. Even when the highest point of finish is attained we cannot say that the hand is any more cunning than it was from the first. As well might we say that the last light touches of the sculptor's chisel upon the perfected statue are more skilful than its first vigorous strokes upon the shapeless block.
It is certain, however, that Sterne must have been storing up his material of observation, secreting his reflections on life and character, and consciously or unconsciously maturing his powers of expression, during the whole of those silent twenty years which have now to be passed under brief review. With one exception, to be noted presently, the only known writings of his which belong to this period are sermons, and these—a mere "scratch" collection of pulpit discourses, which, as soon as he had gained the public ear, he hastened in characteristic fashion to rummage from his desk and carry to the book-market—throw no light upon the problem before us. There are sermons of Sterne which alike in manner and matter disclose the author of Tristram Shandy; but they are not among those which he preached or wrote before that work was given to the world. They are not its ancestors but its descendants. They belong to the post-Shandian period, and are in obvious imitation of the Shandian style; while in none of the earlier ones—not even in that famous homily on a Good Conscience, which did not succeed till Corporal Trim preached it before the brothers Shandy and Dr. Slop—can we trace either the trick of style or the turn of thought that give piquancy to the novel. Yet the peculiar qualities of mind, and the special faculty of workmanship of which this turn of thought and trick of style were the product, must of course have been potentially present from the beginning. Men do not blossom forth as wits, humourists, masterly delineators of character, and skilful performers on a highly-strung and carefully-tuned sentimental instrument all at once, after entering their "forties;" and the only wonder is that a possessor of these powers—some of them of the kind which, as a rule, and in most men, seeks almost as irresistibly for exercise as even the poetic instinct itself—should have been held so long unemployed. There is, however, one very common stimulus to literary exertions which in Sterne's case was undoubtedly wanting—a superabundance of unoccupied time. We have little reason, it is true, to suppose that this light-minded and valetudinarian Yorkshire parson was at any period of his life an industrious "parish priest;" but it is probable, nevertheless, that time never hung very heavily upon his hands. In addition to the favourite amusements which he enumerates in the Memoir, he was all his days addicted to one which is, perhaps, the most absorbing of all—flirtation. Philandering, and especially philandering of the Platonic and ultra-sentimental order, is almost the one human pastime of which its votaries never seem to tire; and its constant ministrations to human vanity may serve, perhaps, to account for their unwearied absorption in its pursuit. Sterne's first love affair—an affair of which, unfortunately, the consequences were more lasting than the passion—took place immediately upon his leaving Cambridge. To relate it as he relates it to his daughter: "At York I became acquainted with your mother, and courted her for two years. She owned she liked me, but thought herself not rich enough or me too poor to be joined together. She went to her sister's in Staffordshire, and I wrote to her often. I believe then she was partly determined to have me, but would not say so. At her return she fell into a consumption, and one evening that I was sitting by her, with an almost broken heart to see her so ill, she said: 'My dear Laury, I never can be yours, for I verily believe I have not long to live! But I have left you every shilling of my fortune.' Upon that she showed me her will. This generosity overpowered me. It pleased God that she recovered, and we were married in 1741." The name of this lady was Elizabeth Lumley, and it was to her that Sterne addressed those earliest letters which his daughter included in the collection published by her some eight years after her father's death. They were added, the preface tells us, "in justice to Mr. Sterne's delicate feelings;" and in our modern usage of the word "delicate," as equivalent to infirm of health and probably short of life, they no doubt do full justice to the passion which they are supposed to express. It would be unfair, of course, to judge any love-letters of that period by the standard of sincerity applied in our own less artificial age. All such compositions seem frigid and formal enough to us of to-day; yet in most cases of genuine attachment we usually find at least a sentence here and there in which the natural accents of the heart make themselves heard above the affected modulations of the style. But the letters of Sterne's courtship maintain the pseudo-poetic, shepherd-and-shepherdess strain throughout; or, if the lover ever abandons it, it is only to make somewhat maudlin record of those "tears" which flowed a little too easily at all times throughout his life. These letters, however, have a certain critical interest in their bearing upon those sensibilities which Sterne afterwards learned to cultivate in a forcing-frame, with a view to the application of their produce to the purposes of an art of pathetic writing which simulates nature with such admirable fidelity at its best, and descends to such singular bathos at its worst.
The marriage preluded by this courtship did not take place till Sterne had already been three years Vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, the benefice which had been procured for him by his uncle the Archdeacon; through whose interest also he was appointed successively to two prebends—preferments which were less valuable to him for their emolument than for the ecclesiastical status which they conferred upon him, for the excuse which they gave him for periodical visits to the cathedral city to fulfil the residential conditions of his offices, and for the opportunity thus afforded him of mixing in and studying the society of the Close. Upon his union with Miss Lumley, and, in a somewhat curious fashion, by her means, he obtained in addition the living of Stillington. "A friend of hers in the South had promised her that if she married a clergyman in Yorkshire, when the living became vacant he would make her a compliment of it;" and made accordingly this singular "compliment" was. At Sutton Sterne remained nearly twenty years, doing duty at both places, during which time "books, painting, fiddling, and shooting were," he says, "my chief amusements." With what success he shot, and with what skill he fiddled, we know not. His writings contain not a few musical metaphors and allusions to music, which seem to indicate a competent acquaintance with its technicalities; but the specimen of his powers as an artist, which Mr. Fitzgerald has reproduced from his illustrations of a volume of poems by Mr. Woodhull, does not dispose one to rate highly his proficiency in this accomplishment. We may expect that, after all, it was the first-mentioned of his amusements in which he took the greatest delight, and that neither the brush, the bow, nor the fowling-piece was nearly so often in his hand as the book. Within a few miles of Sutton, at Skelton Castle, an almost unique Roman stronghold, since modernized by Gothic hands, dwelt his college-friend John Hall Stevenson, whose well-stocked library contained a choice but heterogeneous collection of books—old French "ana," and the learning of mediaeval doctors—books intentionally and books unintentionally comic, the former of which Sterne read with an only too retentive a memory for their jests, and the latter with an acutely humorous appreciation of their solemn trifling. Later on it will be time to note the extent to which he utilized these results of his widely discursive reading, and to examine the legitimacy of the mode in which he used them: here it is enough to say generally that the materials for many a burlesque chapter of Tristram Shandy must have been unconsciously storing themselves in his mind in many an amused hour passed by Sterne in the library of Skelton Castle.
