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Sterne’s Great Game

The cover of Ian Campbell Ross’s admirable biography displays a picture wholly in keeping with its subject. A clerical gentleman, long-nosed and lank of form, attired in decorous black coat and breeches and a neat gray tie-wig, is amiably confronting the skeletal form of Death, who raises an outsize hourglass on high in one bony hand while in the other he grasps a businesslike scythe with an all-too- meaningful gesture. One hand held gracefully to his breast the parson makes his bow, his sharp civil features enwreathed in the most disarming of smiles.

The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who died in 1768 of tuberculosis at the age of fifty-four, was for years well accustomed to confronting and outfacing his grim adversary. He died a few years after the artist Thomas Patch painted his portrait of Tristram Shandy‘s author in courtly conversation with Death. It now hangs in the hall of Jesus College, Cambridge, where Sterne studied and took his degree. The painter has caught the authentic Shandean touch of the unstated joke, which Sterne himself involuntarily but fittingly achieved after his own funeral. According to what seems a well-authenticated story—although how can we be sure of the truth of any anecdote or Irish Bull in which this mercurial author had a hand, even posthumously?—his remains were exhumed by body snatchers, ending up in the medical faculty of his old university, where they were recognized (or so the story goes) and secretly reinterred in the elusive writer’s London grave.

A life so faithfully prepared to imitate its own fictions might well seem an ideal subject for biography. Sterne was not the same man as his hero Tristram Shandy, but the resemblance was close enough for the adjective “Shandean” soon to be used for both the author and his characters. And yet there have been so few books on Sterne’s life and work that in any way match or even cherish with real pleasure the sympathy and sentiment of the original. A life of Sterne, like Sterne’s own life of Tristram, should ideally be Shandean in feeling and response, although a life even of Sterne is bound to conform as well to today’s sober requirements of scholarship and fact. Ian Campbell Ross has managed to do both things beautifully, and has produced what must be the most readable as it is certainly the most sympathetic and perceptive biography to date.

The life of Tristram Shandy, Sterne’s alter ego, is handicapped from the moment of its conception, as will be remembered, by comic misfortune. Or rather by misfortune which becomes comic by virtue of Sterne’s art: it is an art that refuses to allow the traditional distinction between itself and life, and is equally able, through some alchemy of its own, to give sentiment as well as elegance to sexual jests, and to make sentiment and feeling themselves subject to the knowing snigger of shared pleasure. Sterne’s world is genuinely innocent—indeed its innocence is what eighteenth-century readers used to refer to as its ruling passion. And Sterne’s particular style of innocence has never been successfully imitated, although the writer who perhaps comes closest to it is Sterne’s fellow countryman James Joyce. Sterne’s is not a false or an injured innocence either, but rather one so transparent that the reader, until he becomes accustomed to the Shandean sensibility, hardly knows how to take it.

The joke—about how Tristram was conceived—that opens the book is not really a joke at all but a means of indoctrinating the reader with that same Shandean sensibility. This is not so much a sly as a comfortable process, giving the reader a kind of reassurance, while at the same time pleasuring him with the strangeness of a new and delightful world. Indeed the Russian formalists who spoke of art as essentially a way of “making it strange” might almost have had Sterne in mind. Certainly Tolstoy, who uses the technique in his own crafty way whenever he can, was a great admirer of Tristram Shandy. “Making it strange” and making it Shandean can come to really much the same thing.

For the Shandean, like the “strange” in the formalist vocabulary, is also the familiar, and a brilliant way of rejoining the comfort of familiarity. When, at a crucial moment of lovemaking, the woman who is soon to become Tristram’s mother says to his father, “Pray my dear, did you remember to wind up the clock?” the inwardness of the opening joke is precisely its comfortableness. This is how things are in life, and thank goodness that they are, although Tristram’s father may feel justifiably exasperated by the interruption, while the consequences for Tristram, although unspecific, are, it is to be inferred, both hazardous and incalculably far-reaching. Because of the incident the “homunculus” engendered by Tristram’s parents becomes, as it were, the first Shandy, at least in the literary sense.

But of course, and as has often been pointed out, there is much more to the joke than that. Sterne had read Locke at Cambridge, and his theory of the association of ideas in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding must had made a strong if perhaps unconscious appeal. Her husband’s preliminaries enter the mind of Mrs. Shandy in a confused image of the mechanical world and its operation, which she does not distinguish from that of the natural one.

