Sterne’s Great Game

Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne; drawing by David Levine

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…

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