The National Encyclopædia


One of the most fertile if not original of English humorists, descended from an ancient and reputable Suffolk stock. He was the great-grandson of Roger Sterne, archbishop of York, who died in 1683, but transmitted nothing of his sententious gravity to his descendant. His father, Roger, was a veteran soldier, who served in Flanders under the great duke of Marlborough, and married there in 1711 the widow of a captain, and the stepdaughter of a noted sutler, to whom he was considerably in debt. He was a lieutenant in Handaside's regiment, and at Clonmel in Ireland, on the 26th of November, 1713, the day after his arrival there with his regiment, a son was born to him, whom he named Laurence.

The early years of Laurence Sterne were therefore spent in the barracks and the barrack-yard, as his father's corps moved from one Irish station to another. It was a strange kind of experience for a clever boy, but furnished him with suggestions, which, at a later period, he turned to fruitful result. His father, who died in Jamaica in 1731, supplied the original of Uncle Toby. 'He was a smart little man,' says Sterne, '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.' During this novitiate Sterne also picked up those hints of military life in Flanders which he so happily embodied in 'Tristram Shandy,' and probably met with the character, or characters, whose idiosyncrasies found 'a local habitation and a name' in Corporal Trim.

Garrick said of him, truly enough, 'he degenerated in London, like an ill-transplanted shrub; the incense of the great spoiled his head, and their ragouts his stomach.'

At the age of ten young Sterne was placed at a boarding-school near Halifax, where occurred a well known incident suggestive of his precocious abilities and youthful promise. The school ceiling had been newly whitewashed. On its virgin surface Laurence was seized with a desire to inscribe his name; a desire which he was enabled to fulfil through the instrumentality of a ladder left in the room by the whitewashers. The usher, surprising him in the act, punished him with a severe whipping, but was reproved for his severity by the master, who observed that never should the name be effaced, for he was certain Sterne was a boy of genius, and that he would come to preferment. Either his talents or family sympathies induced his cousin, Mr. Sterne, of Elvington, to assume his patronage, and defray the expenses of a university curriculum. In 1733 Sterne was entered of Jesus College, Cambridge, where he took his B.A. degree in 1736, and that of M.A. in 1740.

He was educated for the church, and on quitting the university was appointed through his uncle's interest to the vicarage of Sutton, whose duties he undertook in August, 1738. In 1741, after a courtship of ten years, he married a lady with some little fortune, and many excellent qualities. His wife's relations soon afterwards procured him the living of Stillington, near that of Sutton, and through his uncle he was made prebendary of York. Provided with a sufficient competency, for twenty years Sterne discharged his clerical duties with commendable fidelity; 'books, painting, fiddling, and shooting, being his only amusements.' He was unconscious, in all probability, of the extent and true direction of his own genius, but the success of 'Tristram Shandy,' published in 1759, must have revealed it to him. He woke up one morning, to use a well known phrase, and found himself famous. On visiting London he was lionized everywhere, fêted, caressed, eulogized; nothing was talked of but 'Tristram Shandy;' Corporal Trim and Uncle Toby were universal favourites. For the first two volumes he received 700l., and was promised a similar sum for the third and fourth. He was also rewarded by Lord Falconbridge with the curacy of Coxwold in Yorkshire, 'a sweet retirement,' he says, 'in comparison of Sutton.'

In 1760-61 he took a house at York for his wife and daughter, and repaired to London with the two new volumes of 'Tristram Shandy.' He also produced a couple of volumes of 'Sermons,' which were scarcely less popular than his Rabelaisian fiction. He was now received into the élite of fashionable society, where his conversational powers and gay sparkling persiflage eminently fitted him to shine. His popularity neither improved his morals nor his heart; and though a recent writer has attempted an able defence of him, it is impossible to deny that his conduct was unworthy of his sacred office, and that the sentimental, gushingly pathetic, George CruikshankDemocritus of modern society was guilty of mean, selfish, and unmanly actions. Garrick said of him, truly enough, 'he degenerated in London, like an ill-transplanted shrub; the incense of the great spoiled his head, and their ragouts his stomach. He grew sickly and proud, and invalid in body and mind.'

