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Sterne, Laurencelocked

  • Melvyn New

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

Sterne, Laurence (1713–1768), writer and Church of England clergyman, was born on 24 November 1713 in Clonmel, Ireland, the second of seven children of Roger Sterne (c.1692–1731), an army ensign, and Agnes Nuttall (d. 1759), daughter of an army provisioner.

Family and childhood

The family had seen far better days in the seventeenth century, when Sterne's great-grandfather Richard Sterne (c.1596–1683) rose to become archbishop of York. Richard's second son, Simon Sterne (d. 1703), of Elvington and Woodhouse, Yorkshire, married Mary Jaques, a local heiress; Roger was the second son of this marriage; his elder brother, Richard, inherited the estate, while the younger brother, Jaques, rose in the York ecclesiastical establishment. Roger, without resources, and with a disposition his son described as 'so innocent in his own intentions, that he suspected no one; so that you might have cheated him ten times in a day, if nine had not been sufficient for your purpose' (Sterne, Memoirs, 15), pursued an army career, never rising very far in the ranks and dying in Jamaica in 1731, probably of a fever; Sterne would later apply these words to Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy.

Roger married Agnes Nuttall in 1711; they had their first child, Mary (d. 1734?), a year later, and Laurence a year after that. Sterne's infancy was spent on the family estate at Elvington, but in one of the tenant houses and not in the hall. In 1715 Roger was ordered to Dublin, and the family moved with him; for the next nine years they lived the unsettled life of a military family, constantly on the move, primarily in Ireland. During this period Agnes gave birth to four more children, none of whom survived childhood. A final daughter, Catherine, became an ally of Agnes in her later quarrels with Laurence.


When Sterne was ten he was sent to live with his uncle Richard at Woodhouse, in order to attend school in the village of Hipperholme close by. In the second part of the biographical notes he compiled for his daughter he recounted one schoolboy experience:

[The school-master] had the cieling [sic] of the school-room new white-washed—the ladder remained there—I one unlucky day mounted it, and wrote … in large capital letters, LAU. STERNE, for which the usher severely whipped me. My master was very much hurt at this, and said, before me, that never should that name be effaced, for I was a boy of genius, and he was sure I should come to preferment.

Sterne, Memoirs, 17–18

During this period Sterne lived either at school or with Richard's family; when his father died he was briefly reunited with his mother, but she returned to Ireland while he remained in Yorkshire until 1733, when, in his twentieth year, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge. It is noteworthy that a writer so often praised for one of the most carefully drawn family circles in English literature should have lived away from his parents after the age of ten.

Archbishop Sterne had been the master of Jesus College from 1634 to 1644, and other Sternes, including uncle Jaques, had also attended. Sterne's education was intended as preparation for taking clerical orders, and when he left Cambridge in 1737 with his BA, he had a licence to fill the assistant curacy of St Ives, Huntingdon. The decision to enter the church may have depended on social and economic considerations, but evidence also suggests that Sterne was dedicated to his vocation; and, indeed, for the next twenty-two years he remained focused, for the most part, on his church career. In the autumn of 1738, through the intervention of his uncle Jaques, already a power in the York establishment, he assumed the vicarage of Sutton on the Forest, a village 8 miles north of York which remained his home until 1760. Sterne thus spent almost his entire adult life serving a rural parish.

Marriage and clerical career, 1738–1759

Nineteenth-century readers of Sterne often found his clerical career culpably at odds with his penchant for bawdy innuendo and sexual indulgence. His friendship at Cambridge with John Hall, later Hall-Stevenson (1718–1785), serves to highlight this conflict: amid his clerical preparation, Sterne established a cordial relationship that endured throughout his life with a man of dubious tastes, as his dreadful literary scribblings attest. They spent much time together and enjoyed one another's company. Sterne introduced his friend into both Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey as Eugenius. Surely, Victorians reasoned, Sterne could not have taken his Anglicanism seriously.

Twentieth-century critics, on the other hand—less concerned with moral or religious culpability, but almost always sceptical that intelligent persons could take religion seriously—equally down-played Sterne's clerical career, not because of perceived hypocrisy, but because they could conceive no connection between the genius of Tristram Shandy and Sterne's Christianity; his friendship with Hall-Stevenson and his rakish circle best defined an increasingly existential Sterne. There were, to be sure, dissenting voices, evident in comments such as Herbert Read's that 'This paradox of a moral Sterne will be found more acceptable when the world begins to read that neglected half of Sterne's genius—his Sermons' (Read, 134), but it was only toward the end of the century that the particular character of Sterne's theology, imbibed at Cambridge in the 1730s, was seriously included in discussions about his literary writings.

In 1740 Sterne received his MA from Cambridge, and a year later on 30 March 1741, after a one-year courtship, he married Elizabeth Lumley (1714–1773). Sterne's biographer Arthur H. Cash quotes a characterization of her by a cousin, the famous bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu: 'Mrs. Sterne is a Woman of great integrity & has many virtues, but they stand like quills upon the fretfull porcupine' (Cash, Early and Middle Years, 84). Sterne and Elizabeth, Cash concludes, 'would not have a happy life together'. The couple had a daughter, Lydia, born on 1 December 1747.

