Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne
Laurence Sterne © National Portrait Gallery

Born in Ireland in 1713, Laurence Sterne was a clergyman and novelist; he is best known for his inventive and humorous work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Though popular during his lifetime, Sterne became even more celebrated in the 20th century, when modernist and postmodernist writers rediscovered him as an innovator in textual and narrative forms.

Early life

Sterne was born to a British military officer stationed in County Tipperary. Following his father’s postings, Sterne’s family moved briefly to Yorkshire before returning to Ireland, where they lived largely in poverty and moved frequently throughout the rest of Sterne’s youth. When the elder Sterne was dispatched to Jamaica, where he would die in 1731, he placed his son with a wealthy uncle who supported the boy’s education.

Sterne attended Jesus College, Cambridge, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Richard Sterne, who had been Master of the College. After being ordained as an Anglican priest, Sterne took up the vicarship of Sutton-on-the-Forest, where he married Elizabeth Lumley; the couple would live there for the next 20 years.

Politics and early writings

Through his paternal family line, Sterne was connected to several powerful clergymen. His uncle, Archdeacon Jacques Sterne, encouraged Sterne to contribute to Whig political journals, and consequently he wrote several articles supporting Sir Robert Walpole. However, when Sterne’s political fervency failed to match his uncle's, prompting him to abandon the role of political controversialist, Jacques Sterne cut ties with his nephew and refused to support his career. Nevertheless, Sterne continued writing.

His first long work, a sharp satire of the spiritual courts entitled A Political Romance, made him as many enemies as allies. Though the work was not widely distributed, and indeed was burned at the request of those targeted by its Swiftian-style criticism, it represented Sterne’s first foray into the kind of humorous satire for which he would become famous. At age 46, Sterne stepped back from managing his parishes and turned his full attention to writing.

Writing Tristram Shandy

Sterne began what would become his best-known work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, at a moment of personal crisis. He and his wife were both ill with consumption, and, in the same year that the first volumes of Sterne’s long comic novel appeared, his mother and uncle Jacques died. The blend of sentiment, humour and philosophical exploration that characterises Sterne’s works matured during this difficult period. Tristram Shandy was an enormous success, and Sterne became, for the first time in his life, a famous literary figure in London. Still suffering from tuberculosis, Sterne left England for the Continent, where his travels influenced his second major work, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768).

Parson Yorick, Sterne’s alter ego

Sterne’s narrator in A Sentimental Journey is Parson Yorick, a sensitive but also comic figure who first appeared in Tristram Shandy and who became Sterne's fictive alter ego. In A Sentimental Journey, Parson Yorick wears a ‘little picture of Eliza around his neck’, and in the last year of his life Sterne would write the autobiographical Journal to Eliza under the pseudonym Yorick. Eliza was Eliza Draper, the wife of an East India Company official, and the literary and emotional muse of Sterne’s final years. After Draper returned to India, the two continued to exchange letters, some of which Draper allowed to be published after Sterne’s death in the volume Letters from Yorick to Eliza.

In 1768, Sterne’s health declined rapidly and he died in London at the age of 54.

Further information about the life of Laurence Sterne can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Biography

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