Laurence Sterne Biography


Laurence Sterne was born in Ireland in 1713, and he died in London in 1768. He might have died much earlier because of his weak lungs, especially considering how much he laughed, but he managed to live long enough to give his countrymen and the world two great books, Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey.

The influence of these two books went beyond the country and century in which they were written. French, German, Italian, and English sentimental journeys were a glut on the literary market, and Tristram-Shandeism not only engendered hundreds of silly imitations in Sterne's own time, but it also influenced great writers down to the present — Goethe, Mann, Gide, Joyce, to mention a few.

Steme was an unimportant person who suddenly became important — for many people, notorious — in 1759. His background was undistinguished. The son of an army ensign, he grew up in army garrisons. There he learned about soldiers, and without that knowledge and experience, he could not have made Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim as convincing as they are.

With the help of relatives, he went to Cambridge. After graduating in 1737, he entered the Church of England and, again with the help of relatives, became vicar of Sutton (and, subsequently, of Stillington) in Yorkshire. It was a comfortable enough way to make a living, and it did not require great effort or special piety. Several years later, he married a woman with whom he never got along, Elizabeth Lumley, and they had a child whom he adored, Lydia. It is quite unlikely that he could have gotten along with any woman who didn't match him in imagination, ingenuity, and capriciousness. As it was, Mrs. Steme went officially mad for a period of time and was probably unofficially mad for most of her life. Sterne and his wife agreed not to disagree, but his happiest moments were those when they lived apart.

During his time of country living — pre-Tristram Shandy days — he consoled himself with the pleasure available in York. It was not London, but neither was it the backwoods. In addition, he had a special group of friends, a men's club, called the "Demoniacks," chief among whom was John Hall-Stevenson, the proprietor of a crazy castle named "Crazy Castle." Most likely they gathered to get away from their wives, to drink and carouse, and to pretend to be rakes; without doubt, they read to each other bawdy passages from their favorite books. One of the important consequences of this symposium was the irreverent attitude toward literature, the willingness to poke fun at "important" authors and important people, that permeates Tristram Shandy. Imagining an ideal, appreciative audience is important to an author; whimsy that is directed toward a group of friends who understand and laugh in response has a greater chance of success.

When the first two books of Tristram Shandy were published in 1759, most readers were delighted. Some of them ceased to laugh, however, when they discovered that the writer was a parson of the church. At any rate, Sterne became a celebrity overnight, and many famous people received him and applauded him; they called him "Tristram" or "Parson Yorick," identifying him completely with his book. Samuel Johnson thought him smutty and too peculiar in his writing, but when Oliver Goldsmith suggested that Sterne was dull, Johnson replied, "Why, no, Sir." Sterne reveled in his popularity and prosperity, and he commuted between York and London, reaping the fruits of fame.

The years between 1759 and 1768 were intensely busy ones for him. He wrote his five installments of Tristram, several volumes of Sermons of Mr. Yorick, and at the end of the period, A Sentimental Journey. He struggled very hard to enjoy his life, having adequate proofs that it was not to last for very long; he hoped to find in relationships with women some recompense for the emptiness of his marriage. No doubt he did, since whatever was ideal in those relationships came in large part from his imagination.

Looking for a climate that would deal more gently with his damaged lungs, he spent a good deal of time between 1762 and 1765 in France. His wife and daughter were happy there, and he finally settled them there permanently. His time in France furnished him with the material for Book 7 of Tristram, as well as for the charming and successful Sentimental Journey.

This latter volume, a slim one, has won the hearts of readers and critics consistently during its years of existence (February 1768). The delicacy of the book pleases everyone, but there is still a lot of Sternean muscle rippling robustly under the skin. The complexity of life throbs beneath the surface of Tristram Shandy; A Sentimental Journey gives us Sterne's warm and gentle farewell to a life that gave him much satisfaction and delight. He died less than a month after it was published, at the pinnacle of his fame.