During the 1740s and 1750s Sterne barely emerges from the obscurity of domesticity and a rural parish. There was, however, a brief flurry of political writing at the beginning of this period, and some pieces have been identified in surviving issues of the York Gazetteer, a paper representing whig interests. This short career, prompted by Sterne's uncle Jaques, was chronicled by Lewis Perry Curtis in The Politicks of Laurence Sterne (1929); sixty years later, in the first issue of The Shandean: an Annual Volume Devoted to Laurence Sterne and his Works (1989), Kenneth Monkman, in the first of a series of essays, offered arguments for augmenting Curtis's attributions with numerous additional items of ephemeral political writing. Monkman—the moving force in restoring Sterne's Shandy Hall in Coxwold, 12 miles north of York, where Sterne relocated in 1760, and its first curator—spent many years searching Yorkshire archives for these materials, but they have not been widely accepted as Sterne's.

One noteworthy result of Sterne's brief participation in eighteenth-century provincial politics was a letter he wrote in 1742 to the rival York Courant, in which he exhibited his desire to find the proper perspective from which to view the passions of the moment:

Sir, I find by some late Preferments, that it may not be improper to change Sides; therefore I beg the Favour of you to inform the Publick, that I sincerely beg Pardon for the abusive Gazetteers I wrote during the late contested Election.

Years later in Tristram Shandy, Sterne would have Tristram eschew both 'Zeal' and 'Anger': 'And till gods and men agree together to call it by the same name—the errantest tartuffe, in science—in politics—or in religion, shall never kindle a spark within me' (Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Florida Edition, 8.2.657). Sterne maintained throughout the rest of his life this refusal to become involved in the pressing issues of his own day, as well as a concomitant toleration of the opinions and foibles of others. However, this posture existed in tension with an opposing characteristic, a persistent awareness that human values and conduct could—and should—be measured by standards readily available in his own time and place.

Sterne's religion

These standards were of course provided by Christianity, and Sterne's second area of public exposure between 1738 and 1759 was the separate publication, in York, of two sermons, The Case of Elijah and the Widow of Zerephath in 1747 and Abuses of Conscience in 1750. The latter is particularly noteworthy because nine years later Sterne included it almost verbatim in Tristram Shandy. The sermon's point is that the conscience is inadequate and untrustworthy as a moral guide, easily swayed by the passions and interests of the individual, a fallen creature whose self-judgement is too susceptible to negligence, self-deception, and corruption. The solution is to 'call in Religion and Morality … What is written in the law of God?' (Sterne, Sermons, 4.261). Sterne's argument is traditional, and, indeed, several key passages are borrowed from Jonathan Swift's sermon on the same subject. Their version of the fallen conscience, however, had lost adherents as the century progressed, a casualty of increasing secularism and the ‘moral sense’ school, which maintained the infallible judgement of the conscience and perfectibility of the moral sense, independent of religion and revelation.

Sterne's political writings did not prevent the victory of the opposition (although his withdrawal from politics did result in the enmity of his uncle Jaques, and prevented further advancement), and his two published sermons did not change the course of theology. Had Sterne died in his forty-fifth year, he would have done so unnoticed by the world then—and certainly unrecognized by the world today. Hence the year 1759 was truly an annus mirabilis, a year of sudden and surprising achievement that carried Sterne from his country pulpit to the centre of London's literary life.

Before then, Sterne had lived the quiet life of a village vicar with an income of about £200; it never seemed enough and Sterne supplemented it with farming enterprises and a great willingness to serve as a substitute preacher for his fellow clergymen at the usual fee of £1 per sermon. The quarrel with his uncle was compounded when Jaques took the side of Agnes Sterne, who began to press Sterne for more support; this quarrel was held against Sterne from one end of the nineteenth century to the other, but more careful research has since established that Sterne did all that was feasible in meeting his mother's often unreasonable demands. That he seriously performed his duties as a cleric is evidenced by his answer, deemed 'unique' among the hundreds of responses examined, on a 1743 visitation questionnaire: 'I Catechise every Sunday in my Church during Lent, But explain our Religion to the Children and Servants of my Parishioners in my own House every Sunday Night during Lent, from six o'clock till nine' (Cash, Early and Middle Years, 124).

On the other hand, it was clear to Sterne's neighbours that the marriage was not going well, and rumours abounded that his frequent visits to York were for romantic trysts. Rather than being shocked at the vicar's inconsistency, however, it might be sensible to remember that Sterne's Christian beliefs were designed to comfort sinners rather than celebrate saints; it was, after all, the fall of the first Adam that made the second Adam (Christ) necessary—as John Locke points out at the beginning of Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). Sterne's religion, as it emerges in his forty-five surviving sermons, is the centrist Anglicanism of his century, ‘latitudinarian’, but only if that misused label is understood to indicate ‘latitude’ in toleration, not doctrine. His sermons are balanced invocations of reason and emotion, the head and the heart, and of religion (the institution) and revelation (scripture). He is rarely if ever innovative, certainly not about doctrine or truth, nor would he have wanted to stray from established positions. He attacks Roman Catholics and enthusiasts (Methodists) with some meanness, but little fire; he celebrates the congregation's virtues when he seeks charitable contributions, and highlights its vices when preparing them for communion. Above all he denies the possibility of happiness or morality without religion, and asserts the providential design of the world (and the special providence accorded England), from Adam's fall to Christ's redemptive sacrifice. That this preaching follows the lead of the great Restoration preachers, most particularly John Tillotson, in its embrace of plainness, simplicity, practical moral teaching, and a quiet yet sincere emotionalism, has deceived some readers of Sterne into equating this mode of Anglicanism with Socinianism, deism, and even secularism, but nothing could be further from its own sense of itself as the continuation of Christ's original church, now flourishing under His guidance, and, after a century of religious warfare, amid the growing prosperity and peace of eighteenth-century England.