But before finally quitting this part of my subject it may be as well, perhaps, to deal somewhat at length with a matter which will doubtless have to be many times incidentally referred to in the course of this study, but which I now hope to relieve myself from the necessity of doing more than touch upon hereafter. I refer of course to Sterne's perpetually recurring flirtations. This is a matter almost as impossible to omit from any biography of Sterne as it would be to omit it from any biography of Goethe. The English humourist did not, it is true, engage in the pastime in the serious, not to say scientific, spirit of the German philosopher-poet; it was not deliberately made by the former as by the latter to contribute to his artistic development; but it is nevertheless hardly open to doubt that Sterne's philandering propensities did exercise an influence upon his literary character and work in more ways than one. That his marriage was an ill-assorted and unhappy union was hardly so much the cause of his inconstancy as its effect. It may well be, of course, that the "dear L.," whose moral and mental graces her lover had celebrated in such superfine, sentimental fashion, was a commonplace person enough. That she was really a woman of the exquisite stolidity of Mrs. Shandy, and that her exasperating feats as an assentatrix did, as has been suggested, supply the model for the irresistibly ludicrous colloquies between the philosopher and his wife, there is no sufficient warrant for believing. But it is quite possible that the daily companion of one of the most indefatigable jesters that ever lived may have been unable to see a joke; that she regarded her husband's wilder drolleries as mere horse-collar grimacing, and that the point of his subtler humour escaped her altogether. But even if it were so, it is, to say the least of it, doubtful whether Sterne suffered at all on this ground from the wounded feelings of the mari incompris, while it is next to certain that it does not need the sting of any such disappointment to account for his alienation. He must have had plenty of time and opportunity to discover Miss Lumley's intellectual limitations during the two years of his courtship; and it is not likely that, even if they were as well marked as Mrs. Shandy's own, they would have done much of themselves to estrange the couple. Sympathy is not the necessity to the humourist which the poet finds, or imagines, it to be to himself: the humourist, indeed, will sometimes contrive to extract from the very absence of sympathy in those about him a keener relish for his reflections. With sentiment, indeed, and still more with sentimentalism, the case would of course be different; but as for Mr. Sterne's demands for sympathy in that department of his life and art, one may say without the least hesitation that they would have been beyond the power of any one woman, however distinguished a disciple of the "Laura Matilda" school, to satisfy. "I must ever," he frankly says in one of the "Yorick to Eliza" letters, "I must ever have some Dulcinea in my head: it harmonizes the soul;" and he might have added that he found it impossible to sustain the harmony without frequently changing the Dulcinea. One may suspect that Mrs. Sterne soon had cause for jealousy, and it is at least certain that several years before Sterne's emergence into notoriety their estrangement was complete. One daughter was born to them in 1745, but lived scarcely mare than long enough to be rescued from the limbus infantium by the prompt rites of the Church. The child was christened Lydia, and died on the following day. Its place was filled in 1747 by a second daughter, also christened Lydia, who lived to become the wife of M. de Medalle, and the not very judicious editress of the posthumous "Letters." For her as she grew up Sterne conceived a genuine and truly fatherly affection, and it is in writing to her and of her that we see him at his best; or rather one might say it is almost only then that we can distinguish the true notes of the heart through that habitual falsetto of sentimentalism which distinguishes most of Sterne's communications with the other sex. There was no subsequent issue of the marriage, and, from one of the letters most indiscreetly included in Madame de Medalle's collection, it is to be ascertained that some four years or so after Lydia's birth the relations between Sterne and Mrs. Sterne ceased to be conjugal, and never again resumed that character.
It is, however, probable, upon the husband's own confessions, that he had given his wife earlier cause for jealousy, and certainly from the time when he begins to reveal himself in correspondence there seems to be hardly a moment when some such cause was not in existence—in the person of this, that, or the other lackadaisical damsel or coquettish matron. From Miss Fourmantelle, the "dear, dear Kitty," to whom Sterne was making violent love in 1759, the year of the York publication of Tristram Shandy, down to Mrs. Draper, the heroine of the famous "Yorick to Eliza" letters, the list of ladies who seem to have kindled flames in that susceptible breast is almost as long and more real than the roll of mistresses immortalized by Horace. How Mrs. Sterne at first bore herself under her husband's ostentatious neglect there is no direct evidence to show. That she ultimately took refuge in indifference we can perceive, but it is to be feared that she was not always able to maintain the attitude of contemptuous composure. So, at least, we may suspect from the evidence of that Frenchman who met "le bon et agreable Tristram," and his wife, at Montpellier, and who, characteristically sympathizing with the inconstant husband, declared that his wife's incessant pursuit of him made him pass "d'assez mauvais moments," which he bore "with the patience of an angel." But, on the whole, Mrs. Sterne's conduct seems by her husband's own admissions to have been not wanting in dignity.
