Introduction

It can hardly be said that Sterne was an unfortunate person during his lifetime, though he seems to have thought himself so. His childhood was indeed a little necessitous, and he died early, and in debt, after some years of very bad health. But from the time when he went to Cambridge, things went on the whole very fairly well with him in respect of fortune; his ill-health does not seem to have caused him much disquiet; his last ten years gave him fame, flirting, wandering, and other pleasures and diversions to his heart’s content; and his debts only troubled those he left behind him. He delighted in his daughter; he was able to get rid of his wife, when he was more than usually fatigatus et aegrotus of her, with singular ease. During the unknown, or almost unknown, middle of his life he had friends of the kind most congenial to him; and both in his time of preparation and his time of production in literature, he was able to indulge his genius in a way by no means common with men of letters. If his wish to die in a certain manner and circumstance was only bravado⁠—and borrowed bravado⁠—still it was granted; and it is quite certain that to him an old age of real illness would have been unmitigated torture. Even if we admit the ghastly stories of the fate of his remains, there was very little reason why anyone should not have anticipated Mr. Swinburne’s words on the morrow of Sterne’s death and said, “Oh! brother, the gods were good to you,” though even then he might have said it with a sort of mental reservation on the question whether Sterne had been very good to the gods.

Nemesis, for the purpose of adjusting things, played him the exceptionally savage trick of using the intervention of his idolised daughter. Little or nothing seems to be known of “Lydia Sterne de Medalle,” as she was pleased to sign herself; “Mrs. Medalle,” as her bluff British contemporaries call her. But that she must have been either a very silly, a very stupid, or an excessively callous person, appears certain. It would seem, indeed, to require a combination of the flightiness and lack of taste which her father too often displayed, with the stolidity which (from rather unfair inference through Mrs. Shandy) is sometimes supposed to have characterised her mother, to prompt or permit a daughter to publish such a collection of letters as those which were first given to the world in 1775. Charity, not unsupported by probability, has trusted that Madame de Medalle could not read Latin, but she certainly could read English; and only an utterly corrupted heart, or an incurably dense or featherbrained head, could hide from her the fact that not a few of the English letters she published were damaging to her father’s character. Her alleged excuse⁠—that her mother, who was then dead, had desired her, if any letters should be published under her father’s name, to publish these, and that the “Yorick and Eliza” correspondence had appeared⁠—is utterly insufficient. For Mrs. Sterne, of whose conduct we know nothing unfavourable, and one or two things decidedly to her credit, could only have meant “such of these as will put your father in a favourable light,” else she would have published them herself. Yet though Lydia could, while taking no editorial trouble whatever, go out of her way to make a silly missish apology for publishing a passage in which her charms and merits are celebrated, she seems never to have given a thought to what she was doing in other ways. Nor were Sterne’s misfortunes in this way over with the publication of these things; for the subsequently discovered Fourmentelle correspondence sunk him, with precise judges, a little deeper. No doubt Tristram Shandy, the Sentimental Journey, and the curious stories or traditions about their author, were not exactly calculated to give Sterne a very high reputation with grave authorities. But it is these unlucky letters which put him almost hopelessly out of court. Even the slight relenting of fortune which gave him at last, in Mr. Percy Fitzgerald, a biographer very good-natured, very indefatigable, and with a natural genius for detecting undiscovered facts and documents, only made matters worse in some ways. And the consequence is, that it has become a commonplace and almost a necessity to make up for praising Sterne’s genius by damning his character. Johnson, while declining to deny him ability, seems to have been too much disgusted to talk freely about him; Scott’s natural kindliness, warm admiration for my Uncle Toby, and total freedom from squeamish prudery, seem yet to have left him ill at ease and tongue-tied in discussing Sterne; Thackeray, as is well known, exceeded all measure in denouncing him; and his chief recent critical biographer, Mr. Traill, who is probably as free from cant, Britannic or other, as any man who ever wrote in English, speaks his mind in the most unsparing fashion.

For my own part, I do not hesitate to say that I do not think letters of this kind ought to be published at all; and though it may seem paradoxical or foolish, I am by no means sure that, if they are published, they ought to be admitted as evidence. That which is not written for the public, is no business of the public’s; and I never read letters of this kind, published for the first time, without feeling like an eavesdropper.1 Unluckily, the evidence furnished by the letters fits in only too well with that furnished by the published works, by his favourite cronies and companions, and by his general reputation, so that “what the prisoner says” must, no doubt, “be used against him.”