One of Sterne's most characteristic gestures occurs in A Sentimental Journey, where Yorick notes that 'there is nothing unmixt in this world' and then tempts us to deplore his 'mixt' nature by suggesting that the greatest human enjoyment terminates 'in a general way, in little better than a convulsion' (Sterne, Sentimental Journey, 116), a typically Shandean bit of bawdiness, although in this instance significantly derived from Montaigne. But precisely the notion that humanity is a mixed affair of good and bad produces in Sterne not merely a tolerance of human foibles, but a perceptive and persistent attack on those who judge the world rather than live in it, those who take pleasure in condemning the conduct of others while blind to their own, perhaps different, follies. This is not secular indifference to evil, nor moral relativism, but a perception central to Sterne's eirenic Christian faith: 'And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?' (Matthew 7:3); 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone' (John 8:7). Sterne's fiction roots itself in a self-awareness that renders almost impossible the certainties and aggressions which enable people to condemn others; the only unforgivable evil is hypocrisy. This is an important message in his sermons as well.

A Political Romance, 1759

In January 1759 a pamphlet entitled A Political Romance was being readied for publication in York. It was a local satire based on incidents in an ongoing dispute over prerogatives within the York church establishment, but unlike the dull pamphlets that had previously appeared, this was a witty reduction of the issues and personalities. It was also a clear indication that the author, Sterne, who had earlier argued the case of one party in the quarrel, had again found that proper perspective exhibited in his 1742 letter to the York Courant. The argument was a petty one, so Sterne reduced the archbishop to the parson of the parish and the dean of York to a parish clerk.

Sterne's satire brought the conflict to a halt. Its publication was suppressed (only six copies are known to have survived; a facsimile edition was published in 1971), as both sides concluded that their quarrel, seen in the light cast by A Political Romance (often reprinted in Sterne's collected works as History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat), was indeed a sad commentary on their stations. For Sterne, however, the satirical pamphlet was the beginning, not the end; within the year he was able to offer to Robert Dodsley a manuscript of what eventually became the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy. While there is not overwhelming evidence in the Romance of heretofore hidden genius, it is possible to identify interests that persist in Sterne's subsequent work; its motto, for example, is taken from Horace:

Ridiculum acriFortius et melius magnas plerumque secat Res.

Ridicule often cuts hard knots more forcefully and effectively than gravity.It is obvious also that Sterne had been reading Rabelais, to whom he alludes, and, equally important, that Sterne's reduction of the ambitions of churchmen to a proper perspective surely had Swift's kingdom of Lilliput behind it.

Yet another interest evident in A Political Romance is Sterne's minute observation of human action and interaction, including the first sign of the 'hobby-horse', an idea central to Tristram Shandy. In the 'Key' each character offers an interpretation of the 'Romance' based on an obvious prior interest or ruling passion (to invoke Swift's satiric compatriot, Alexander Pope): the tailor is fascinated by the shape of trousers, the lawyer by legalisms. Each character, Sterne writes, 'turn'd the Story to what was swimming uppermost in his own Brain' (Sterne, Political Romance, 45), a wry insight concerning human behaviour that lies at the centre of everything Sterne would subsequently write.

'Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais', 1759

What then happened is conjecture, but it has been suggested that Sterne's next creative effort was to be another satire, in imitation of Pope's Peri bathous, or, The art of sinking in poetry (1727). The first two chapters of such a work, the 'Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais', survive. They were first published by Sterne's daughter Lydia in a bowdlerized version in volume 3 of her edition of Sterne's Letters (1775); a careful text from Sterne's holograph appeared in the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 87 (1972), 1083–92. The idea of a Pope-like parody of Longinus's Peri hupsous (On the sublime), designed as an 'Art of Sermon-Writing', is combined with the tone and diction of the piece in the aptly named protagonist, Longinus Rabelaicus; a second protagonist is the preacher Homenas. Surrounding the two is a genial group of Rabelaisian namesakes, Panurge, Gymnast, Triboulet, Epistemon; Sterne's head-note to chapter 2 promises 'an Historical, Dramatical, Anecdotical, Allegorical and Comical Kind of Work', and tells of Homenas's attempts to write his weekly sermon, his seeking help by raiding his library shelves (as did Sterne), and his fall from the library balcony: 'Alass poor Homenas', Sterne intoned.

