Tristram Shandy and the consolations of comedy

The story of “A COCK and a BULL . . . And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard”:

Clifford Street, Mayfair, 18 March 1768. John Macdonald, the 27-year-old Scottish servant of John Crauford, Esq, of Errol, is sent into the next street to ask after the health of a famous man lodging there. Macdonald later remembered in his memoir:

Mr Sterne, the celebrated author, was taken ill at the silk-bag shop in Old Bond Street. He was sometimes called “Tristram Shandy”, and sometimes “Yorick”—a very great favourite of the gentlemen’s. One day my master had company to dinner who were speaking about him; the Duke of Roxburgh, the Earl of March, the Earl of Ossory, the Duke of Grafton, Mr Garrick, Mr Hume, and a Mr James. “John,” said my master, “go and inquire how Mr Sterne is today.” I went, returned, and said: “I went to Mr Sterne’s lodging; the mistress opened the door; I inquired how he did. She told me to go up to the nurse. I went into the room, and he was just a-dying. I waited ten minutes; but in five he said: ‘Now it is come.’ He put up his hand as if to stop a blow, and died in a minute.” The gentlemen were all very sorry, and lamented him very much.

The Reverend Laurence Sterne (born 1713) had lived in “quiet obscurity” in Yorkshire until December 1759 when the first two small volumes of his masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, appeared. Within weeks he was a celebrity in London and, soon enough, abroad. Seven more small volumes of Tristram were to follow at intervals during the next few years.

What was this “book of books”? Who was Shandy? A contemporary reviewer wondered: “Oh rare Tristram Shandy!—Thou very sensible—humorous—pathetick—humane—unaccountable!—what shall we call thee?—Rabelais, Cervantes, What?”

Some readers condemned the fiction’s bawdiness (Sterne was, after all, a clergyman). Many more loved its eccentric originality, its comic thrust, its disaster-prone narrator and his irresistible cast of characters: My Father, Walter Shandy, retired “Turkey merchant” and educational theorist; My Uncle Toby, a wounded veteran perplexed by his inconclusive amours with the Widow Wadman; Bridget, the Widow’s maid; Corporal Trim, Toby’s prop and Bridget’s suitor; Dr Slop, inept man-midwife; and gentle Parson Yorick, who provided one of the many identities adopted by Sterne himself—and noted by canny John Macdonald.

Tristram Shandy is a “book of books”. Sterne’s imagination shapes all manner of sources into an idiosyncratic encyclopaedia dealing, among other things, with time, chance, hot chestnuts, misguided learning, midwifery, names, wounds, fortification, love, the importance of putting your breeches on efficiently, procrastination, loyalty, impotence, door hinges—and noses: “by the word Nose . . . I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less”.

The book is a remarkable material phenomenon. It has a black page (of mourning), a marble leaf (“motly emblem of my work!”), a blank page, missing pages, diagrammatic plot lines, asterisks, two illustrations by Hogarth, and a squiggle: the Flourish of Liberty made in the air by Trim with his stick.

Tristram refuses to confine himself “to any man’s rules that ever lived”. To make us laugh he talks to us: “Writing . . . is but a different name for conversation”. His narrative is naturally progressive and digressive: “Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them.”

We go where Tristram takes us. He makes Uncle Toby start a sentence in one chapter, puts him on pause and lets him finish that sentence many chapters later. At one point he leaves Walter and Toby talking on the stairs while he gives us his “chapter upon chapters”. Sterne is as tonally flexible as Mozart: laughter becomes tears as we respond to the poignant story of “Le Fever”; we are amused and touched by Uncle Toby’s problems in love.

Tristram’s own problems in “this scurvy and disasterous world of ours” begin early. His conception, birth and christening are all comico-catastrophical. In his early boyhood, a de-weighted window sash accidentally descends upon his most delicate part. Assailed by illness, he laments: “Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it . . . are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more . . .”. Tristram knows that Death is pursuing him, but (like the agonisingly tubercular Sterne himself) he breaks free for a time and heads for France: “Now, I . . . think . . . that so much of motion, is so much of life, and so much of joy—and that to stand still, or get on but slowly, is death and the devil”.

These nine small volumes celebrate the very liberties that help us live: “True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and . . . forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round”.

Constriction or oppression of any creature, human or otherwise, moved Sterne’s soul and Tristram’s pen:

. . . my uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retalliate upon a fly.

—Go,—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzz’d about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which, after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going a-cross the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—-go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

No wonder the gentlemen who, all aware that Death was about to come for their friend, had gathered that day in Clifford Street “were all very sorry, and lamented him very much”.

 


The author chairs the Laurence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall, North Yorkshire, Sterne’s home in the 1760s. The Trust is a registered charity (No. 1181127). The fee for this article will be given to the Trust. For further information see www.laurencesternetrust.org.uk

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