Tristram Shandy caused a sensation almost as soon as the first two volumes were published in December 1759. The author Oliver Goldsmith was outraged by Laurence Sterne’s ‘bawdy’ work, and the artist Mary Granville Delany avoided the book to preserve her ‘purity of mind’.
Others, in contrast, relished Sterne’s witty irreverence and innovative style. The biographer James Boswell called it a ‘damn’d clever book’, and Sterne was invited to meet King George III and dine in elite London circles. People wrote dramas, ballads and pamphlets imitating Sterne, and the book inspired devoted readers.
Thomas Twining’s appreciation of Tristram Shandy
Among the personal letters of the scholar and translator Thomas Twining (c. 1734–1804) is one sent to his father Daniel on 19 February 1760. Thomas encloses a mock legal document signed by six Cambridge graduates, praising Tristram Shandy only months after it first appeared.
The document uses the circuitous, legalistic language which Sterne satirised in Tristram Shandy, especially in the comic marriage settlement between Tristram’s parents (Volume 1, Chapter 15). Twining and his friends declare that Sterne’s novel contains the ‘most genuine original & new Humour, ridicule, satire, good sense, good nonsense … that hath been ever held, contained & comprized in any book’. After signing it, Twining adds the letters A–Z, mimicking Sterne’s dedication of Chapter 8 in Volume 1, which discusses the ‘hobby-horses’ (or personal obsessions) of ‘my Lord A, B, C, D … and so on’.
A letter from Twining’s legs and feet
Thomas Twining then writes to his father in the voice of his own ‘legs and feet’, thanking him for the stockings which Thomas stole from his drawer. The legs berate the ‘misery’ inflicted by their ‘cruel master’, who wears the same pair of stockings for ‘six weeks’. While some legs ‘take rides, & go a skaiting’, they are forced to sit ‘under a cursed table … loaded with Lexicons & Dictionarys’. The letter ends with a drawing of the ‘unhappy’ legs and a ‘P.S.’ pleading with Daniel to ask his son to ‘wash us!’
 No. 53 (30 June 1760) of Goldsmith’s collection of letters entitled ‘The Citizen of the World’. They are supposedly written by a Chinese traveller commenting ironically on British society. Reprinted in Alan B Howes (ed.), Laurence Sterne: The Critical Heritage (London, 1995), pp. 91‒92.
 Mary’s letter to her sister Anne (14 May 1760) in Sterne: The Critical Heritage, p. 61.
 Sterne: The Critical Heritage, p. 83.
– We whose names are underwritten have perused a book entitled & called The History of the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy Gent: printed for Robert Dodsley &c. &c. – and having well considered, weighed & examin'd the merit of the book or books aforesaid, do upon mature consideration, deliberation & examination of the same, think and opine, and do hereby give it as our opinion, that the said book or books entitled &– doth or do hold or contain & comprize the best & truest & most genuine original & new Humour, ridicule, satire, good Sense, good nonsense &&– &c.&c. – that hath been ever held. contained & comprized in any book or books hitherto put forth or published, or hereafter to be put forth or published, provided always that the said book or books hereafter to be put forth or published be not composed, written, put forth, or published by the Author of the aforesaid book or books entitled and called The History of the life & opinions of Tristram Shandy Gent: printed for Robert Dodsley &c–. In witness whereof we sign our hands this 19th day of February 1760.
W. Lobb : Cl: A: M: & Pet: Coll: Cam: Soc:
J. Hey Cl: A. M & Sid: Sufs: Coll – Soc:
Lecturer, Streward & Tutor of the same
Th, Martyn Cl: A. M. & Sid: Dufs: Coll: Soc. &
Dean of the same.
H. Elmsall. Cl: A. M. Coll: Eman: Cant: Soc: /
Samuel Battall X his mark
Thos Twining. Sid. Coll. A.B. C. D. E.F.G: H
I.K. L. M. N. O. P. Q
N. S. T. U. W. X. Y.
Cambridge, Feby 19. 1760
Most worthy Sir, our kind & generous Benefactor!