As to the nature of Sterne's love-affairs I have come, though not without hesitation, to the conclusion that they were most, if not all of them, what is called, somewhat absurdly, Platonic. In saying this, however, I am by no means prepared to assert that they would all of them have passed muster before a prosaic and unsentimental British jury as mere indiscretions, and nothing worse. Sterne's relations with Miss Fourmantelle, for instance, assumed at last a profoundly compromising character, and it is far from improbable that the worst construction would have been put upon them by one of the plain-dealing tribunals aforesaid. Certainly a young woman who leaves her mother at York, and comes up to London to reside alone in lodgings, where she is constantly being visited by a lover who is himself living en garcon in the metropolis, can hardly complain if her imprudence is fatal to her reputation; neither can he if his own suffers in the same way. But, as I am not of those who hold that the conventionally "innocent" is the equivalent of the morally harmless in this matter, I cannot regard the question as worth any very minute investigation. I am not sure that the habitual male flirt, who neglects his wife to sit continually languishing at the feet of some other woman, gives much less pain and scandal to others, or does much less mischief to himself and the objects of his adoration, than the thorough-going profligate; and I even feel tempted to risk the apparent paradox that, from the artistic point of view, Sterne lost rather than gained by the generally Platonic character of his amours. For, as it was, the restraint of one instinct of his nature implied the over-indulgence of another which stood in at least as much need of chastenment. If his love-affairs stopped short of the gratification of the senses, they involved a perpetual fondling and caressing of those effeminate sensibilities of his into that condition of hyper-aesthesia which, though Sterne regarded it as the strength, was in reality the weakness, of his art.
Injurious, however, as was the effect which Sterne's philanderings exercised upon his personal and literary character, it is not likely that, at least at this period of his life at Sutton, they had in any degree compromised his reputation. For this he had provided in other ways, and principally by his exceedingly injudicious choice of associates. "As to the squire of the parish," he remarks in the Memoir, "I cannot say we were on a very friendly footing, but at Stillington the family of the C[rofts] showed us every kindness: 'twas most agreeable to be within a mile and a half of an amiable family who were ever cordial friends;" and who, it may be added, appear to have been Sterne's only reputable acquaintances. For the satisfaction of all other social needs he seems to have resorted to a companionship which it was hardly possible for a clergyman to frequent without scandal—that, namely, of John Hall Stevenson and the kindred spirits whom he delighted to collect around him at Skelton—familiarly known as "Crazy" Castle. The club of the "Demoniacs," of which Sterne makes mention in his letters, may have had nothing very diabolical about it except the name; but, headed as it was by the suspected ex-comrade of Wilkes and his brother monks of Medmenham, and recruited by gay militaires like Colonels Hall and Lee, and "fast" parsons like the Rev. "Panty" Lascelles (mock godson of Pantagruel), it was certainly a society in which the Vicar of Sutton could not expect to enroll himself without offence. We may fairly suppose, therefore, that it was to his association with these somewhat too "jolly companions" that Sterne owed that disfavour among decorous country circles, of which he shows resentful consciousness in the earlier chapters of Tristram Shandy.
But before we finally cross the line which separates the life of the obscure country parson from the life of the famous author, a word or two must be said of that piece of writing which was alluded to a few pages back as the only known exception to the generally "professional" character of all Sterne's compositions of the pre-Shandian era. This was a piece in the allegoric-satirical style, which, though not very remarkable in itself, may not improbably have helped to determine its author's thoughts in the direction of more elaborate literary efforts. In the year 1758 a dispute had arisen between a certain Dr. Topham, an ecclesiastical lawyer in large local practice, and Dr. Fountayne, the then Dean of York. This dispute had originated in an attempt on the part of the learned civilian, who appears to have been a pluralist of an exceptionally insatiable order, to obtain the reversion of one of his numerous offices for his son, alleging a promise made to him on that behalf by the Archbishop. This promise—which had, in fact, been given—was legally impossible of performance, and upon the failure of his attempt the disappointed Topham turned upon the Dean, and maintained that by him, at any rate, he had been promised another place of the value of five guineas per annum, and appropriately known as the "Commissaryship of Pickering and Pocklington." This the Dean denied, and thereupon Dr. Topham fired off a pamphlet setting forth the circumstances of the alleged promise, and protesting against the wrong inflicted upon him by its non-performance. At this point Sterne came to Dr. Fountayne's assistance with a sarcastic apologue entitled the "History of a good Warm Watchcoat," which had "hung up many years in the parish vestry," and showing how this garment had so excited the cupidity of Trim, the sexton, that "nothing would serve him but he must take it home, to have it converted into a warm under-petticoat for his wife and a jerkin for himself against the winter." The symbolization of Dr. Topham's snug "patent place," which he wished to make hereditary, under the image of the good warm watchcoat, is of course plain enough; and there is some humour in the way in which the parson (the Archbishop) discovers that his incautious assent to Trim's request had been given ultra vires. Looking through the parish register, at the request of a labourer who wished to ascertain his age, the parson finds express words of bequest leaving the watch-coat "for the sole use of the sextons of the church for ever, to be worn by them respectively on winterly cold nights," and at the moment when he is exclaiming, "Just Heaven! what an escape have I had! Give this for a petticoat to Trim's wife!" he is interrupted by Trim himself entering the vestry with "the coat actually ript and cut out" ready for conversion into a petticoat for his wife. And we get a foretaste of the familiar Shandian impertinence in the remark which follows, that "there are many good similes subsisting in the world, but which I have neither time to recollect nor look for," which would give you an idea of the parson's astonishment at Trim's impudence. The emoluments of "Pickering and Pocklington" appear under the figure of a "pair of black velvet plush breeches" which ultimately "got into the possession of one Lorry Slim (Sterne himself, of course), an unlucky wight, by whom they are still worn: in truth, as you will guess, they are very thin by this time."
