Laurence Sterne’s innovative novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was written and printed over eight years between 1759 and 1767. This rare set contains first editions of all nine volumes, signed in three places by the author, and later owned by Thomas James Wise (1859–1937), the book collector and forger.
How was Tristram Shandy ground-breaking?
The title makes the novel sound like a typical Bildungsroman, charting the hero’s progress from childhood to maturity. In reality, however, Sterne subverts this idea in a strikingly postmodern fashion, exposing the problems of telling your ‘life’ in a straight line from A to B. Tristram jumps about in time and goes off on lengthy tangents, only getting to his own birth in Volume 3. At times, words give way to squiggles, dashes and blank pages, playfully drawing attention to the limitations of language and our role in shaping its meaning.
What’s special about these first editions?
More than any modern version, these first editions show Sterne’s innovative use of printing techniques and methods. He controls and disrupts the process in audacious, groundbreaking ways, making us keenly aware of the book as a material object.
The black page: Soon after introducing Parson Yorick, Sterne kills him off and marks his death with a black mourning page. Later, with a comic leap in narrative time, Sterne resurrects him to baptise the baby Tristram.
The blank flyleaf: At the end of Volume 1, Tristram says he would tear out the page, if he thought we could guess what was on it. The following page is left blank, like other early flyleaves, so we are left wondering whether he has ‘torn it out’ or not.
The hand-marbled leaf in Volume 3 is a ‘motley emblem’ of Tristram’s work – a colourful swirling pattern, subtly different in each copy. Since the first edition consisted of around 4,000 copies, this must have been hugely laborious. Somebody had to fold each sheet to create the margins, dip both sides in the marbling ink and stamp the page number by hand.
William Hogarth’s illustration for Volume 4 shows the terrible moment when Tristram is baptised with the name most hated by his father.
There is a ‘chasm of ten pages’ where Tristram says he has ‘torn out’ a chapter, skipping from page 146 to page 156. 18th-century readers would expect to see even-numbered pages on the left, but this pattern is disrupted for the rest of Volume 4.
Sterne’s signatures: The author went to extraordinary lengths to guard against piracy, signing the whole first and second editions of Volume 5, and the first editions of Volumes 7 and 9.
The blank page in Volume 6: To help us feel the power of Uncle Toby’s love for Widow Wadman, Sterne offers us a blank page and tells us to ‘paint her to your mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you’.
Typographical symbols and squiggly lines: Sterne uses asterisks and dashes to hint at bawdy ideas, time-lapses and interruptions. In Volume 6, he draws the meandering path of his own story, and in Volume 9 he depicts the physical flourish of Trim’s stick.
How was the novel printed?
In December 1759, the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were printed anonymously in York at Sterne’s own expense. The title page conceals their provincial origins, providing no place of publication, and it gives the date as 1760 rather than 1759 (it was common in this period for books published in December to be post-dated). Sterne managed to get the bookseller, Robert Dodsley, to sell the work in London and agree to publish future parts if it was a success. When the book was a sell-out sensation, Dodsley reprinted it in April 1760 and published Volumes 3 and 4 in 1761.
- Full title:
- The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
- 1759‒1767, York, Yorkshire, London
- Book / Octavo / Manuscript annotation / Image / Illustration / Engraving
- Laurence Sterne
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- 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:
- Louise Curran
- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Language and ideas
Louise Curran explores the real and fictional letters published in the 18th century, from the correspondence of Alexander Pope and Ignatius Sancho to Samuel Richardson's hugely popular epistolary novel Pamela and the works it inspired.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Rise of the novel, Satire and humour, Language and ideas
Dashes, loops, wiggles and blanks: John Mullan investigates the visual oddities of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
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Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an innovative, digressive, ...