Ondertexts
Laurence Sterne
Search

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne Laurence Sterne[2†]

Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and Anglican cleric, known for his significant contributions to literature[1†][2†]. Born in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, Sterne’s works have left a lasting impact on the literary world[1†][2†]. His most notable works include “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy"[1†][2†]. These works, characterized by their unique narrative style where the story is subordinate to the free associations and digressions of its narrator, have cemented Sterne’s place as a key figure in the development of the novel as a literary form[1†][2†].

Sterne’s life was as varied and interesting as his literary works. He grew up in a military family, spent his early years moving from barracks to barracks, and later attended Jesus College, Cambridge[1†][2†]. Despite facing health challenges, Sterne’s passion for writing remained undeterred, leading him to produce works that continue to be celebrated for their humor, sentimentality, and innovative narrative techniques[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Laurence Sterne was born on November 24, 1713, in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland[1†][2†]. His father, Roger Sterne, was an ensign in a British regiment recently returned from Dunkirk[1†][2†]. Despite being of high social position, Roger enlisted uncommissioned and was of the lowest rank, lacking financial resources[1†][2†]. He married Agnes Hobert, the widow of a military captain[1†][2†].

During his first ten years, Sterne’s family moved from barracks to barracks, following the troops around Ireland[1†][3†][2†]. This early exposure to military life would later influence his literary works, particularly in his affectionate portrayals of soldiers[1†].

At the age of ten, Sterne was sent to school at Hipperholme, near Halifax[1†][3†][4†]. His education there was funded by an uncle, as his father had been ordered to Jamaica, where he later died of malaria[1†][4†]. Sterne later attended Jesus College, Cambridge, on a scholarship[1†][3†][2†]. There, he studied divinity and classics, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees[1†][2†]. It was also during his time at Cambridge that he met his great friend John Hall-Stevenson and experienced his first severe hemorrhage of the lungs[1†]. Sterne had incurable tuberculosis, a condition that would affect him throughout his life[1†].

Career Development and Achievements

Laurence Sterne’s career was as varied and interesting as his literary works. After graduating from Jesus College, Cambridge, he took holy orders and became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, north of York[1†][2†]. He soon became a prebendary (or canon) of York Minster and acquired the vicarage of Stillington[1†][2†]. His early career was also marked by his involvement in politics, writing political articles supporting the administration of Sir Robert Walpole[1†].

However, Sterne’s most significant achievements lie in his contributions to literature. He is best known for his novels “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy"[1†][2†]. These works are characterized by their unique narrative style, where the story is subordinate to the free associations and digressions of its narrator[1†][2†]. This innovative approach to storytelling has cemented Sterne’s place as a key figure in the development of the novel as a literary form[1†][2†].

Sterne wrote the first two volumes of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” before moving to Coxwold in 1760[1†][3†]. He wrote the next seven volumes of “Tristram Shandy” and “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy” while living at Shandy Hall[1†][3†]. These years between 1759 and 1768 were intensely busy ones for him[1†][5†].

Despite facing health challenges, Sterne’s passion for writing remained undeterred, leading him to produce works that continue to be celebrated for their humor, sentimentality, and innovative narrative techniques[1†][2†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Laurence Sterne’s literary career was marked by two major works, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”, as well as a collection of sermons and letters[6†][2†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Laurence Sterne’s work is characterized by its unique narrative style, where the story is often subordinate to the free associations and digressions of its narrator[10†]. He made use of the grotesque and the absurd to convey the ultimate futility of human desires and intellect[10†][11†]. Structural experimentation was one of the novel’s unique features[10†][11†].

Sterne emphasized the irrationality of human thought processes, using a fragmented narrative to support his assertions[10†][11†]. His works are a mix of mock and real autobiography, mock and real anthology, travelogue, essay, and political satire[10†][12†]. Sterne’s familiarity with a wide range of knowledge from military strategy to obstetrics, the doctrine of “humours,” royal lineages, and archaeology give his writing a learned, if not encyclopedic, quality[10†][12†].