The third and fourth volumes of 'Tristram' appeared in 1761, the fifth and sixth in 1762, the seventh and eighth in 1765, and two new volumes of Sermons in 1766. Naturally of a weakly frame, his round of London gaieties so crippled his health that he was compelled to travel to the Continent in 1762-64, in the hope of recruiting it. He returned to Coxwold in the summer of 1764, leaving in France his wife, of whom he had drown weary, and his daughter, Lydia, to whom he was fondly attached. He visited the Continent a second time, from October, 1765, to June, 1766, gathering the materials for his 'Sentimental Journey.' In 1767 he published the last volume of 'Tristram,' and made the acquaintance of a Mrs. Draper, 'the wife of David Draper, Esq., counsellor at Bombay, and then chief of the staff at Surat,' who had visited England for her health, and in whom Sterne immediately discovered a mind so congenial with his own, so enlightened, so refined, and so tender, that their mutual attraction presently joined them in the closest union that purity would possibly admit of. 'He loved her as his friend, and prided her as his pupil; all her concerns became presently his; her health, her circumstances, her reputation, her children were his; his fortune, his time, his country, were at her disposal, so far as the sacrifice of any or all of these might contribute to her real happiness.' The intimacy was not of long duration, for 'Eliza' returned to India in April, 1767, but it has left a serious stain on the character of Sterne.

The 'Sentimental Journey' appeared early in 1768, and was as successful as any of his previous compositions. But its author was now too ill to enjoy the fruits of his renown. He lay at his lodgings in Bond Street sick of pleurisy, which was further complicated by an attack of influenza. On the 18th of March a fashionably gay party had assembled in Clifford Street, near his lodgings. Garrick and Hume were among the guests, and at their instance a footman was despatched to inquire after their friend Sterne's health. Conducted to the sick man's room he saw death in his face. He lay exhausted on his bed, and complaining feebly that his feet were cold, begged his nurse to rub them. She obeyed. The cold mounted higher up to his body, and the nurse rubbed his ankles and legs. In vain. Suddenly exclaiming, 'Now it is come,' he raised his hands as if to ward off a blow, and breathed his last. He had scarcely expired before his attendants proceeded to plunder him, rifling his dressing-case, and stripping the gold sleeve-buttons from the dead man's wrists.

Sterne was buried on the 22nd of March, in the graveyard attached to St. George's, Hanover Square.

The following is a list of his works, and their date of publication: -- Tristram Shandy, vols 1 and 2, 1759; Sermons, vols. 1 and 2, 1760; Tristram Shandy, vols. 3 and 4, 1761; Tristram Shandy, vols. 5 and 6, 1762; Tristram Shandy, vols. 7 and 8, 1765; Sermons, vols. 3, 4, 5, and 6, 1766; Tristram Shandy, vol. 9, 1767; 'Sentimental Journey,' 1768.

He possessed neither imagination nor analytical capacity, neither comprehensiveness of vision nor depth of thought... his genius was wholly superficial, and hovered only on the borders of beauty and truth. But his art was perfect.

On the precise nature of Sterne's merits as an author, a great diversity of opinion exists. It may be admitted that they have been very severely treated by no less competent a critic than Thackeray. But after acknowledging that he was indebted for much of his humour to Burton; after confessing that he was a most unscrupulous plagiarist; we cannot but claim for him a foremost rank among English humorists. He gold was not all his own, but the workmanship was original. It owed its graceful and fantastic shapes to the skill of the artist. Of him it may be truly said, he touched nothing which he did not adorn. He dressed up his borrowed thoughts so ingeniously that their fathers would scarcely have recognized them. And, after all, his characters are original. Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, the Shandy family -- these are true creations, and their author has filled them with some of that immortal fire which genus filches from heaven. Nor can it be said that he harped only on one string; his command over the feelings was exhaustive; he could reach the very sources of pathos; and a thousand eyes have grown dim with tears over the prisoner in his cell, the dead ass, and the sufferings of Le Fevre.

It would be absurd to claim for Sterne the prerogatives of the highest order of intellect. He possessed neither imagination nor analytical capacity, neither comprehensiveness of vision nor depth of thought; he was as incapable of flights of fancy as of severe elaborate reasoning; his genius was wholly superficial, and hovered only on the borders of beauty and truth. But his art was perfect. His style, though affected, was cleverly adapted to his subjects, and to his peculiar treatment of them. He told a story with inimitable grace; never spreading his gold leaf over too wide an area. His humour had a delicacy and yet a raciness which you will find in no other writer.

The life of Sterne has recently been written in an apologetic strain, and with much talent, by Mr. Percy Fitzgerald. There is also an excellent memoir in the 49th volume of the Quarterly Review, and a sketch, which might almost be called a satire, in Thackeray's 'Lectures on the English Humorists.'