Tristram Shandy, volumes 1 and 2, 1759–1760

After this came, in Sterne's forty-sixth year, the beginning of his masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67), in which one certain guise for the author is the village parson Yorick, a name with which Sterne felt extremely comfortable, since he used it again when his sermons were published under the title The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760, 1766—a ploy that Owen Ruffhead, in the Monthly Review, May 1760, labelled 'the greatest outrage against Sense and Decency, that has been offered since the first establishment of Christianity'), and yet again when he named the protagonist of A Sentimental Journey. On the one hand, Yorick is the king's jester; on the other, he is a jester who appears in Hamlet only as a skull to be contemplated in the famous gravediggers' scene in act v. In Tristram Shandy the death of Yorick occurs early in volume 1 and is dramatically marked by a black page; but because the chronology of the work moves backward as well as forward, Yorick reappears in later volumes, always as the jester's embodiment of shrewd observation and good sense in a world gone mad. Somewhere between A Political Romance and the 'Rabelaisian Fragment' Sterne found not only a comfortable identity as the jester–memento mori (Yorick first appears astride a horse significantly compared to Quixote's Rosinante, contemplating 'de vanitate mundi et fugâ saeculi'), but discovered as well his need to ‘bury’ that identity in order to bring to life a voice that would sustain him for eight years and nine volumes, the voice of a busily intrusive narrator named Tristram Shandy.

Some version of Tristram Shandy was ready by 23 May 1759, when Sterne sent a manuscript to Dodsley. 'The plan', he wrote, 'is a most extensive one,—taking in, not only, the Weak part of the Sciences, in which the true point of Ridicule lies—but every Thing else, which I find Laugh-at-able in my way' (Sterne, Letters, 74). Dodsley responded negatively, and Sterne spent the summer rewriting, still with Dodsley in mind, for in October he again wrote to him:

I propose … to print a lean edition, in two small volumes … at my own expense, merely to feel the pulse of the world … The book shall be printed here, and the impression sent up to you …

ibid., 80

Two months later, at the end of December, the first edition of volumes 1 and 2 was printed in York. The title-page nowhere indicates this, thus concealing its provincial origins. Indeed, Sterne was busy orchestrating a London reception—asking his most recent romantic interest, a singer, Catherine Fourmantel, to pass on a copy and letter to David Garrick—that in a very short time answered his fondest hopes. Tristram Shandy was an immediate success, as can be deduced from Dodsley's willingness in early March 1760 to pay Sterne £250 for the copyright in order to publish a second edition, as well as £380 for the next instalment. John Croft, whose unreliable memoir formed the basis of much of the anecdotal misinformation about Sterne in the Dictionary of National Biography entry, reported—plausibly enough, in this instance—that when Sterne returned from the bargaining he 'came skipping into the room, and said that he was the richest man in Europe' (Cash, Later Years, 10).

The second edition appeared early in April 1760, with the additions of a dedication to William Pitt, then prime minister, and an illustration (solicited by Sterne) by William Hogarth, which shows Corporal Trim reading the sermon; two more editions were required during the year to meet the demand. Then, on 22 May, Dodsley published two volumes of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, having paid Sterne another £200 for the privilege of doing so; they appeared with a frontispiece of Sterne from a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds and a subscription list with more than 660 names, including dukes and duchesses, six bishops, and, among the notables, Charles Burney, Lord Chesterfield, Garrick, Hogarth, Reynolds, William Warburton, and John Wilkes. The portrait, considered one of Reynolds's best, shows Sterne in a contemplative posture, a forefinger to his brow, but something of a sly grin on his face. It provides—along with a portrait by de Carmontelle (c.1762), stressing Sterne's lanky thinness, a caricature by Thomas Patch (1765), which plays with his facial angularity, and a life-size bust by Joseph Nollekens (1766)—a good idea of Sterne's appearance. All these icons have been frequently reproduced.

Sterne spent the winter and spring of 1760 in London, socializing with his new friends, although he soon antagonized Bishop Warburton, then perhaps the leading literary power in Britain. It was rumoured that Sterne intended to include the bishop in later volumes as Tristram's tutor, and that Warburton forestalled such an eventuality with a purse. Sterne denied this, but clearly he was annoyed when Warburton took it on himself to urge restraint of his bawdy wit, a suggestion that Sterne not only ignored, but parodied in subsequent volumes. In many ways Tristram Shandy may be read as a battle with the forces of tartuffery which Sterne found embodied in Warburton.

James Boswell was also in London at this time, and he wrote for Sterne a 'Poetical Epistle':

Who has not Tristram Shandy read?Is any mortal so ill bred?

A. B. Howes, ed., Sterne: the Critical Heritage, 1974, 82But perhaps Sterne most cherished his meeting with the elderly Lord Bathurst; years later he recalled it with pride:

He came up to me, one day, as I was at the Princess of Wales's court. ‘I want to know you, Mr. Sterne; but it is fit you should know, also, who it is that wishes this pleasure. You have heard,’ continued he, ‘of an old Lord Bathurst, of whom your Popes, and Swifts, have sung and spoken so much: I have lived my life with geniuses of that cast; but have survived them; and, despairing ever to find their equals, it is some years since I have closed my accounts … : but you have kindled a desire in me of opening them once more before I die; which I now do; so go home and dine with me.’