It may be doubted whether it was accident or his usual deliberate fantasticality that made Sterne, in the well-known summary of his life which (very late in it) he drew up for his daughter, devote almost the whole space to his childhood. Perhaps it may be accounted for, reasonably enough, by supposing that of his later years he thought his daughter knew quite as much as he wished her to know, while of the middle period he had little or nothing to tell. In fact, of the two earlier divisions we still know very little but what he has chosen to tell us in one of the most characteristic and not the least charming excursions of his pen. Laurence Sterne was, with two sisters, the only “permanent child” (to borrow a pleasant phrase of Mr. Traill’s) out of a very plentiful but most impermanent family, borne in the most inconvenient circumstances possible by Agnes Nuttle or Herbert or Sterne, a widow, and daughter or stepdaughter of a sutler of our army in Flanders, to Roger, second son of Simon Sterne of Elvington, in Yorkshire, who was the third son of Dr. Richard Sterne, Archbishop of York. The Sternes were of a gentle if not very distinguished family, which, after being seated in Suffolk, migrated to Nottinghamshire. After the promotion of the archbishop (who had been a stout cavalier, as Master of Jesus at Cambridge, in the bad times), they obtained, as was fitting, divers establishments by marriage or benefice in Yorkshire itself. Very little endowment of any kind, however, fell to the lot of Roger Sterne, who was an ensign in what ranked later as the 34th regiment. Laurence, his eldest son, was born at Clonmel, in Ireland, where his mother’s relations lived, and just after his father’s regiment had been disbanded. It was shortly reestablished, however, and became the most “marching” of all marching corps; for though its headquarters were generally in Ireland, it was constantly being ordered elsewhere, and Roger Sterne saw active service both at Vigo and Gibraltar. In this latter station he fought a duel of an extremely Shandean character “about a goose.” He was run through the body and pinned to the wall; whereupon, it is said, he requested his antagonist to be so kind as to wipe the plaster off the sword before pulling it out of his body. In despite of this thoughtfulness, however, and of an immediate recovery, the wound so weakened him that, being ordered to Jamaica, he took fever and died there in March 1731. As Lawrence had been born on November 24, 1713, he was nearly eighteen; and the family had meanwhile been increased by four other children who all died, and a youngest daughter, Catherine, who, like the eldest, Mary, lived. Till he was about nine or ten the boy followed the exceedingly fluctuating fortunes of his family, which he diversified further on by falling through, not a millrace, but a going mill. Then he was sent to school at Halifax, in Yorkshire, and soon after practically adopted by his cousin Sterne of Elvington, who, when the time came, sent him to Jesus College at Cambridge, the family connection with which had begun with his great-grandfather. He was admitted there on July 6, 1733, being then nearly twenty, and took his degree of B.A. in 1736, and that of M.A. in 1740. The only tradition of his school career is his own story that, having written his name on the school ceiling, he was whipped by the usher, but complimented as a “boy of genius” by the master, who said the name should never be effaced. This anecdote, as might be expected, has not escaped the aqua fortis of criticism.

We know practically nothing of Sterne’s Cambridge career except the dates above mentioned, the fact of his being elected first to a sizarship and then as founder’s kin to a scholarship endowed by Archbishop Sterne, and the incident told by himself that he there contracted his lifelong friendship with a distant relative and fellow Jesus man, John Hall, or John Hall Stevenson, of whom more presently. But Sterne had further reason to acknowledge that his family stood together. He had no sooner taken his degree, than he was taken up by a brother of his father’s, Jaques Sterne, a great pluralist in the diocese of York, a very busy and masterful person, and a strong Whig and Hanoverian. Under his care, Sterne took deacon’s orders in March 1736 at the hands of the Bishop of Lincoln; and as soon as, two years later, he had been ordained priest, he was appointed to the living of Sutton-on-the-Forest, eight miles from York. The uncle and nephew some years later quarrelled bitterly⁠—according to the latter’s account, because he would not write “dirty paragraphs in the newspapers,” being “no party man.” That Sterne would have been particularly squeamish about what he wrote may be doubted; but it is certain that he shows no partisan spirit anywhere, and very little interest in politics as such. However, for some years his uncle was certainly his active patron, and obtained for him two prebends and some other special preferments in connection with the diocese and chapter of York, so that he became, as Tristram shows, intimately acquainted with cathedral society there.

