Laurence Sterne: The Later Years
The only people whom Laurence Sterne did not get on with were other writers. Not that his universal good nature was in the least competitive, but he had an involuntary knack of suborning their confidence in themselves and spoiling their image. Even Dr. Johnson withdrew when the author of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick held forth at one of Joshua Reynolds’s parties, nominally because of his impropriety, but actually, one suspects, because the Johnsonian style was insensibly rebuked by Sterne’s genius. This is one of the many glimpses that Arthur Cash provides in the second volume of his superlative life.
It is at once very easy and very difficult to imagine the scene. Touchy literary men who expect to dominate a gathering are found in every age, and will not forgive any rival who shows them at a disadvantage. But if Johnson’s memory is to be trusted, Sterne’s conduct on this occasion would certainly now seem to us rather odd. He had just received permission from Lord and Lady Spencer to dedicate to them “The Story of Le Fever,” that sentimental little masterpiece in Tristram Shandy in which Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim take into their care a dying French officer and his son. A manuscript preserved at Spenser House endorsed in Lord Spencer’s hand “The Story of Le Fever, sent to me by Sterne before it was published.” Sterne had just come from the Spencers’ to Reynolds’s house, and there he pulled the dedication out of his pocket, and, as Johnson says, “sponte suâ, for nobody desired him,” began to read it out loud to the assembled company. Johnson sourly observed that it was “not English,” whereupon Sterne pulled from his other pocket “a drawing too indecently gross to have delighted even in a brothel.” This “attempt at merriment” from a clergyman of the Church of England was too much for Johnson, who left in disgust; and Reynolds took good care afterward not to invite Sterne if Johnson was to be present. One suspects that the merry cleric was deliberately teasing the good doctor.
Yet the episode is more significant than it appears. Sterne was an archetype of the eighteenth century, Johnson was not. Although his father had been only a half-pay ensign in a marching regiment, Sterne had connections with the aristocracy—his great-grandfather had been Archbishop of York—and it was the most natural thing in the world for him to exercise his wits in high life, and expect from lords and ladies benefits, financial and otherwise, in return for the entertainment. Jealous of his independence Johnson distrusted the aristocracy, upheld the dignity of authors, was a pillar of the new middle-class morals and proprieties. He belonged to the world of Richardson, even to the later world of Jane Austen, rather than to the happily spontaneous and unregenerate old eighteenth century championed by Sterne.
Every detailed page of Cash’s excellent biography makes the point more clear. When he observed that …