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Nose to nose with Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy

By Karen Harvey


Venturing into new areas of research can be exhilarating. But it can be incredibly daunting when the subject boasts a concentration of great scholarship and formidable expertise. In my case, the decision to embark on the subject of Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy, meant taking a step not just into a new subject but a new discipline: from history to literature.

‘Laurence Sterne’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1760), NPG 5019 © National Portrait Gallery, London (provided under Creative Commons license)
‘Laurence Sterne’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1760), NPG 5019 © National Portrait Gallery, London (provided under Creative Commons license)

I had simply not ‘got’ Tristram Shandy when I read it as a teenager. Ironically, I recall my overriding response as impatience: I just wanted the author to get on with the story. Returning to the novel years later I had an epiphany. I was working on a large project about men and the eighteenth-century home, reading the vast array of documents written by men in their domestic spaces, documents about themselves, their families, their histories, their houses, and a store of miscellaneous topics. Wasn’t this what Tristram was struggling to do?

Exploring Sterne’s own manuscripts proved to the most exciting part of this research. We already know a great deal about Laurence Sterne. But these manuscripts tell us something new about the man and his writing. References in Arthur Cash’s two-volume biography led me to Sterne’s parish registers at the University of York’s Borthwick Institute. Sterne’s very first attempt at completing the parish register as a new vicar for Sutton on the Forest is audacious. Unlike any of the vicars who came before him, he begins by writing his own name in large letters: ‘The Revd. Mr. Lau:rence Sterne’. But then he falters. The next three lines are scored out. Why? We can just make out that Sterne has entered a burial. Unfortunately, this is the baptism section of the register. A discouraging start, to be sure.

Sutton Register PR. SUT/F.2 (1665–1806): f.21 verso. Reproduced with permission from an original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.
Sutton Register PR. SUT/F.2 (1665–1806): f.21 verso. Reproduced with permission from an original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.

Sterne’s marginalia and emendations are arguably as rich as his literary works. Some of these are positively Shandyesque. Though Sterne left a space for his or her name in the Sutton register, the entry for the poor child of George Willson, baptized on 11 September 1743, was never completed. We are reminded, of course, of Tristram’s thwarted naming. Clearly exasperated with the cost of updating the Sutton vicarage, Sterne’s account put the cost of doing up the rooms as ‘God knows what’. Sterne didn’t — or couldn’t — quite conform to the strictures of the genre in which he was writing as a vicar of the Church of England. The masterpiece Tristram Shandy resists the emerging conventions of the novel genre, too, while the eponymous hero Tristram struggles to hold the line of a narrative supposedly about his life and opinions but which becomes a somewhat messy family history at best. One feels the frustration of an individual battling it out with the conventions of a genre that has a life of its own.

Sterne’s self-portrait sketch in Sutton Register PR. SUT/F.2, 1665-1806: f1 verso of insert. Reproduced with permission from an original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.
Sterne’s self-portrait sketch in Sutton Register PR. SUT/F.2, 1665-1806: f1 verso of insert. Reproduced with permission from an original in the Borthwick Institute, University of York.

Yet if Sterne lacked the interest to complete the registers in a manner befitting a clergyman, he apparently had time to doodle. In the early pages of the Sutton register I discovered a sketch of a distinctive face in profile. It matches the many public images of Sterne. Moreover, we know that Sterne had a habit of drawing himself. A teenage school book of his included a sketch of a ‘curious, long-nosed, long-chinned face’, glossed with ‘This is Lorence’. And the sketch is flanked by several pages of signatures and autobiographical notes, many by Sterne. He had turned this book — the register of life-events that had served this parish for a hundred years — into his own book of memoranda, illustrated with a self-portrait.

Laurence Sterne by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle (c. 1762). [Wikimedia Commons]
Laurence Sterne by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle (c. 1762). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Is it fanciful to read Sterne’s preoccupation with noses in the novel as a reflection of his cognizance of his own large appendage? How useful is it to use the historian’s skills to posit the biographical elements of a work of literature? In my view, we learn more about Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy by situating it in this context of demanding manuscript genres and flawed manuscript practices. But for me there is another gain. This is an affectionately satirical portrait of men who struggled to do what was expected of them. This view from below or within is not found in conduct books and is hard to uncover in the private confessions of men. Yet I think I found it here, in these combined manuscript and printed works of the vicar-novelist Laurence Sterne.

Dr Karen Harvey is Reader in Cultural History at the University of Sheffield and a specialist in gender and eighteenth-century Britain. She is the author of ‘The Manuscript History of Tristram Shandy, Review of English Studies (28 August, 2013) and The Little Republic: Masculinity & Domesticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The Review of English Studies was founded in 1925 to publish literary-historical research in all areas of English literature and the English language from the earliest period to the present. From the outset, RES has welcomed scholarship and criticism arising from newly discovered sources or advancing fresh interpretation of known material. Successive editors have built on this tradition while responding to innovations in the discipline and reinforcing the journal’s role as a forum for the best new research.

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Recent Comments

  1. Helena Whitbread

    Laurence Sterne is tenuously connected to the family of Anne Lister (1791-1840) of Shibden Hall, Halifax. Sterne’s mother, Dorothy, prior to her marriage to his father,Richard Sterne, was the widow of Samuel Lister (1673-1702)of Shibden Hall Anne Lister’s ancestor. Anne Lister kept voluminous diaries, some of which were written in a secret code to conceal her love affairs with women. See “The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” Virago Press, 2013.

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