Manuscript of 'Le Fever's story' from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy


This is the only surviving manuscript of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, partly written in the author’s own hand. It is a fair copy of ‘Le Fever’s Story’ – the sentimental tale of a dying lieutenant – that appears in Volume 6, Chapters 5–13 of Sterne’s remarkable novel.

Sterne sent the manuscript to his patron, Margaret Georgiana, Countess Spencer, before the volume was published in 1761. He chose Le Fever’s story because it was ‘humane’,[1] probably hoping that Lady Spencer would reassure female readers who might have heard that the novel was obscene.

Le Fever, Sterne and sentiment

The story perfectly caters to the 18th-century fashion for sentimental writing, with its tear-jerking displays of human virtue and sympathy. It exemplifies Uncle Toby’s striking ‘goodness of nature’, as he offers Le Fever his ‘purse’ and a room, adopts his son when he dies and recommends the young man as a tutor for Tristram. The story (narrowly) avoids bawdiness, when Le Fever recounts how his wife was ‘kill’d with a musket shot, as she lay in my arms’ (through ‘modesty’ he omits to say what they were doing at the time).

Reviewing the book, the clergyman John Langhorne observed that Volumes 5–6 were less ‘interlarded with obscenity’ than previous instalments, though ‘not without their stars and dashes, their hints and whiskers’. Langhorne says that the Le Fever story ‘does greater honour’ to Sterne ‘than any other part of his work’.[2] The episode appeared in anthologies of sentimental writing, and was part of the hugely popular Beauties of Sterne (1782), alongside extracts from Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768).

How does the manuscript differ from the printed version?

This manuscript was lost for a long time, but rediscovered in 1990 amongst the Spencer’ Althorp papers at the British Library. There is some uncertainty about how much is written by Sterne. Staff at the British Library suggest that the title page, the first page and the last line are in Sterne’s handwriting, while the rest – in a neater, more careful script – was probably written by a copyist, with a few corrections by Sterne. Other critics, such as Melvyn New, believe it may be entirely by Sterne.

This version differs in several important ways from the first printed edition. In this manuscript, all but the first few lines of Chapter 11 are missing, so the digression on Parson Yorick’s funeral sermon is cut. There is almost no punctuation before the many dashes, and Le Fever looks ‘wistfully’ not ‘wishfully’ at Toby before he dies.

[1] See the printed dedication to Lord and Lady Spencer in Volumes 5–6. The title page says 1762, but it was actually published in December 1761.

[2] Monthly Review, xxvi (January 1762), pp. 31–41.

Full title:
Althorp Papers. Vol. cdxlv. Laurence Sterne, 'Le Fever's Story': a manuscript version of most of chapters V-XIII of the sixth volume of Tristram Shandy, endorsed by Lady Spencer
Laurence Sterne, Margaret Georgiana Spencer
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Add MS 75745

Full catalogue details

Related articles

The rise of the novel

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.

Letters, letter writing and epistolary novels

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.

The ‘stuff’ of Tristram Shandy

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.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

Tristram Shandy

Created by: Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an innovative, digressive, ...