Despite the carpings of a few—Horace Walpole thought “Tristram Shandy” was “a very insipid and tedious performance,” and Samuel Richardson thought it immoral—the novel was the rage of London, inspiring so many continuations and imitations that Sterne had to sign the later volumes to guarantee their authenticity[10†]. Some modern-day readers have made great, perhaps exaggerated, claims for the novel, seeing it as the harbinger of the works of Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Albert Camus[10†].

Personal Life

Laurence Sterne was married to Elizabeth Lumley in 1741[3†][13†]. The couple had a daughter named Lydia, who was the only one of their children to survive infancy[3†]. Sterne’s personal life was marked by several bitter quarrels with his wife and uncle, as well as some high-profile affairs[3†][13†].

Despite his personal dramas, Sterne maintained his religious vocation and continued his work as an Anglican cleric[3†][1†][2†]. He was known to indulge in local politics[3†][2†], and his life was characterized by extensive travels, mainly in Ireland but briefly in England[3†][2†].

Sterne’s posthumous Journal to Eliza addresses Eliza Draper, for whom he had romantic feelings[3†][2†]. His affection for soldiers, likely stemming from his early childhood spent following the troops about Ireland, is expressed through his portraits in “Tristram Shandy” of the gentle uncle Toby and Corporal Trim[3†][1†].

Sterne died on March 18, 1768, in London, England[3†][1†][2†]. His body was said to have been stolen after burial and sold to anatomists at Cambridge University, but was recognized and reinterred[3†][2†]. His ostensible skull was found in the churchyard and transferred to Coxwold in 1969 by the Laurence Sterne Trust[3†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Laurence Sterne, an Irish-born English novelist and humorist, left a significant legacy in the literary world[1†][2†]. His works, particularly “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” and “A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy”, have had a lasting impact, influencing the structure and style of subsequent novels[1†][2†].

Sterne’s unique blend of humor, sentimentality, and satire earned him a place among the notable figures of 18th-century English literature[1†][2†]. His novels, in which the story is often subordinate to the free associations and digressions of its narrator, introduced a new narrative style that was groundbreaking for its time[1†][2†].

Despite the controversies and personal dramas that marked his life, Sterne’s influence as a writer remains undeniable[1†][2†]. His works continue to be studied and appreciated for their originality, wit, and insight into the human condition[1†][2†].

Sterne’s posthumous Journal to Eliza, which addresses Eliza Draper, for whom he had romantic feelings, offers a glimpse into his personal life and emotions[1†][2†]. His affection for soldiers, likely stemming from his early childhood spent following the troops about Ireland, is expressed through his portraits in “Tristram Shandy” of the gentle uncle Toby and Corporal Trim[1†].

Sterne’s legacy also includes a rather unusual postscript. After his death in 1768, his body was said to have been stolen and sold to anatomists at Cambridge University, but was recognized and reinterred[1†][2†]. His ostensible skull was found in the churchyard and transferred to Coxwold in 1969 by the Laurence Sterne Trust[1†][2†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Laurence Sterne: British writer [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Laurence Sterne [website] - link
  3. The Laurence Sterne Trust - Short Biography [website] - link
  4. Wikiwand - Laurence Sterne - Wikiwand [website] - link
  5. CliffsNotes - Tristram Shandy - Laurence Sterne Biography [website] - link
  6. Britannica - Laurence Sterne - Novels, Satire, Humor [website] - link
  7. Wythepedia: The George Wythe Encyclopedia - The Works of Laurence Sterne [website] - link
  8. Wikipedia (English) - Sermons of Laurence Sterne [website] - link
  9. Library of Congress - The works of Laurence Sterne. [website] - link
  10. eNotes - Laurence Sterne Analysis [website] - link
  11. Literary Ocean - Laurence Sterne and His Famous Works [website] - link
  12. eNotes - Laurence Sterne World Literature Analysis [website] - link
  13. Penguin Books UK - The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman [website] - link
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0; additional terms may apply.
Ondertexts® is a registered trademark of Ondertexts Foundation, a non-profit organization.