Sterne, Letters, 305

Tristram Shandy, volumes 3–4, 5–6, 1761–1762

Finally, at the end of May 1760, Sterne returned to Yorkshire, to a new home in Coxwold, the gift of a Yorkshire admirer, Thomas Belasyse, Lord Fauconberg. Shandy Hall still stands in this beautiful village 12 miles north of York; restored in the 1960s by Kenneth and Julia Monkman, it contains perhaps the largest collection of Sterneiana in the world. By November Sterne had finished two more volumes, and he again departed for London to see them through the press—a practice he assiduously followed. This second instalment appeared at the end of January 1761, with a frontispiece by Hogarth, illustrating Tristram's baptism. A second edition was called for within the year, but as knowledge spread that the author was a clergyman, the reception of Sterne's work was influenced more and more by a sense of outraged decorum. Sterne acknowledged this when he wrote to a friend: 'One half of the town abuse my book as bitterly, as the other half cry it up to the skies' (Sterne, Letters, 129). Moreover, the stream of insipid, often lascivious, imitations that had started immediately after the first two volumes was becoming a flood. A few titles suggest the cottage industry that came into being as a result of Sterne's popularity: Explanatory Remarks upon … Tristram Shandy by Jeremiah Kunastrokius, M.D.; The Clockmakers Outcry Against the Author of … Tristram Shandy; The Life and Amours of Hafen Slawkenbergius. So annoying did this flood of bad imitations become that Sterne personally signed 'L. Sterne' on the first page of text of every copy of volumes 5, 7, and 9 to validate their authenticity.

By June 1761 Sterne was back in Coxwold and he worked on the next instalment throughout the summer. Volumes 5 and 6 appeared in December 1761, but were dated 1762. For reasons still not fully known, Sterne cut his ties with Dodsley and was now using T. Becket and P. A. De Hondt, his publishers until his death. Two weeks later Sterne left England for France in pursuit of better health. His illness was tubercular; it had been with him intermittently since his college days, and although he experienced some periods of relief during the remaining six years of his life, there seems little question but that his health was deteriorating. Sterne's illness plays an important part in both his life and his writing; like Tristram in volume 7, Sterne might well have considered himself in a perpetual 'flight' from death.

Sojourn in France, 1762–1764, and Tristram Shandy, volumes 7–8, 1765

Had Sterne kept to the schedule he had established, volumes 7 and 8 would have appeared in January 1763; but the journey to France took its toll. He at first spent several months in Paris visiting the most famous salons of the day and meeting the likes of Denis Diderot and Baron d'Holbach—his own reports suggest he was as lionized in Paris in 1762 as he had been in London in 1760. By May he had a relapse, reporting that he had 'bled the bed full' when a vessel in his lungs broke (Sterne, Letters, 180). He spent the summer recuperating in Toulouse, but in October had yet another set-back. Typically, he announced his recovery with zest: 'I am now stout and foolish again as a happy man can wish to be—and am busy playing the fool with my uncle Toby, who I have got soused over head and ears in love' (ibid., 186). Clearly this alludes to the contents of what became volume 8, but January passed without his having enough to fill two volumes. Indeed, the next January (1764) passed as well, and still the Sternes stayed in France, Laurence continuing to have intervals of high spirits between dreadful bouts of illness.

Sterne was losing patience, however, with France and French doctors, and in February he began the journey back to England, leaving Elizabeth and Lydia behind; he arrived in Coxwold in June 1764. The writing was a struggle, and in September he was still at work on Toby's amours. At last, in a letter dated 11 November 1764, he reveals his solution to the problems that had delayed progress for two years:

I will contrive to send you these 2 new Vols … as soon as ever I get them from the press—You will read as odd a Tour thro' france, as ever was projected or executed by traveller or travell Writer, since the world began.

Sterne, Letters, 231

Volumes 7 and 8 were published at the end of January 1765, volume 7 containing the heteroclite tour of France that Sterne's motto insists is not a digression but the work itself, and volume 8 the amours of Toby he had begun three years earlier.

Sterne's letters during 1765 suggest a frantic pace in London, in Bath, in Coxwold. He prepared two more volumes of sermons for the press and carried on (or gave every impression of carrying on) numerous flirtations that belied his married state, his age, his health, and his cloth—but not, perhaps, his encounter with death. It was the period of his life that most shocked Victorians such as William Makepeace Thackeray.

Tristram Shandy, volume 9, 1767

In October 1765 Sterne again left England, not only to visit Elizabeth in France, but to undertake a tour of Italy as well. By July 1766 he was back in Coxwold—still without his family—with a plan in mind to write one more instalment (or perhaps only one more volume, as became the actuality) of Tristram Shandy and then begin 'a new work of four volumes' based on his travels (Sterne, Letters, 284). Volume 9, but no volume 10, appeared at the end of January 1767. While the nature of Sterne's narrative method would have allowed him to develop a sequel with no difficulty, it does seem, as Wayne Booth has argued, that volume 9 brings to a conclusion the several promises, concerns, and themes of the work as it had appeared in eight volumes during the previous seven years. It may safely be affirmed that for Sterne Tristram Shandy was a finished work (W. Booth, Did Sterne complete Tristram Shandy?, Modern Philology, 48, 1951, 172–83).