The whole thing is the very slightest of "skits;" and the quarrel having been accommodated before it could be published, it was not given to the world until after its author's death. But it is interesting, as his first known attempt in this line of composition, and the grasping sexton deserves remembrance, if only as having handed down his name to a far more famous descendant.
"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. I. AND II.
Hitherto we have had to construct our conception of Sterne out of materials of more or less plausible conjecture. We are now at last approaching the region of positive evidence, and henceforward, down almost to the last scene of all, Sterne's doings will be chronicled, and his character revealed, by one who happens, in this case, to be the best of all possible biographers—the man himself. Not that such records are by any means always the most trustworthy of evidence. There are some men whose real character is never more effectually concealed than in their correspondence. But it is not so with Sterne. The careless, slipshod letters which Madame de Medalle "pitchforked" into the book-market, rather than edited, are highly valuable as pieces of autobiography. They are easy, naive, and natural, rich in simple self-disclosure in almost every page; and if they have more to tell us about the man than the writer, they are yet not wanting in instructive hints as to Sterne's methods of composition and his theories of art.
It was in the year 1759 that the Vicar of Sutton and Prebendary of York—already, no doubt, a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to many worthy people in the county—conceived the idea of astonishing and scandalizing them still further after a new and original fashion. His impulses to literary production were probably various, and not all of them, or perhaps the strongest of them, of the artistic order. The first and most urgent was, it may be suspected, the simplest and most common of all such motive forces. Sterne, in all likelihood, was in want of money. He was not, perhaps, under the actual instruction of that magister artium whom the Roman satirist has celebrated; for he declared, indeed, afterwards, that "he wrote not to be fed, but to be famous." But the context of the passage shows that he only meant to deny any absolute compulsion to write for mere subsistence. Between this sort of constraint and that gentler form of pressure which arises from the wish to increase an income sufficient for one's needs, but inadequate to one's desires, there is a considerable difference; and to repudiate the one is not to disclaim the other. It is, at any rate, certain that Sterne engaged at one time of his life in a rather speculative sort of farming, and we have it from himself in a passage in one of his letters, which may be jest, but reads more like earnest, that it was his losses in this business that first turned his attention to literature. His thoughts once set in that direction, his peculiar choice of subject and method of treatment are easily comprehensible. Pantagruelic burlesque came to him, if not naturally, at any rate by "second nature." He had a strong and sedulously cultivated taste for Rabelaisian humour; his head was crammed with all sorts of out-of-the-way learning constantly tickling his comic sense by its very uselessness; he relished more keenly than any man the solemn futilities of mediaeval doctors, and the pedantic indecencies of casuist fathers; and, along with all these temptations to an enterprise of the kind upon which he entered, he had been experiencing a steady relaxation of deterrent restraints. He had fallen out with his uncle some years since, and the quarrel had freed him from at least one influence making for clerical propriety of behaviour. His incorrigible levities had probably lost him the countenance of most of his more serious acquaintances; his satirical humour had as probably gained him personal enemies not a few, and it may be that he had gradually contracted something of that "naughty-boy" temper, as we may call it, for which the deliberate and ostentatious repetition of offences has an inexplicable charm. It seems clear, too, that, growth for growth with this spirit of bravado, there had sprung up—in somewhat incongruous companionship, perhaps—a certain sense of wrong. Along with the impulse to give an additional shock to the prejudices he had already offended, Sterne felt impelled to vindicate what he considered the genuine moral worth underlying the indiscretions of the offender. What, then, could better suit him than to compose a novel in which he might give full play to his simious humour, startle more hideously than ever his straighter-laced neighbours, defiantly defend his own character, and caricature whatever eccentric figure in the society around him might offer the most tempting butt for ridicule?
[Footnote 1: "I was once such a puppy myself," he writes to a certain baronet whom he is attempting to discourage from speculative farming of this sort, "and had my labour for my pains and two hundred pounds out of pocket. Curse on farming! (I said). Let us see if the pen will not succeed better than the spade."]
[Footnote 2: He himself, indeed, makes a particular point of this in explaining his literary venture. "Now for your desire," he writes to a correspondent in 1759, "of knowing the reason of my turning author? why, truly I am tired of employing my brains for other people's advantage. 'Tis a foolish sacrifice I have made for some years for an ungrateful person."—Letters, i. 82.]
All the world knows how far he ultimately advanced beyond the simplicity of the conception, and into what far higher regions of art its execution led him. But I find no convincing reason for believing that Tristram Shandy had at the outset any more seriously artistic purpose than this; and much indirect evidence that this, in fact, it was.