It has been a steady rule in the Anglican Church (if not, as in the Greek, a sine quâ non) that when a man has been provided with a living, he should, if he has not done so before, provide himself with a wife; and Sterne was a very unlikely man to break good custom in this respect. Very soon at least after his ordination he fell in love with Elizabeth Lumley, a young lady of a good Yorkshire family, and of some little fortune, which, however, for a time she thought “not enough” to share with him, but which, as she told him during a fit of illness, she left to him in her will. On the strength of two quite unauthenticated and, I believe, not now traceable portraits seen by this or that person in printshops or elsewhere, she is said to have been plain. Certain expressions in Sterne’s letters seem to imply that she had a rather exasperatingly steady and not too intelligent will of her own; and some twenty or five and twenty years after the marriage, M. Tollot, a gossiping Frenchman, with French ideas on the duty of husbands and wives going separate ways, said that she wished to have a finger in every pie, and pestered “the good and agreeable Tristram” with her presence. But Sterne, despite his reckless confessions of conjugal indifference, and worse, says nothing serious or even ill-natured of her; and one or two traits and sayings of hers, especially her refusal to listen to a meddlesome person who wished to tell her tales about “Eliza,” seem to argue sense and dignity. That in the latter years she cared little to be with a husband who had long been “tired and sick” of her is not to her discredit. Their daughter, with the almost invariable ill-luck or ill-judgment which seems to have attended her, printed certain letters of this courtship time, though she gave nothing for many years afterwards. The use made of these Strephon or Damon blandishments, in contrast with the expressions used by the writer of his wife, and of other women, long afterwards, is perhaps a little unfair; but it must be admitted that though far too characteristic and amusing to be omitted, they are anything but brilliant specimens of their kind. In particular, Thackeray’s bitter fun on the ineffably lackadaisical passage, “My L. has seen a polyanthus blow in December,” is pretty fully justified.

If, however, the marriage, which, difficulties being removed, took place on Easter Monday, March 30, 1741, did not bring lasting happiness to Sterne, it probably brought him some at the time, and it certainly brought him an accession of fortune; for in addition to what little money Miss Lumley had, a friend of hers bestowed the additional living of Stillington on her husband. These various sources of income must have made a tolerable revenue, which, after the publication of Tristram, was further supplemented by yet another benefice given him by Lord Falconbridge at Coxwold, a living of no great value, but a pleasant place of residence. Add to this the profits of his books in the last eight years of his life, which were for that day considerable, and it will be seen that, as has been said above, Sterne might have been much worse off in this world’s goods than he was. He seems, like other people, to have made some rather costly experiments in farming; and his way of life latterly, what with his own journeys and sojourns in London, and the long separate residence of his wife and daughter in France, was expensive. But he complains little of poverty; and though he died in debt, much of that debt was due to no fault of his, but to the burning of the parsonage of Sutton.

It is all the more remarkable in one way, though the absence of any pressure of want may explain it in another, that Sterne’s great literary gifts should have remained so long without finding any kind of literary expression, unless it was in the newspaper way, in respect to which he first obliged and afterwards disobliged his uncle. There is, I believe, no dispute about the fact that he distances, and that by many years, every other man of letters of anything like his rank⁠—except Cowper, whose affliction puts him out of comparison⁠—in the lateness of his fruiting time. All but a quarter of a century had passed since he took his degree when Tristram Shandy appeared; and, putting sermons aside, the very earliest thing of his known, The History of a Good Watch Coat, only antedated Tristram by two years or rather less. He was no doubt “making himself all this time;” but the making must have been an uncommonly slow process. Nor did he, like a good many writers, occupy the time in preparing what he was afterwards to publish, unless in the case of a few of his sermons. It is positively known that Tristram was written merely as it was published, and the Journey likewise. Nor is even the first by any means a long book. It is as nearly as possible the same length as Fielding’s Amelia when printed straight on; and even then more allowance has to be made, not merely for its free and audacious plagiarisms, but for its constantly broken paragraphs, stars, dashes, and other trickeries. If it were possible to squeeze it up, as one squeezes a sponge, into the solid texture of an ordinary book, I doubt whether it would be very much longer than Joseph Andrews.

It will probably be admitted, however, that the idiosyncrasy of the writings of Sterne’s last and incomplete decade, even if it be in part only an idiosyncrasy of mannerism, is almost great enough to justify the nearly three decades of Lehrjahre (starting from his entrance at Cambridge) which preceded it. It is true that of the actual occupations of these years we know extremely little⁠—indeed, what we know as distinguished from what is guesswork and inference is mostly summed up by Sterne’s own current and curvetting pen thus: “I remained near twenty years at Sutton, doing duty at both places [i.e., Sutton and Stillington]. I had then very good health. Books, painting, fiddling, and shooting were my amusements;” to which he adds only that he and the squire of Sutton were not very good friends, but that at Stillington the Croft family were extremely kind and amiable. From other sources, including, it is true, his own letters⁠—though the dates and allusions of these are so uncertain that they are very doubtful guides⁠—we find that his chief crony during this period, as during his life, was the already-mentioned John Hall, who had taken to the name of Stevenson, and was master of Skelton Castle, a very old and curious house on the border of the Cleveland moors, not far from the town of Guisborough. The master of “Crazy” Castle⁠—he liked to give his house this name, which he afterwards used in entitling his book of Crazy Tales⁠—his ways and his library, have usually been charged with debauching Sterne’s innocent mind, which I should imagine lent itself to that process in a most docile and morigerant fashion; but whether this was the case or not, it is clear that Stevenson bore no very good reputation. It is not certain, but was asserted, that he had been a monk of Medmenham. He gathered about him at Skelton a society which, though no such imputations were made on it as on that of Wilkes and Dashwood, was of a pretty loose kind; he was a humourist, both in the old and the modern sense; and his Crazy Tales were, if not very mad, rather sad and bad exercises of the imagination.