Moreover, the next misfortune that overtakes poor Tristram has a brutal simplicity about it which, so to speak, winds up this preliminary chapter of accidents: a careless nursemaid allows the window sash to fall heavily upon a particularly sensitive portion of the baby’s anatomy. With his apparently artless cunning Sterne persuades us to enter into the feelings of Mr. Shandy, his wife, and his baby son, without actually denying us the crude satisfaction of a snigger and an unfeeling guffaw. We are sensibly aware, nonetheless, exactly what it is like to be these people, this family; we are not appreciating them from a distance, as we do with most successful characters in literature, and from the detached superiority of our own beings.

This achievement by Sterne of what might be styled a perfect balance of sentiment not only distinguishes him from other practitioners of the cult of the sentimental that grew up in the latter part of the eighteenth century, largely owing to the success of Tristram Shandy, but remains the most durable and indeed the most hypnotic feature of his peculiar charm as a writer. By no means all of his contemporaries succumbed to that charm. Dr. Johnson, most notably, did not; Oliver Goldsmith, whom one might have expected to understand and approve, did not, possibly out of jealousy. Parson Primrose of The Vicar of Wakefield was in some sense a rival to Parson Sterne and his various alter egos, and that novel appeared in 1766, two years before Sterne died. By then “sentiment” was a fait accompli, but still Sterne’s model was like no other.

The balance he keeps is beautifully illustrated by the moment in Tristram Shandy when news arrives of the death of Bobby, Tristram’s brother. Sterne is not going to let such an opportunity go unexploited, but the character whose first and last appearance steals the show is a fat, slovenly scullery maid, so idle as to be all but useless in the household, but retained by Tristram’s father out of an absent-minded sense of charity. While the servants, like their betters, are in tears over the sad news, for young Master Bobby had been the idol of the household, the maid seems not to have understood what has happened. When they try to make her grasp the sad fact that young Master Bobby is dead, she ponders heavily for a minute, and then bursts out in triumph—“So am not I!

Sensibility and sentiment appear to receive a sharp blow. But not really. The maid’s reaction is both natural and personal: the rest of the family are quite conscious of it themselves, in their own ways and in the privacy of their own beings. But there is no deliberate contrast in the strategy of the scene, no drawing of our attention to the significance of the moment. As in all the best of Sterne’s touches the moment speaks for itself as if absently and without emphasis. Such are the two halves of the true coin of sentiment, and they unobtrusively complement each other.

Son of an army officer who never rose above the rank of lieutenant, Sterne spent his childhood in camps and barracks, where he acquired a fondness for the military life, and all its variety of friendly and reminiscent Uncle Tobys, that never left him. Army atmosphere was indeed more congenial to him than that of the Church, but since his great-grandfather, surprisingly enough, had been archbishop of York, while his uncle became a powerful and in some quarters much disliked archdeacon of the same diocese, the most sensible course for his future, as well as the one most likely to lead to preferment and at least moderate riches, seemed clearly marked out.

But nothing was made easy for him. He never cared for his foolish and improvident mother, nor she for him, and when after her husband’s death her poverty and extravagance landed her in a debtors’ prison, Sterne, by that time married and with a child on the way, was either unable or merely reluctant to come to her aid. His wife, Elizabeth, detested her mother-in-law, and helped persuade her husband, himself far from unwilling, to leave the matter of his mother’s rescue to other and more distant relatives.

After Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey made him famous, Sterne’s neglect of his parent offered a good topic for caustic eighteenth-century wit. Horace Walpole put it with his usual elegant malice, referring to the moment in A Sentimental Journey when the author and traveler tearfully apostrophizes the corpse of a donkey, killed by overwork. Walpole had heard the tale that a subscription was raised to liberate Sterne’s mother, for “her son had too much sentiment to have any feeling. A dead ass was more important to him than a living mother.”

Byron, whose feelings about his mother were much the same as Sterne’s, was to add his own comment, typically claiming the honesty needed to depict himself in the unflinching way that he implied Sterne had been too sentimentally hypocritical to do. “I am as bad as that dog Sterne, who preferred whining over a dead ass to relieving a living mother; villain—hypocrite—slave—sycophant! but I am no better.”

Well, to put the French proverb the other way around, Qui s’accuse s’excuse, and Sterne is much too subtle, and in his own way too sensible and discerning, to try doing that. Despite Walpole’s comment, Sterne was never lacking in either feeling or sentiment, even when his style and temperament as a writer set out to exploit them both. His life and his writing in any case converge: in Tristram Shandy Tristram’s mother never addresses a word to her son, or he to her, and what was true of the character was just as true of the creator.

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