The humorous figure of Mr. Shandy is, of course, the Cervantic centre of the whole; and it was out of him and his crotchets that Sterne, no doubt, intended from the first to draw the materials of that often unsavoury fun which was to amuse the light-minded and scandalize the demure. But it can hardly escape notice that the two most elaborate portraits in Vol. I.—the admirable but very flatteringly idealized sketch of the author himself in Yorick, and the Gilrayesque caricature of Dr. Slop—are drawn with a distinctly polemical purpose, defensive in the former case and offensive in the latter. On the other hand, with the disappearance of Dr. Slop caricature of living persons disappears also; while, after the famous description of Yorick's death-bed, we meet with no more attempts at self-vindication. It seems probable, therefore, that long before the first two volumes were completed Sterne had discovered the artistic possibilities of "My Uncle Toby" and "Corporal Trim," and had realized the full potentialities of humour contained in the contrast between the two brothers Shandy. The very work of sharpening and deepening the outlines of this humorous antithesis, while it made the crack-brained philosopher more and more of a burlesque unreality, continually added new touches of life and nature to the lineaments of the simple-minded soldier; and it was by this curious and half-accidental process that there came to be added to the gallery of English fiction one of the most perfect and delightful portraits that it possesses.
We know from internal evidence that Tristram Shandy was begun in the early days of 1759; and the first two volumes were probably completed by about the middle of the year. "In the year 1760," writes Sterne, "I went up to London to publish my two first volumes of Shandy." And it is stated in a note to this passage, as cited in Scott's memoir, that the first edition was published "the year before" in York. There is, however, no direct proof that it was in the hands of the public before the beginning of 1760, though it is possible that the date of its publication may just have fallen within the year. But, at all events, on the 1st of January, 1760, an advertisement in the Public Advertiser informed the world that "this day" was "published, printed on superfine writing-paper, &c., The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. York. Printed for and sold by John Hinxham, Bookseller in Stonegate." The great London publisher, Dodslecy, to whom the book had been offered, and who had declined the venture, figures in the advertisement as the principal London bookseller from whom it was to be obtained. It seems that only a few copies were in the first instance sent up to the London market; but they fell into good hands, for there is evidence that Tristram Shandy had attracted the notice of at least one competent critic in the capital before the month of January was out. But though the metropolitan success of the book was destined to be delayed for still a month or two, in York it had already created a furore in more senses than one. For, in fact, and no wonder, it had in many quarters given the deepest offence. Its Rabelaisian license of incident and allusion was calculated to offend the proprieties—the provincial proprieties especially—even in that free-spoken age; and there was that in the book, moreover, which a provincial society may be counted on to abominate, with a keener if less disinterested abhorrence than any sins against decency. It contained, or was supposed to contain, a broadly ludicrous caricature of one well-known local physician; and an allusion, brief, indeed, and covert, but highly scandalous, to a certain "droll foible" attributed to another personage of much wider celebrity in the scientific world. The victim in the latter case was no longer living; and this circumstance brought upon Sterne a remonstrance from a correspondent, to which he replied in a letter so characteristic in many respects as to be worth quoting. His correspondent was a Dr. * * * * * (asterisks for which it is now impossible to substitute letters); and the burden of what seem to have been several communications in speech and writing on the subject was the maxim, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum." With such seriousness and severity had his correspondent dwelt upon this adage, that "at length," writes Sterne, "you have made me as serious and as severe as yourself; but, that the humours you have stirred up might not work too potently within me, I have waited four days to cool myself before I could set pen to paper to answer you." And thus he sets forth the results of his four days' deliberation:
"'De mortuis nil nisi bonum.' I declare I have considered the wisdom and foundation of it over and over again as dispassionately and charitably as a good Christian can, and, after all, I can find nothing in it, or make more of it than a nonsensical lullaby of some nurse, put into Latin by some pedant, to be chanted by some hypocrite to the end of the world for the consolation of departing lechers. 'Tis, I own, Latin, and I think that is all the weight it has, for, in plain English, 'tis a loose and futile position below a dispute. 'You are not to speak anything of the dead but what is good.' Why so? Who says so? Neither reason nor Scripture. Inspired authors have done otherwise, and reason and common sense tell me that, if the characters of past ages and men are to be drawn at all, they are to be drawn like themselves, that is, with their excellences and their foibles; and it as much a piece of justice to the world, and to virtue, too, to do the one as the other. The ruling passion, et les egarements du coeur, are the very things which mark and distinguish a man's character, in which I would as soon leave out a man's head as his hobby-horse. However, if, like the poor devil of a painter, we must conform to the pious canon, 'De mortuis,' &c., which I own has a spice of piety in the sound of it, and be obliged to paint both our angels and our devils out of the same pot, I then infer that our Sydenhams and our Sangrados, our Lucretias and our Messalinas, our Somersets and our Bolingbrokes, are alike entitled to statues, and all the historians or satirists who have said otherwise since they departed this life, from Sallust to S——e, are guilty of the crimes you charge me with, 'cowardice and injustice.' But why cowardice? 'Because 'tis not courage to attack a dead man who can't defend himself.' But why do you doctors attack such a one with your incision knife? Oh! for the good of the living. 'Tis my plea."
And, having given this humorous twist to his argument, he glides off into extenuatory matter. He had not even, he protests, made as much as a surgical incision into his victim (Dr. Richard Mead, the friend of Bentley and of Newton, and a physician and physiologist of high repute in his day); he had but just scratched him, and that scarce skin-deep. As to the "droll foible" of Dr. Mead, which he had made merry with, "it was not first reported (even to the few who can understand the hint) by me, but known before by every chambermaid and footman within the bills of mortality"—a somewhat daring assertion, one would imagine, considering what the droll foible was; and Dr. Mead, continues Sterne, great man as he was, had, after all, not fared worse than "a man of twice his wisdom"—to wit Solomon, of whom the same remark had been made, that "they were both great men, and, like all mortal men, had each their ruling passion."