The 'new work' to which Sterne now turned had actually been in his mind since his first sojourn in France. Some of its contents, certainly, had been used in volume 7 of Tristram, but Sterne's travels had opened to him scenes and personages not available to the rural parson who had created the Shandy family, and a new vehicle was required. In addition, the initial popularity of Tristram Shandy had waned. Even had Sterne been willing to withstand the criticisms of the tartuffes who found his work—and life—reprehensible, he was far from willing to return to obscurity or poverty. Moreover, the critics were now joined in a significantly uniform chorus: the redeeming value of Sterne's writings was to be found in sentimental episodes like the death of Le Fever (volume 6). Sterne never abandoned his bawdiness, and, indeed, in the final volume of Tristram Shandy, he flaunts it, from the early discussion of courtship in a sausage shop to his final joke on the 'cock and bull story' that is Tristram Shandy. Nor can A Sentimental Journey be read as pure sentiment; there are simply too many 'crowns' and 'cases', 'purses' and 'pulses'. Sterne did, however, find a new voice for his final work, the voice of yet another Yorick, in whom good sense becomes sensibility and frankness becomes ambiguity.

The Bramine's Journal, 1767

Before Sterne started his new work, however, he spent the first months of 1767 in London, gathering subscriptions among the great and paying assiduous attention to a young married woman, Elizabeth [Eliza] Draper [Sclater] (1744–1778). Elizabeth had been born in India on 5 April 1744, and had married Daniel Draper at the age of fourteen (28 July 1758). In 1767 she was visiting in London with her children, while her husband, a government official in Bombay, remained abroad. She was twenty-two when she met Sterne near the end of January, and Sterne's letters to her typify the 'language of the heart' that became the idiom of their relationship. Mrs Draper returned to India in early April, a departure that occasioned Sterne's Bramine's Journal (its surviving portion, in a misleading analogy to Swift's Journal to Stella, was labelled Journal to Eliza when first fully published in 1904, after having been found in an attic in the middle of the previous century). This journal was written while Sterne was contemplating and then composing A Sentimental Journey, and certainly it is an important clue to that work. Part of the journal was sent to Eliza and is now lost, but the surviving portion, headed by Sterne Continuation of the Bramine's Journal, faithfully provides entries from mid-April to the end of July. The best text of the Journal is in volume 6 of the Florida Edition of the works of Sterne.

The Journal has been characterized as mawkish and immoral, and without doubt Sterne's dream of marriage to Eliza once their spouses have been removed by convenient deaths, and his desperate attempts to elevate this young woman into a health-giving, salvation-producing goddess must strike readers as excessive. But Sterne's wife and daughter were in France, and he clearly was haunted by the vision of dying alone. Eliza was only one of several women to whom he turned to fill an emptiness that plagued him in his later years, perhaps best represented by the famous final gesture of A Sentimental Journey, Yorick frozen for all time in reaching for the female across an intervening space. The correspondence with Eliza is epitomized in that scene. Late in July letters from her reached Sterne, and although he enters ecstatic comments in the journal, he completely stops writing it a few days later. Clearly, whatever he had constructed in his mind about Eliza was not reciprocated, and he abandoned the effort. Eliza stayed in India until 1776 when she returned to England (having left her husband some three years earlier) and became 'something of a cult figure' (Cash, Later Years, 346); she died on 3 August 1778 and was interred in Bristol Cathedral, where a monument to her was later constructed. Considering that Sterne's ‘Eliza’ was spun almost whole-cloth from his imagination, Elizabeth Draper attracted far more attention in the century following her death than was called for.

A Sentimental Journey and Sterne's death, 1768

By the end of the twentieth century the notion of Sterne's incompleteness and fragmentariness, his celebration of the interruption or aposiopesis, had become as familiar as his warm sentimentalism and wicked licentiousness had been in the nineteenth century. From the perspective of 1768, however, 1767 was Sterne's final year, and it must be wondered whether he felt the impending closure in his worn body, if not in his mind. With all his dalliance with unendingness, his own end, he knew, was assured—and was conveniently summarized by the creed he had preached for twenty-five years as the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. When, late in A Sentimental Journey, Yorick asserts, despite all the books 'with which materialists have pester'd the world', that he is positive he has a soul (Sterne, Sentimental Journey, 151), he is not merely asserting a feeling heart, but the belief that he is constituted of immaterial as well as material substance; since what is immaterial cannot die, it must spend 'eternity' somewhere. Sterne called A Sentimental Journey his 'work of redemption', and that has been taken to mean, most often, that he heeded his critics' advice to mine his sentimental vein and thus atone for the bawdiness of Tristram Shandy. But it is equally possible that Sterne's redemptive intention in his final work has more to do with the death and judgment he anticipated; Journey and Bramine's Journal perhaps represent an attempt at self-justification for his life and his writings, a final effort to find the proper equation between human and divine love (more broadly, between human appetites and spiritual injunctions)—a problem that had dogged Sterne throughout his life.

A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy was published in late February 1768; once again illness had slowed Sterne's progress, and indeed the projected four volumes of a tour through France and Italy appeared as only two volumes, located, with one exception, in France. Three weeks later, on 18 March 1768, at 44 Old Bond Street, London, Sterne died. He was buried on 22 March in St George's burial-ground in Paddington. David Garrick provided an epitaph:

Shall Pride a heap of Sculptur'd Marble raise,Some unmourn'd, worthless, titled Fool to praise?And shall we not by one poor Grave-stone learn,Where Humor, wit and Genius sleep with Sterne?