Amid all this dream- and guesswork, almost the only solid facts in Sterne’s life are the births of two daughters, one in 1745, and the other two years later. Both were christened Lydia; the first died soon after she was born, the second lived to be the darling of both her parents, the object of the most respectable emotions of Sterne’s life, the wife of an unknown Frenchman, M. de Medalle, and, as has been said, the probably unwitting destroyer of her father’s last chance of reputation.

Our exuberant nescience in matters Sternian extends up to the very publication of Tristram, as far as the determining causes of its production are concerned. It is true that in passages of the letters Sterne seems to say that his experiment with the pen was prompted by a desire to make good some losses in farming, and elsewhere that he was tired of employing his brains for other people’s advantage, as he had done for some years for an ungrateful person, that is to say, his uncle. This last passage was written just before Tristram came out; but at no time was Sterne a very trustworthy reporter of his own motives, and it would seem that the quarrel with his uncle must have been a good deal earlier. At any rate, the year 1759 seems to have been spent in writing the first two volumes of the book, and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., published by John Hinxham, Stonegate, York, but obtainable also from divers London booksellers, appeared on the 1st of January 1760. I wish Sterne had thought of keeping it till the 1st of April, which he would probably then have done.

The comparatively short last scenes of his life were as busy and varied as his long middle course had been outwardly monotonous. Although his book was nominally published at York, he had gone up to London to superintend arrangements for its sale there, perhaps not without a hope of triumph. If so, Fortune chose not to play him her usual tricks. In York, the extreme personality of the book excited interest of a twofold and dubious kind; but, to play on some words of Dryden’s, “London liked grossly” and swallowed Tristram Shandy whole with singular avidity. Its author came to town just in time to enjoy the results of this, and was one of the chief lions of the season of 1760, a position which he enjoyed with a childish frankness that is not the least pleasant thing in his history. One, probably of the least important, though by accident one of the best known of his innumerable flirtations, with a Miss Fourmentelle, was apparently quenched by this distraction when it was on the point of going such lengths that the lady had actually come up alone to London to meet Sterne there. He was introduced to persons as different as Garrick and Warburton, from the latter of whom he received, in rather mysterious circumstances, a present of money. He haunted Ministers and Knights of the Garter; he was overwhelmed with invitations and callers; and, as has been said, he received one very solid present in the shape of the living of Coxwold. Tristram went into a second edition rapidly; its author was enabled to announce a collection of “Sermons by Mr. Yorick” in April; and he went to his new living in the early summer, determined to set to work vigorously on more of the work that had been so fortunate. By the end of the year he was ready with two more volumes, again came up to town, and again, when vols. iii and iv had appeared, at the end of January 1761, was besieged by admirers. For these two he received £380 from Dodsley, who had fought shy of the book earlier. They were quite as successful as the first pair; and again Sterne stayed all the spring and earlier summer in London, returning to Yorkshire to make more Shandy in the autumn. He was still quicker over the third batch, and it was published in December 1761, when he was again in town, but he now meditated a longer flight. His health had been really declining, and he obtained leave from the archbishop for a year certain, and perhaps two, that he might go to the south of France. He was warmly received in Paris, where his work had obtained a popularity which it has never wholly lost, and the framework of fact (including the passport difficulties) for the Sentimental Journey, as well as for the seventh volume of Tristram, was laid during the spring. His plans were now changed, it being determined that his wife and daughter (who had inherited his constitution) should join him. They did so after some difficulties, and the consumptive novelist, having spent all the winter in one of the worst climates in Europe, that of the French capital, started with his family in the torrid heats of July for Toulouse, where at last they were established about the middle of August.

Toulouse became Sterne’s abode for nearly a year, his headquarters for a somewhat longer period, and the home of his wife and daughter, with migrations to Bagnères, Montpellier, and a great many other places in France, for about five years. He himself⁠—he had been ill at Toulouse, and worse at Montpellier⁠—reached England again (after a short stay in Paris) during the early summer of 1764. Nor was it till January 1765 that the seventh and eighth volumes of Tristram appeared. As usual Sterne went to town to receive the congratulations of the public, which seem to have been fairly hearty; for though the instalment immediately preceding had not been an entire success, the longer interval had now had its effect not merely on the art and materials of the caterer, but on the appetite of his guests. He followed this up with two more volumes of Sermons, of a much more characteristic kind than his earlier venture in this way, and published partly by subscription. These, however, were not actually issued till 1766. Meanwhile, in October 1765, Sterne had set out for his second attempt in travel on the Continent, which was to supply the remaining material for the Sentimental Journey, and to be prolonged as far as Naples. Little is known of his winter stay at that city and in Rome. On his way homeward he met his wife and daughter in Franche-Comté, but at Mrs. Sterne’s request left them there, and went on alone to Coxwold.