The mixture of banter and sound reasoning in this reply is, no doubt, very skilful. But, unfortunately, neither the reasoning nor the banter happens to meet the case of this particular defiance of the "De mortuis" maxim, and as a serious defence against a serious charge (which was what the occasion required) Sterne's answer is altogether futile. For the plea of "the good of the living," upon which, after all, the whole defence, considered seriously, rests, was quite inapplicable as an excuse for the incriminated passage. The only living persons who could possibly be affected by it, for good or evil, were those surviving friends of the dead man, to whom Sterne's allusion to what he called Dr. Mead's "droll foible" was calculated to cause the deepest pain and shame.
The other matter of offence to Sterne's Yorkshire readers was of a much more elaborate kind. In the person of Dr. Slop, the grotesque man-midwife, who was to have assisted, but missed assisting, at Tristram's entry into the world, the good people of York were not slow to recognize the physical peculiarities and professional antecedents of Dr. Burton, the local accoucheur, whom Archdeacon Sterne had arrested as a Jacobite. That the portrait was faithful to anything but the external traits of the original, or was intended to reproduce anything more than these, Sterne afterwards denied; and we have certainly no ground for thinking that Burton had invited ridicule on any other than the somewhat unworthy ground of the curious ugliness of his face and figure. It is most unlikely that his success as a practitioner in a branch of the medical art in which imposture is the most easily detected, could have been earned by mere quackery; and he seems, moreover, to have been a man of learning in more kinds than one. The probability is that the worst that could be alleged against him was a tendency to scientific pedantry in his published writings, which was pretty sure to tickle the fancy of Mr. Sterne. Unscrupulously, however, as he was caricatured, the sensation which appears to have been excited in the county by the burlesque portrait could hardly have been due to any strong public sympathy with the involuntary sitter. Dr. Burton seems, as a suspected Jacobite, to have been no special favourite with the Yorkshire squirearchy in general, but rather the reverse thereof. Ucalegon, however, does not need to be popular to arouse his neighbour's interest in his misfortunes; and the caricature of Burton was doubtless resented on the proximus ardet principle by many who feared that their turn was coming next.
To all the complaints and protests which reached him on the subject Sterne would in any case, probably, have been indifferent; but he was soon to receive encouragement which would have more than repaid a man of his temper for twice the number of rebukes. For London cared nothing for Yorkshire susceptibilities and Yorkshire fears. Provincial notables might be libelled, and their friends might go in fear of similar treatment, but all that was nothing to "the town," and Tristram Shandy had taken the town by storm. We gather from a passage in the letter above quoted that as early as January 30 the book had "gained the very favourable opinion" of Mr. Garrick, afterwards to become the author's intimate friend; and it is certain that by the time of Sterne's arrival in London, in March, 1760, Tristram Shandy had become the rage.
To say of this extraordinary work that it defies analysis would be the merest inadequacy of commonplace. It was meant to defy analysis; it is of the very essence of its scheme and purpose that it should do so; and the mere attempt to subject it systematically to any such process would argue an altogether mistaken conception of the author's intent. Its full "official" style and title is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., and it is difficult to say which it contains the less about—the opinions of Tristram Shandy or the events of his life. As a matter of fact, its proper description would be "The Opinions of Tristram Shandy's Father, with some Passages from the Life of his Uncle." Its claim to be regarded as a biography of its nominal hero is best illustrated by the fact that Tristram is not born till the third volume, and not breeched till the sixth; that it is not till the seventh that he begins to play any active part in the narrative, appearing then only as a completely colourless and unindividualized figure, a mere vehicle for the conveyance of Sterne's own Continental impressions de voyage; and that in the last two volumes, which are entirely taken up with the incident of his uncle's courtship, he disappears from the story altogether. It is to be presumed, perhaps, though not very confidently, that the reader would have seen more of him if the tale had been continued; but how much or how little is quite uncertain. The real hero of the book is at the outset Mr. Shandy, senior, who is, later on, succeeded in this place of dignity by my Uncle Toby. It not only served Sterne's purpose to confine himself mainly to these two characters, as the best whereon to display his powers, but it was part of his studied eccentricity to do so. It was a "point" to give as little as possible about Tristram Shandy in a life of Tristram Shandy; just as it was a point to keep the reader waiting throughout the year 1760 for their hero to be so much as born. In the first volume, therefore, the author does literally everything but make the slightest progress with his story. Starting off abruptly with a mock physiologic disquisition upon the importance of a proper ordering of their mental states on the part of the intending progenitors of children, he philosophizes gravely on this theme for two or three chapters; and then wanders away into an account of the local midwife, upon whose sole services Mrs. Shandy, in opposition to her husband, was inclined to rely. From the midwife it is an easy transition to her patron and protector, the incumbent of the parish, and this, in its turn, suggests a long excursus on the character, habits, appearance, home, friends, enemies, and finally death, burial, and epitaph of the Rev. Mr. Yorick. Thence we return to Mr. and Mrs. Shandy, and are made acquainted, in absurdly minute detail, with an agreement entered into between them with reference to the place of sojourn to be selected for the lady's accouchement, the burlesque deed which records this compact being actually set out at full length. Thence, again, we are beckoned away by the jester to join him in elaborate and not very edifying ridicule of the Catholic doctrine of ante-natal baptism; and thence—but it would be useless to follow further the windings and doublings of this literary hare.