However, his body was stolen from the grave, probably in the night after its burial, and taken to Cambridge to be anatomized. It is said that the professor of anatomy, Dr Charles Collignon, recognized the body and had it sent back to Paddington to be reburied. No marker was placed on this new burial place. In 1969, just prior to the indiscriminate disposal of the remains when the site was to be redeveloped, Kenneth Monkman recovered what is believed to be Sterne's skull (with the top sawn off, indicating purchase by medical students), and this was reburied in the graveyard of St Michael's Church, Coxwold, just across the road from Shandy Hall (see The Shandean, 10, 1998, 45–79).

Sterne died without a will, leaving Elizabeth and Lydia with debts and with only a relatively meagre income of about £100. Lydia, however, proved as resourceful as her father in soliciting subscriptions, first a private subscription (£800) and then more than 700 subscribers for the remaining three volumes of sermons that Sterne had left behind for the purpose. Soon after the sermons appeared in June 1769 the two women departed for France, where Elizabeth died in 1773. Lydia had married a Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Medalle, the year before; their only child died at the age of five. Lydia returned to England one last time, in the spring of 1775, when she gathered 114 letters for her three-volume Letters of the Late Rev. Mr. Laurence Sterne, to his most Intimate Friends, published in October 1775. She was an unconscionable editor, as the twentieth-century editor of Sterne's correspondence, L. P. Curtis, has amply demonstrated; Curtis's edition of 1935, of 222 letters, will be replaced by an edition for the Florida Edition of the works of Sterne (volume 7) augmented with some 25 letters discovered since 1935.

Sterne's enduring legacy

Early in Tristram Shandy Sterne chides the reader for her failure to grasp his meaning and sends her back to reread the chapter more carefully. It is an appropriate warning to readers of Sterne because his works lack the structural clues provided by an orderly, sequential plot, and because his language is replete with the ambiguities and allusions, ironies and ambivalences more usually associated with poetry than with prose. It must be remembered that Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy over a seven-year period during which his life changed dramatically. The clear-cut satiric origins of the work clearly evolved during this period, although never into the sort of connected narrative of character commonly associated with the novel.

Thus, although many twentieth-century critics have striven to see Sterne as the heir of the origins of the novel in Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett, because he too wrote prose fiction, the fact is that Sterne never mentions the first three at all; as for Smollett, he parodies him as Smelfungus, alluding to his grumpy Travels through France and Italy (1766), but never mentions his novels. It is possible to reduce Tristram Shandy to certain narrative lines—the history of Tristram's birth, Toby's battles and amours, Tristram's struggles to write—but to do so simply highlights the work's contrasts with fictions dominated by plot and character development.

It was the dominant trend for the first half of the twentieth century to read Tristram Shandy as an ‘eccentric’ novel, an ‘anti-novel’ before the genre had even achieved a traditional form. Viktor Shklovsky's famous quip was often cited, 'Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature' (A parodying novel: Sterne's Tristram Shandy in Laurence Sterne, ed. J. Traugott, 1968, 89). Replacing this approach more recently has been a greater focus on a very different literary tradition available to Sterne. Sterne's favourite authors were Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne, Robert Burton, Swift, even Ephraim Chambers, because Sterne definitely enjoyed using borrowed wisdom from encyclopaedias. These authors led him into an alternative path of narrative, not into story-telling, but into modes of satire.

Rabelais was his model of the bold, sharp-tongued, bawdy, and irreverent satirist who reflected on the hypocrisies of church and state, the professions, and, most importantly, human nature itself. Sterne's contemporaries first compared him to Rabelais, and, far from repudiating the association, Sterne has Yorick carry Gargantua in his 'right-hand coat pocket' (Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Florida Edition, 5.28.463). Cervantes, on the other hand, provided Sterne with a model for intrusive narration, the posture of ironic gravity that the entire century identified with Cervantes, and with, in Sterne's own words, the 'Gentle Spirit of sweetest humour' (ibid., 9.24.780) that the century more and more came to discover in the character of Don Quixote.

Montaigne's Essays (1580) gave Sterne an example of unabashed self-examination ranging over the widest possible sweep of subjects. In addition, Sterne certainly learned from Montaigne a reverence for the minute detail, the close observation of human behaviour. Montaigne's systematic scepticism casts, perhaps, a more significant light on Sterne than the philosophical will-o'-the-wisps critics have pursued in believing Locke to be the centre of Tristram Shandy—certainly the hobby-horse that has thrown many a modern critic. It should be noted that alluding to Locke in 1760 was roughly equivalent to alluding to Freud in 1960—it could be done without much thought about—or reading in—primary texts. It is noteworthy, perhaps, that Sterne borrows as much or more from a work that might be thought of as diametrically opposed to Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689): Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), a brilliant example of ‘scientific’ enquiry prior to the ‘new science’. This literary tradition (identified as 'learned wit' by D. W. Jefferson, Essays in Criticism, 1, 1951, 225–48, and the 'anatomy' by Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, 1957), best accounts for Sterne's interest in these authors—and accounts as well for the fact that among British writers Sterne's favourites were not the novelists, but the writers of the Scriblerian tradition, Swift and Pope most specifically.