We the leg unhappy legs and feet belonging & appurtaining unto the body of your Son Mr. T.T. do with hearts full of gratitude (and toes alas! Gull of dirt!) return our most humble & unfeigned thanks for the large and valuable cargo of hose which you, in kind consi-deration of the hardships we have long undergone xxxx have most generous-ly bestowed on us; thereby affording us a relief most welcome and
long wished for relief from the miseries of cold & nakedness! O! Sir! – may your legs & feet never know what it is to want stockings! – or (and which of these is worst?) to wear the same pair for a month or six weeks together! to wear them, 'till the larger half has gradually sunk into your shoe, and xxxxx your calves have shook hands with your ankles! – 'till accumulated dirt & sweat have converted the feet of them into leather, and repeated darnings have ^made their idendity [sic] contestable! – – No! may your worthy legs never experience misery like this. May they continue to be fresh clothed twice a day: – now shining in white silk, now veiled in modest grey –
this hour wrapped up, like jewels, in snowy cotton – the next, fenced against the cold, with ribs of worsted: – may your drawer continue to be the envy of Hosiers, & the admiration of all who see it, or hear of it; may it (for surely Nature might turn a little out of her way to promote the happiness of your legs & feet!) – may it ever be self-supplied, (like the golden tree the Poet sings of,) and when you take out one pair of stockings, may another instantly sprout up into its place: So, will you be happy in a continual variety of fresh hose; – and so will your worthy son be enabled to rob your drawer without detection!
But, Sir, after this unparallelled goodness of yours, he can never think of such a wicked attempt again – but be assured, Sir, that if he shou'd, we will never have any hand in the theft.
Indeed, Sir, if we may presume to speak freely to you, – this Son of yours has ever been a most cruel master to us: but sure we are he has no reason to xxx be so. For we legs, do own, that we have not, knowingly, broke our shins six times since I we have come to years of discretion – & we feet, do own, that we have never produced a single corn during our whole lives; nor can we, Sir, for our soles, think, what has provoked our Master to this cruel treatment, indeed when we were little boys did use to plague him now & then with chilblains chilblains - but these were t[?hings] of youth, and ought to be forgotten. – Do we not deserve to be taken b[?etter] care of of? – I know, Sir We know, Sir we legs – we are very sensible, – and with tears we speak it – – that – we have no calves, as other legs have, to boast of – but alas! – does this deserve reproach? – it is our misfortune, not our fault: – we are truly sorry that we are not able to put our Master upon the same footing with other Gentlemen, by exhibiting such calves as wou'd [be] suitable to the rest of his person, in which we are ready to acknowledge there is no calf wanting. But we are what nature made us. – Here, Sir, we are allow'd none [?of those recrea]tions & innocent amusements which other Gentlemens legs & feet enjoy! – – some of our brothers walk, and dance & take rides, & go a skaiting [sic] – while we are obliged to sit here all day by the fire, under a cursed table (excuse our warmth, Sir – what human leg so used can keep its temper?) loaded with Lexicons, Dictionarys, over which my our Master is continually poring: but with all his reading, we do not find that he has yet met wth any Author so kind as to tell him that he has legs & feet under him. – But we beg pardon for detaining you so long – Once more, generous Sir, accept our most sincere thanks for your bounty: we are bound to pray for the legs & feet of you & yours. Given under our feet this 19th day of Feb. 1760.
P.S.. For heaven's sake, Sir, speak to your
Son, to wash us! – 'tis hard we shou'd be buried alive!
[drawing of legs and feet]
[vertically downward in left margin]
P.S.– If by stepping into Mr. Leigh's Chambers or Mr. Salts, you c[?ould pro]cure my friend Hey a xxxx afternoon turn at the Temple for Sunday sen'night, [?you would] oblige him: I suppose it is too late.
Mr. Twining in
[On the left hand side of page]
A Single Sheet
[vertically down the right hand side]
19 Feb. 1760
[round wax stamp and smudged post stamp]
- Full title:
- TWINING PAPERS. Vol. I (ff. 448). 1760-1789. Correspondence of Reverend Thomas Twining, translator of Aristotle's 'Poetics', with Dr. Burney and with his half-brothers Daniel and Richard Twining
- 1760–1789, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire
- Manuscript / Letter / Image / Illustration
- Thomas Twining, William Lobb, John Hey, Henry Elmsall, Samuel Battall, Thomas Martyn
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 39929
- Article by:
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- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism
John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.
- Article by:
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Dashes, loops, wiggles and blanks: John Mullan investigates the visual oddities of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.