Yet though the book, as one thus summarizes it, may appear a mere farrago of digressions, it nevertheless, after its peculiar fashion, advances. Such definite purpose as underlies the tricks and grimaces of its author is by degrees accomplished; and before we reach the end of the first volume the highly humorous, if extravagantly idealized, figure of Mr. Shandy takes bodily shape and consistency before our eyes. It is a mistake, I think, of Sir Walter Scott's to regard the portrait of this eccentric philosopher as intended for a satire upon perverted and deranged erudition—as the study of a man "whom too much and too miscellaneous learning had brought within a step or two of madness." Sterne's conception seems to me a little more subtle and less commonplace than that. Mr. Shandy, I imagine, is designed to personify not "crack-brained learning" so much as "theory run mad." He is possessed by a sort of Demon of the Deductive, ever impelling him to push his premises to new conclusions without ever allowing him time to compare them with the facts. No doubt we are meant to regard him as a learned man; but his son gives us to understand distinctly and very early in the book that his crotchets were by no means those of a weak receptive mind, overladen with more knowledge than it could digest, but rather those of an over-active intelligence, far more deeply and constantly concerned with its own processes than with the thoughts of others. Tristram, indeed, dwells pointedly on the fact that his father's dialectical skill was not the result of training, and that he owed nothing to the logic of the schools. "He was certainly," says his son, "irresistible both in his orations and disputations," but that was because "he was born an orator ([Greek: Theodidaktos]). Persuasion hung upon his lips, and the elements of logic and rhetoric were so blended in him, and withal he had so shrewd a guess at the weaknesses and passions of his respondent, that Nature might have stood up and said, 'This man is eloquent.' And yet," continues the filial panegyric,
"He had never read Cicero nor Quintilian de Oratore, nor Aristotle, nor Longinus among the ancients, nor Vossius, nor Skioppius, nor Ramus, nor Farnaby among the moderns: and what is more astonishing he had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtilty struck into his mind by one single lecture upon Crackenthorpe or Burgersdicius or any Dutch commentator: he knew not so much as in what the difference of an argument ad ignorantiam and an argument ad hominem consisted; and when he went up along with me to enter my name at Jesus College, in * * * *, it was a matter of just wonder with my worthy tutor and two or three Fellows of that learned society that a man who knew not so much as the names of his tools should be able to work after that fashion with them."
Surely we all know men of this kind, and the consternation—comparable only to that of M. Jourdain under the impromptu carte-and-tierce of his servant-maid—which their sturdy if informal dialectic will often spread among many kinds of "learned societies." But such men are certainly not of the class which Scott supposed to have been ridiculed in the character of Walter Shandy.
Among the crotchets of this born dialectician was a theory as to the importance of Christian names in determining the future behaviour and destiny of the children to whom they are given; and, whatever admixture of jest there might have been in some of his other fancies, in this his son affirms he was absolutely serious. He solemnly maintained the opinion "that there was a strange kind of magic bias which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our character and conduct." How many Caesars and Pompeys, he would say, by mere inspiration of their names have been rendered worthy of them! And how many, he would add, are there who might have done exceeding well in the world had not their characters and spirits been totally depressed and Nicodemus'd into nothing! He was astonished at parents failing to perceive that "when once a vile name was wrongfully or injudiciously given, 'twas not like a case of a man's character, which, when wronged, might afterwards be cleared; and possibly some time or other, if not in the man's life, at least after his death, be somehow or other set to rights with the world." This name-giving injury, he would say, "could never be undone; nay, he doubted whether an Act of Parliament could reach it; he knew, as well as you, that the Legislature assumed a power over surnames; but for very strong reasons, which he could give, it had never yet adventured, he would say, to go a step further."
With all this extravagance, however, there was combined an admirable affectation of sobriety. Mr. Shandy would have us believe that he was no blind slave to his theory. He was quite willing to admit the existence of names which could not affect the character either for good or evil—Jack, Dick, and Tom, for instance; and such the philosopher styled "neutral names," affirming of them, "without a satire, that there had been as many knaves and fools at least as wise and good men since the world began, who had indifferently borne them, so that, like equal forces acting against each other in contrary directions, he thought they mutually destroyed each other's effects; for which reason he would often declare he would not give a cherry-stone to choose among them. Bob, which was my brother's name, was another of these neutral kinds of Christian names which operated very little either way; and as my father happened to be at Epsom when it was given him, he would ofttimes thank Heaven it was no worse." Forewarned of this peculiarity of Mr.
Shandy's, the reader is, of course, prepared to hear that of all the names in the universe the philosopher had the most unconquerable aversion for Tristram, "the lowest and most contemptible opinion of it of anything in the world." He would break off in the midst of one of his frequent disputes on the subject of names, and "in a spirited epiphonema, or rather erotesis," demand of his antagonist "whether he would take upon him to say he had ever remembered, whether he had ever read, or whether he had ever heard tell of a man called Tristram performing anything great or worth recording. No, he would say. Tristram! the thing is impossible." It only remained that he should have published a book in defence of the belief, and sure enough "in the year sixteen," two years before the birth of his second son, "he was at the pains of writing an express dissertation simply upon the word Tristram, showing the world with great candour and modesty the grounds of his great abhorrence to the name." And with this idea Sterne continues to amuse himself at intervals till the end of the chapter.