The real community of the Shandy world, perhaps, is not the Shandy brothers or the Shandy household but rather the authors and books summoned by Sterne, all the documents and cultures and artefacts from which he erects his edifices; in short, all that illustrates to humans what it means to live in a world written by God (not man), and hence always approximated—but never finalized—by the same human endeavour. At times the documents are necessarily ludicrous, as is so much human effort in the face of the infinite, but at other times they are useful and perhaps even profound, as human effort can also be. Sterne keeps the reader aware of both possibilities and aware above all that while every attempt to create a world of certainty and truth will fail, the attempt is what ties each individual to the community of humanity, what offers each the equivalent of communion with a common legacy.

When Tristram Shandy first appeared, Sterne was heralded as a second Rabelais, Cervantes, or Swift and was condemned, especially when his clerical profession was disclosed, as an immoral hypocrite. Controversy continues about the precise nature of Sterne's contribution to literature, but no one any longer denies him a place among the most important eighteenth-century writers. It might indeed be argued that he was the most influential eighteenth-century British fiction writer among twentieth-century authors—Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Samuel Beckett, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Milan Kundera, and Italo Calvino have all paid tribute to Sterne. It is Sterne, more than any other author of his time, whose work has seemed of contemporary interest. It does not seem to matter whether they are realists or surrealists, formalists or symbolists, interested in psychology or philosophy or metacommentary, modernists or post-modernists: writers seem to find in Sterne's fiction something that reflects their own experimentations.

But even in Sterne's own day—and in the following century, which responded to him, for the most part, negatively—Sterne could attract the best minds of each generation. As his work was translated into the various languages of Europe, the list of his champions grew. Diderot and Voltaire were early admirers, while Jean Paul and C. M. Wieland spread the so-called Lorenzo cult of sensibility in Germany and beyond in the last decades of the eighteenth century (cult members exchanged snuff-boxes as Yorick and the monk Lorenzo did in A Sentimental Journey, wept at mock burials of Maria, and, in a variety of other ways, played at being 'men of feeling'). In the nineteenth century Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Walter Scott, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol, and Lev Tolstoy, Charles Dickens and Friedrich Nietzsche were among those most favourably inclined toward him—and were influenced by him. Nietzsche's tribute to Sterne is delightfully excessive:

How, in a book for free spirits, should there be no mention of Laurence Sterne, whom Goethe honoured as the most liberated spirit of his century! Let us content ourselves here simply with calling him the most liberated spirit of all time, in comparison with whom all others seem stiff, square, intolerant and boorishly direct.

F. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, 1968, 238


  • A. H. Cash, Laurence Sterne: early and middle years (1975)
  • A. H. Cash, Laurence Sterne: the later years (1984)
  • L. Sterne, Memoirs, ed. K. Monkman (1985)
  • L. Sterne, ‘The Rabelaisian fragment’, ed. M. New, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 87 (1972), 1083–92
  • L. Sterne, The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman, new edn, ed. M. New and J. New (1997)
  • L. Sterne, Letters, ed. L. P. Curtis (1935)
  • The Shandean: an annual volume devoted to Laurence Sterne and his works, ed. P. de Voogd (1989–)
  • W. Booth, ‘The self-conscious narrator in comic fiction before Tristram Shandy’, Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 67 (1952), 163–85
  • F. Brady, ‘Tristram Shandy: sexuality, morality, and sensibility’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 4 (1970), 41–56
  • S. Burckhardt, ‘Tristram Shandy's law of gravity’, ELH: a Journal of English Literary History, 28 (1961), 70–88
  • L. P. Curtis, The politicks of Laurence Sterne (1929)
  • M. New, ‘Sterne and the narrative of determinateness’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 4 (1992), 315–29
  • H. Read, ‘Sterne’, Sense of glory (1930), 123–51
  • D. R. Wehrs, ‘Sterne, Cervantes, Montaigne: fideistic skepticism and the rhetoric of desire’, Comparative Literature Studies, 5 (1988), 127–51


  • BL, journal and letters, Add. MS 34527
  • BL, letters of admission in holy orders and induction into benefices, Add. Ch. 16158–16166
  • East Riding of Yorkshire Archives Service, Beverley
  • Laurence Sterne Trust, Shandy Hall, Yorkshire, books and papers
  • Morgan L., letter-book, MA 417
  • BL, Spencer MSS, corresp. with Georgiana, wife of first Earl Spencer, and literary MSS
  • NA Scot., letters to Richard Oswald
  • W. Yorks. AS, Calderdale, legal papers relating to widow and son of Richard Sterne junior


  • T. Bridges, caricature, oils, 1759, repro. in Cash, Laurence Sterne
  • E. Fisher, mezzotint, 1760 (six known states), BM print room, V&A
  • S. Ravenet, engraving, 1760 (after J. Reynolds, 1760), repro. in Sterne, Sermons, 1 (1760), frontispiece
  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1760, NPG [see illus.]
  • L. de Carmontelle, watercolour drawing, 1762, Musée Condé, Chantilly
  • attrib. L. de Carmontelle, watercolour drawing, 1762, NPG
  • T. Patch, portrait, oils, 1765, Jesus College, Cambridge
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, 1766, NPG; copies, Hunt. L.; Shandy Hall, Yorkshire
  • J. H. Mortimer, caricature, oils, Yale U. CBA
  • T. Patch, caricature, etching, BM, V&A; repro. in T. Patch, Caricatures (1769–70)
  • portrait, oils, NPG

Wealth at Death

approximately £100 p.a.; debts perhaps as much as £1000: Cash, Laurence Sterne: the later years, 335–6