He reached England in extremely bad health, and never left it again; but he had still nearly two years of fairly well filled life to run. The ninth, or last volume of Tristram occupied him during the autumn of 1766, and was produced with the invariable accompaniment of its author’s appearance in London during January 1767. This visit, which lasted till May, saw the flirtation with “Eliza” Draper, the young wife of an Indian official, who was at home for her health, an affair which exalted Sterne in the eyes of eighteenth-century sensibility, especially in France, about as much as it has depressed him in the eyes not merely of the propriety, not merely of the common sense, but of the romance of later times. He was very ill when he got back to Coxwold, but recovered, and in October was joined by his wife and daughter. Even then, however, the community was a very temporary and divided one, for he took a house for them at York, and they were not to stay in England beyond the spring. He himself finished what we have of the Sentimental Journey, and went to London with it, where it was published rather later than usual, on the 27th February 1768. Three weeks later its author, at his lodgings at 41 New Bond Street, in the presence only of a hired nurse and a footman, who had been sent by some of his friends to inquire after him, took a journey other than sentimental, and so far unreported. Some odd but not very well authenticated stories gathered round his death, which occurred on Friday the 18th March. It was said, and it is probable enough, that his gold sleeve-links were stolen by his landlady. After his funeral, scantily attended, at the burying-ground of St. George’s, Hanover Square, opposite Hyde Park (which used to be known by the squalid brown of its unrestored, and afterwards made more hideous by the bedizened red of its restored chapel), his body is said to have been snatched by resurrection men. And the myth is rounded off by the addition that the remains, having been sold to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge, were dissected there in public, one of the spectators, a friend of Sterne’s, recognising the face too late, and fainting.

His affairs, which had never been managed in a very businesslike manner, were in considerable disorder. Some years before, the carelessness of his curate had caused or allowed the parsonage at Sutton to be burnt to the ground; and Sterne, besides losing valuable effects of his own, was of course liable for the rebuilding. He managed to put this off till his death, after which his widow and administratrix was sued for dilapidations. These, as she was in very poor circumstances, had to be compounded for sixty pounds only, but they probably ranked for a much larger sum in the £1,100 at which Sterne’s indebtedness was reckoned. His widow had a little money of her own: £800 was collected for her and her daughter at York races; there must have been profits from the copyrights; and a fresh collection of Sermons was issued by subscription. But though very little is known about the pair, they are said to have been ill off. They applied first to Wilkes and then to Stevenson to write a life of Sterne to prefix to his Works, but neither complied. Mr. Fitzgerald, who seldom deserves the curse laid on those who use harsh judgment, is very severe on both for this. Yet surely each, considering his own reputation, must have felt that he was the last person to set Sterne right with the stricter part of society, and that to write a “Crazy” or “Shandean” life of him would be a cruel crime. It is not known exactly when Lydia married, or when either she or her mother died. Mrs. Sterne must have been dead by 1775, the date of the publication of the letters; Lydia is said to have perished in the French Revolution.

Beginning authorship very late in life, having schooled himself to an intensely artificial method, both in style and in construction, and not allowed by Fate more than a few years in which to write at all, Sterne, as is natural, displays a great uniformity throughout his work. Indeed, it might be said that he has written but one book, Tristram Shandy. The Sentimental Journey (as to the relative merits of which, compared with the earlier and larger work, there is a polemos aspondos between the Big-endians and the Little-endians of Sternism) is after all only an expansion of the seventh book of Tristram, with fioriture, variations, and new divertisements. The sermon which occurs so early is an actual sermon of “Yorick’s,” and a sufficient specimen of his more serious concionatory vein; many, if not most of his letters might have been twined into Tristram without being in the least degree more out of place than most of its actual contents. And so there is more propriety than depends upon the mere fact that Tristram Shandy is the earliest and the largest part of its author’s work, in making no extremely scholastic distinction between the specially Shandean and the generally Sternian characteristics; for, indeed, all Sterne is in it more or less eminently.

