Gerald T. Cobb

Laurence Sterne was a novelist, a clergyman and briefly a farmer in the rough-and-tumble 18th century, an era when the remedy for cattle plague was thought to be a pint of gin (for the cattle, not for the beleaguered farmer). In his letters, sermons and above all in his comic masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Sterne sought to write a world of Nonsenseif possible like a man of Sense. A new biography of Sterne by Ian Campbell Ross, a professor of literature at Trinity College, Dublin, seeks to make sense out of the complicated and contradictory strands of the writer’s life.

Sterne was born in November 1713, in Clonmel, Ireland. With a not very successful soldier for a father, Sterne had an unstable boyhood marked by a succession of spartan accommodations in military barracks. During this phase of his life Sterne absorbed the terminology and lore that appears in Tristram Shandy as Uncle Toby’s delightfully eccentric obsession with recreating miniature tableaux of historical military battles.

At the age of 10, Sterne was left by his father in England to be raised by an uncle. He was able to attend Cambridge University thanks to the help of his cousin, and he chose to become a cleric, being ordained an Anglican priest at the age of 24. After a short stint as a political/religious journalist, he settled into a 20-year period of pastoral ministry. Ross gives us glimpses of a compassionate curate who sought to rise above the adversity of his upbringing.

Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley in 1741, and over time the relationship declined into mutual unhappiness. What Ross characterizes as a restlessness led Sterne to neglect his pastoral duties and begin a period of affairs, some sexual, some merely sentimental. His infidelities included advances upon female servants and visits to prostitutes. In 1759 the weight of her husband’s indiscretions apparently overcame Elizabeth and she suffered a nervous breakdown.

Clearly Sterne lived and wrote in the midst of an ongoing, sharp contradiction between his personal life and his pastoral identity. Like Hawthorne’s tormented cleric, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Sterne presided over public penances imposed upon members of his congregation who were deemed guilty of fornication, the same offense he committed on numerous occasions. He repeatedly had to respond to rumors about his character and to charges that it was indecorous for a clergyman to include bawdy passages in his fiction.

Apart from these controversies concerning his personal life, Sterne earned his greatest fame for Tristram Shandy, a work that combines sophisticated prose with quirky metafictional moments that are self-referential. Rereading this novel today, one can see why James Joyce and Virginia Woolf liked Sterne so much, for the novel has a rich and dynamic narrative point of view. It luxuriates in genre shifts, digressions and distractions, beginning with the novel’s famous opening scene in which Tristram’s mother asks his father during the moment of Tristram’s conception, Did you wind the clock?

Ross relies upon newly available materials and cultural studies of 18th-century authorship to cast Sterne as someone who bridges the transition from a reliance upon an aristocratic elite patronage to an awakened middle-class readership. Sterne undertook diverse (and sometimes slightly devious) steps to promote his novel to this expanding audience of middle-class readers. According to Ross, the triumph of Tristram Shandy was in part a triumph of innovative marketing techniques.

As with many new historical studies, Ross’s biography frequently qualifies its judgments when attempting to link Sterne with contemporaneous people and events. The recurrence of may and might and quite likely may put off some readers, but most will appreciate the way Ross makes reasonable conjectures when his meticulously assembled evidence warrants. By generously quoting from Sterne’s correspondence, Ross gives us an especially detailed view of the author’s work and personal dealings with family, friends and publishers.

This biography may not appeal to those unfamiliar with Sterne’s writings, but it will certainly engage those who seek a fuller background for the contradictory and brilliant author who elicited such diverse responses from contemporaries and later commentators. Voltaire praised his sermons and Thomas Jefferson asserted, The writings of Sterne...form the best course of morality that was ever written. Nietzsche considered him the most liberated spirit of all time. On the other hand, in his own day his lifestyle was condemned by The Gentleman’s Magazine in a terse, exotic verdict: Such cicisbeism is always unsafe.

In some respects, Sterne wrote his own life as a transition from idealistic to angst-ridden hero. Consider this line from a letter to the married Lady Anne Stuart:

Out I sallied like any Christian hero, ready to take the field against the world, the flesh, and the devil; not doubting but I should finally trample them all down under my feetand now I am got so near youwithin the vile stone’s cast of your houseI feel myself drawn into a vortex, that has turned my brain upside downwards.

Sterne lived in a vortex of conflicting careers and emotional commitments, and the literature that emerged was correspondingly rich in its verbal swirls and gesticulations. Ross’s biography does justice to that complexity and that richness.

Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., is chair of the English department and an associate dean at Seattle University.