That he does not so persistently amuse the reader it is, of course, scarcely necessary to say. The jest has not substance enough—few of Sterne's jests have—to stand the process of continual attrition to which he subjects it. But the mere historic gravity with which the various turns of this monomania are recorded—to say nothing of the seldom failing charm of the easy, gossiping style—prevents the thing from ever becoming utterly tiresome. On the whole, however, one begins to grow impatient for more of the same sort as the three admirable chapters on the Rev. Mr. Yorick, and is not sorry to get to the opening of the second volume, with its half-tender, half-humorous, and wholly delightful account of Uncle Toby's difficulties in describing the siege operations before Namur, and of the happy chance by which these difficulties made him ultimately the fortunate possessor of a "hobby."
Throughout this volume there are manifest signs of Sterne's unceasing interest in his own creations, and of his increasing consciousness of creative power. Captain Toby Shandy is but just lightly sketched-in the first volume, while Corporal Trim has not made his appearance on the scene at all; but before the end of the second we know both of them thoroughly, within and without. Indeed, one might almost say that in the first half-dozen chapters which so excellently recount the origin of the corporal's fortification scheme, and the wounded officer's delighted acceptance of it, every trait in the simple characters—alike yet so different in their simplicity—of master and of man becomes definitely fixed in the reader's mind. And the total difference between the second and the first volume in point of fulness, variety, and colour is most marked. The artist, the inventor, the master of dialogue, the comic dramatist, in fact, as distinct from the humorous essayist, would almost seem to have started into being as we pass from the one volume to the other. There is nothing in the drolleries of the first volume—in the broad jests upon Mr. Shandy's crotchets, or even in the subtler humour of the intellectual collision between these crotchets and his brother's plain sense—to indicate the kind of power displayed in that remarkable colloquy a quatre, which begins with the arrival of Dr. Slop and ends with Corporal Trim's recital of the Sermon on Conscience. Wit, humour, irony, quaint learning, shrewd judgment of men and things, of these Sterne had displayed abundance already; but it is not in the earlier but in the later half of the first instalment of Tristram Shandy that we first become conscious that he is something more than the possessor of all these things; that he is gifted with the genius of creation, and has sent forth new beings into that world of immortal shadows which to many of us is more real than our own.
LONDON TRIUMPHS.—FIRST SET OF SERMONS.—"TRISTRAM SHANDY," VOLS. III. AND IV.—COXWOLD.—VOLS. V. AND VI.—FIRST VISIT TO THE CONTINENT.—PARIS.—TOULOUSE.
Sterne alighted from the York mail, just as Byron "awoke one morning," to "find himself famous." Seldom indeed has any lion so suddenly discovered been pursued so eagerly and by such a distinguished crowd of hunters. The chase was remarkable enough to have left a lasting impression on the spectators; for it was several years after (in 1773) that Dr. Johnson, by way of fortifying his very just remark that "any man who has a name or who has the power of pleasing will be generally invited in London," observed gruffly that "the man Sterne," he was told, "had had engagements for three months." And truly it would appear from abundant evidence that "the man Sterne" gained such a social triumph as might well have turned a stronger head than his. Within twenty-four hours after his arrival his lodgings in Pall Mall were besieged by a crowd of fashionable visitors; and in a few weeks he had probably made the acquaintance of "everybody who was anybody" in the London society of that day.
How thoroughly he relished the delights of celebrity is revealed, with a simple vanity which almost disarms criticism, in many a passage of his correspondence. In one of his earliest letters to Miss Fourmantelle we find him proudly relating to her how already he "was engaged to ten noblemen and men of fashion." Of Garrick, who had warmly welcomed the humourist whose merits he had been the first to discover, Sterne says that he had "promised him at dinner to numbers of great people." Amongst these great people who sought him out for themselves was that discerning patron of ability in every shape, Lord Rockingham. In one of the many letters which Madame de Medalle flung dateless upon the world, but which from internal evidence we can assign to the early months of 1760, Sterne writes that he is about to "set off with a grand retinue of Lord Rockingham's (in whose suite I move) for Windsor" to witness, it should seem, an installation of a Knight of the Garter. It is in his letters to Miss Fourmantelle, however, that his almost boyish exultation at his London triumph discloses itself most frankly. "My rooms," he writes, "are filling every hour with great people of the first rank, who strive who shall most honour me." Never, he believes, had such homage been rendered to any man by devotees so distinguished. "The honours paid me were the greatest that were ever known from the great."
The self-painted portrait is not, it must be confessed, altogether an attractive one. It is somewhat wanting in dignity, and its air of over-inflated complacency is at times slightly ridiculous. But we must not judge Sterne in this matter by too severe a standard. He was by nature neither a dignified nor a self-contained man: he had a head particularly unfitted to stand sudden elevation; and it must be allowed that few men's power of resisting giddiness at previously unexplored altitudes was ever so severely tried. It was not only "the great" in the sense of the high in rank and social distinction by whom he was courted; he was welcomed also by the eminent in genius and learning; and it would be no very difficult task for him to flatter himself that it was the latter form of recognition which, he really valued most. Much, at any rate, in the way of undue elation may be forgiven to a country clergyman who suddenly found himself the centre of a court, which was regularly attended by statesmen, wits, and leaders of fashion, and with whom even bishops condescended to open gracious diplomatic communication. "Even all the bishops," he writes, "have sent their compliments;" and though this can hardly have been true of the whole Episcopal Bench, it is certain that Sterne received something more than a compliment from one bishop, who was a host in himself. He was introduced by Garrick to Warburton, and received high encouragement from that formidable prelate.