No less a critic than M. Scherer has given his sanction to the idea that in Sterne we have a special, if not even the special, type of the humourist; and probably few people who have given no particular thought or attention to the matter, would refuse to agree with him. I am myself inclined rather to a demur, or, at any rate, to a distinction, though few better things have been written about humour itself than a passage in M. Scherer’s essay on our author. Sterne has no doubt in a very eminent degree the sense of contrast, which all the best critics admit to be the root of humour⁠—the note of the humourist. But he has it partially, occasionally, and, I should even go as far as to say, not greatly. The great English humourists, I take it, are Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Thackeray, and Carlyle. All these⁠—even Fielding, whose eighteenth-century manner, the contemporary and counterpart of Sterne’s, cannot hide the truth⁠—apply the humourist contrast, the humourist sense of the irony of existence, to the great things, the prima et novissima. They see, and feel, and show the simultaneous sense of Death and Life, of Love and Loss, of the Finite and the Infinite. Sterne stops a long way short of this; les grands sujets lui sont défendus in another sense than La Bruyère’s. It is scarcely too much to say that his ostentatious preference for the bagatelle was a real, and not in the least affected fact. Nowhere, not in the true pathos of the famous deathbed letter to Mrs. James, not in the, as it seems to me, by no means wholly true pathos of the Le Fever episode, does he pierce to “the accepted hells beneath.” He has an unmatched command of the lesser and lower varieties of the humorous contrast⁠—over the odd, the petty, the queer, above all, over what the French untranslatably call the saugrenu. His forte is the foible; his cheval de bataille, the hobbyhorse. If you want to soar into the heights, or plunge into the depths of humour, Sterne is not for you. But if you want what his own generation called a frisk on middle, very middle-earth, a hunt in curiosity-shops (especially of the technically “curious” description), a peep into all manner of coulisses and behind-scenes of human nature, a ride on a sort of intellectual switchback, a view of moral, mental, religious, sentimental dancing of all the kinds that have delighted man, from the rope to the skirt, then have with Sterne in any direction he pleases. He may sometimes a very little disgust you, but you will seldom have just cause to complain that he disappoints and deceives.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (which, as it has been excellently observed, is in reality based on the life of the gent’s uncle, and the opinions of the gent’s father), is the largest and in every way the chief field for these diversions. The apparatus, and, so far as there can be said to have been one, the object with which Sterne marked it out and filled it up, are clear, and even the former must have been clear enough to anybody of some reading and some intelligence long before the excellent Dr. Ferriar, in the spirit of a reverent iconoclast, set himself to work to point out Sterne’s exact indebtedness to Rabelais, Burton, Beroalde (if Beroalde wrote the Moyen de Parvenir), Bruscambille, and the rest. Of this particular part of the matter I do not think it necessary to say much. The charge of plagiarism is usually an excessively idle one; for when a man of genius steals, he always makes the thefts his own; and when a man steals without genius, the thefts are mere fairy gold which turns to leaves and pebbles under his hand. No doubt Sterne “lifted” in Tristram, and still more in the Sermons, with rather more freedom and audacity than most men of genius; but when we remember that he took Burton’s denunciation of the practice and reproduced it (all but in Burton’s very words) as his own, it must be clear to anyone who is not very dull indeed that he was playing an audacious practical joke. Where he is best, he does not steal at all, and that is the only point of real importance.

It is somewhat more, I think, the business of the critic (who is here more especially bound not to look only at the stopwatch) to note the far more striking way in which Sterne borrowed, not actual passages and words, but manner and style. Here, perhaps, we shall find him accountant for a greater debt; and here also we may think that though his genius is indisputable, he gives more reason to those who should deny him the highest kind of genius. Beyond doubt not merely his reading, but his temper and his characteristics of all kinds, inclined him to the style to which the French fifteenth and sixteenth centuries gave the name of fatrasie, or pillar-to-post divagation, with more or less of a covert satiric aim. But if we compare the dealing of Swift with Cyrano de Bergerac, the dealing of Fielding with the romance and novel as it existed before his time, nay, the dealing of Shakespeare with the Marlowe drama, we shall note a marked difference in Sterne’s procedure. Nobody, even in his own day, who knew Rabelais at all could fail to detect the almost servile following of manner in great things and in small which Tristram displays. No one⁠—a much smaller designation⁠—who knows the strange, unedifying, but very far from commonplace book of which, as I have hinted, I never can quite believe that Beroalde de Verville was the author, can fail to detect an even closer, though a somewhat less obvious and, so to speak, less verifiable following here.

In another region⁠—the purgatory of all Sterne’s commentators⁠—we can trace this corrupt following as distinctly at least, though it has, I think, been less often definitely attributed. Sterne’s too celebrated indecency, is, with one exception, sui generis. No doubt much nonsense has been and is talked about “indecency” in general literature. When it is indulged, as it has been, for instance, in French of late, it becomes a nuisance of the most loathsome kind. It is always perhaps better left alone. But if it be a sin to laugh now and then frankly at what were once called “gentlemen’s stories,” then not merely many a gallant, noble, and not unwise gentleman, but I fear not a few ladies, both fair and fine, are damned, with Shakespeare and Scott and Southey, with Margaret of Navarre and Marie de Sévigné, to keep them in countenance. Yet to merit indulgence, this questionable quality, in addition to being treated as genius treats, must have certain sub-qualities, or freedoms from quality, of its own. It must not be brutal and inhuman, since the quality of humanity is the main thing that saves it. It must not be underhand and sniggering. It must be frank and jovial, or frank and passionate. Perhaps, in some cases, it may be saved, as Swift’s is to a great extent, by the overmastering pessimism of despair, which enforces its contempt of man and man’s fate by bringing forward these evidences of his weakness. But Sterne can plead none of these exemptions. He has neither the frank laughter of Aristophanes and Rabelais, nor the frank passion of Catullus and Donne. He was incapable of feeling any sæva indignatio whatever. The attraction of the thing for him was, I fear, merely the attraction of the improper, because it is improper; because it shocks people, or makes them blush, or gives them an unholy little quiver of sordid shamefaced delectation. His famous apology of the child playing on the floor and showing in innocence what is not usually shown, was desperately unlucky. For his displays are those of educated and economic un-innocency. And he took this manner, I am nearly sure, wholly and directly from Voltaire, who enjoys the unenviable copyright and patent of it.

The third characteristic which Sterne took from others, which dyed his work deeply, and which injured more than it helped it, was his famous, his unrivalled, Sensibility or Sentimentalism. A great deal has been written about this admired eighteenth-century device, and there is no space here for discussing it. Suffice it to say, that although Sterne certainly did not invent it⁠—it had been inculcated by two whole generations of French novelists before him, and had been familiar in England for half a century⁠—he has the glory, such as it is, of carrying it to the farthest possible. The dead donkey and the live donkey, the latter (as I humbly but proudly join myself to Mr. Thackeray and Mr. Traill in thinking) far the finer animal; Le Fever and La Fleur; Maria and Eliza; Uncle Toby’s fly, and poor Mrs. Sterne’s antenuptial polyanthus; the stoics that Mr. Sterne (with a generous sense that he was in no danger of that lash) wished to be whipped, and the critics from whom he would have fled from Dan to Beersheba to be delivered;⁠—all the celebrated persons and passages of his works, all the decorations and fireworks thereof, are directed mainly to the exhibition of Sensibility, once so charming, now, alas! hooted and contemned of the people!

And now it will be possible to have done with his foibles, all the rest in Sterne being for praise, with hardly any mixture of blame. We have seen what he borrowed from others, mostly to his hurt; let us now see what he contributed of his own, almost wholly to his credit and advantage. He had, in the first place, what most writers when they begin almost invariably and almost inevitably lack, a long and carefully amassed store, not merely of reading, but of observation of mankind. Although his nearly fifty years of life had been in the ordinary sense uneventful, they had given him opportunities which he had amply taken. A “son of the regiment,” he had evidently studied with the greatest and most loving care the ways of an army which still included a large proportion of Marlborough’s veterans; and it has been constantly and reasonably held that his chief study had been his father, whom he evidently adored in a way. Roger Sterne is the admitted model of my Uncle Toby; and I at least have no doubt that he was the original of Mr. Shandy also, for some of the qualities which appear in his son’s character of him are Walter’s, not Toby’s. It would have required, perhaps, even greater genius than Sterne possessed, and an environment less saturated with the delusive theory of the “ruling passion,” to have given us the mixed and blended temperament instead of separating it into two gentlemen at once, and making Walter Shandy all wayward intellect, and Tobias all gentle goodness. But if it had been done⁠—as Shakespeare perhaps alone could have done it⁠—we should have had a greater and more human figure than either. Mr. Shandy would then never have come near, as he does sometimes, to being a bore; and my Uncle Toby (if I may say so without taking the wings of the morning to flee from the wrath of the extreme Tobyolaters) would have been saved from the occasional appearance of being something like a fool.

Still, these two are delightful even in their present dichotomy; and Sterne was amply provided by his genius, working on his experience, with company for them. His fancy portrait of himself as “Yorick” (his unfeigned Shakespearianism is one of his best traits) is a little vague and fantastic; and that of Eugenius, which is supposed to represent John Hall Stevenson, is almost as slight as it is flattering. But Dr. Slop, who is known to have been drawn (with somewhat unmerciful fidelity in externals, but not at all unkindly when we look deeper) from Dr. Burton, a well-known Jacobite practitioner who had suffered from the Hanoverian zeal of Yorick’s uncle Jaques in the ’45, is a masterpiece. The York dignitaries are veritable etchings in outline, more instinct with life and individuality than a thousand elaborately painted pictures; all the servants, Obadiah, Susannah, Bridget, and the rest, are the equals of Fielding’s, or of Thackeray’s domestics; and though Tristram himself is the shadow of a shade, I confess that I seem to see a vivid portrait in the three or four strokes which alone give us “my dear, dear Jenny.” Mr. Fitzgerald, succumbing to a not unnatural temptation, considering the close juxtaposition in time, approximates this to the “dear, dear Kitty” of the letters to Miss Catherine de Fourmentelle. But this, taking all things together, would be a rather serious scandalum damigellarum; and I do not think it necessary to identify, though the traits seem to me to suit not ill with the few genuine ones in the letters about Mrs. Sterne herself. That the “dear, dear” should be ironical more or less is quite Shandean. All these, if not drawn directly from individuals (the lower exercise), are first generalised and then precipitated into individuality from a large observation (which is the infinitely higher and better). I fear I must except Widow Wadman, save in the sentry-box scene, from this encomium. But then Widow Wadman is not really a real person. She is partly an instrument to put my Uncle Toby through some new motions, and partly a cue to enable Sterne to indulge in his worst foible. As for Trim, quis vituperavit Trim? The lover of the “popish clergywoman” is simply perfect, with a not much less good heart and a much better head than his master’s, and in his own degree hardly less of a gentleman.

The manner in which these delightful persons (I observe with shame that I had omitted the modest worth of Mrs. Shandy, nearly the most delightful of them all) are introduced to the reader, may have suffered a little from that corrupt following of which enough has been said. I can only say, that I would compound for a good deal more corruption of the same kind, allied with a good deal less genius. It can scarcely be doubted that there was a real preestablished harmony between Sterne’s gifts and the fatrasie manner; certainly this manner, if it sometimes exhibited his weaknesses, gave rare opportunities to his strength. And the same may be said of his style. He might certainly have given us less of the typographical tricks with which he chose to bedizen and bedaub it, and sometimes in his ultra-Rabelaisian moods⁠—I do not mean of gauloiserie but of sheer fooling⁠—we feel the falsetto rather disastrously. It is constantly forgotten by unfavourable critics of Rabelais that his extravagances were to a great extent, at any rate, quite natural outbursts of animal spirits. The Middle Ages, though it has become the fashion with those who know nothing about them to represent them as ages of gloom, were probably the merriest time of this world’s history; and the Reformation and the Renaissance, with their pedantry and their puritanism, and worst of all their physical science, had not quite killed the merriment when Rabelais wrote. But though animal spirits still survived in Sterne’s day, it cannot be said that in England, any more than elsewhere, there was much genuine merriment of the honest, childish, medieval kind, and thus his manner perpetually jars. Still the style, independently of the tricks, was excellently suited for the work. It is a moot point how far the extremely loose and ungirt character of this style, which sometimes, and indeed often, reaches sheer slovenliness and solecism, was intentional. I think myself that it was nearly as deliberate as the asterisks, and the black and marble pages. We know from the Sermons that Sterne could write carefully enough when he chose, and we know from the MS. of the Journey that he corrected sedulously. Nor is it likely that he had the excuse of hurry. The shortest time that he ever took over one of his two-volume batches was more than six months; and looking at the practice, not of miracles of industry and facility like Scott, but of rather dilatory writers like Thackeray, one would think that the quantity (which is not more than a couple of hundred pages of one of these present volumes) might be written in little more than six weeks. At any rate, the style, conversational, unpretentious, too easy to be jerky, and yet too broken to be sustained, suits subject and scheme as few others could.


But there is perhaps little need to say more about a book which, though some say that few read it through nowadays, is thoroughly well known in outline and in its salient passages, and which will pretty certainly lay hold of all fit readers as soon as they take to it. Of its writer a very little more may perhaps be said, all the more so because those who, not understanding critical admiration, think that biographers and editors ought not only to be just and a little kind, but extravagantly partial to their subjects, may conceive that I have been a little unjust, or, at any rate, a little unkind to Sterne. If so, they have not read his own extremely ingenious, and in general, if not in particular, very sound attack on the adage de mortuis. But if not nil nisi, there is yet very much bonum to be said of Sterne. He was not merely endowed with a singular and essential genius; he was not merely the representative and mouthpiece, in a way hardly surpassed by anyone, of a certain way of thought and feeling more or less peculiar to his time. These were his merits, his very great merits as a writer. But he had others, and great, if not very great ones, as a man. Though never rich, he seems to have been free from the fault of parsimony; and albeit he died in debt, not deeply tainted with that of extravagance in money matters. For most of his later expenditure was on others, and he might justly calculate on his pen paying, and more than paying, his shot. Little love as there was lost between him and his wife, he always took the greatest care to provide for her wants in the rather costly severance of their establishments, and never even in his most indiscreet moments hints a grumble at her expenditure, a vice of which some people of much higher general reputation have been known to be guilty. Though he was certainly pleased at the attentions of “the great,” I do not know that there is any just cause for accusing him of truckling to, or fawning on them beyond the custom and courtesy of the time. For all his reckless humour, there was no ill-nature in him. His worst enemies have admitted that his affection for his daughter was very pretty and quite unaffected; and his letters to and of Mrs. James show that he could think of a woman nobly and wholesomely as a friend, for all his ignoble and unwholesome ways of thought in regard to the sex. If it had not been for the cruel indiscretion of his Lydia (which, however, has something of the old virtue of conveying the balm as well as the sting), he would probably have been much better thought of than he is. And considering the delightful books here once more presented, I think we may consent to forgive the faults which, after all, were mainly his own business, for the merits by which we so largely benefit and for which he reaped no over-bounteous guerdon.