Laurence Sterne, 1713–1768

Biographical note

Novelist, son of an officer in the army, and the great-grandson of an Archbishop of York, was born at Clonmel, where his father’s regiment happened to be stationed, and passed part of his boyhood in Ireland. At the age of 10 he was handed over to a relation, Mr. Sterne of Elvington in Yorkshire, who put him to school at Halifax, and thereafter sent him to Cambridge He entered the Church, a profession for which he was very indifferently fitted, and through family influence procured the living of Sutton, Yorkshire. In 1741 he married a lady — Miss Lumley — whose influence obtained for him in addition an adjacent benefice, and he also became a prebendary of York. It was not until 1760 that the first two vols. of his famous novel, Tristram Shandy, appeared. Its peculiar and original style of humour, its whimsicality, and perhaps also its defiance of conventionality, and even its frequent lapses into indecorum, achieved for it an immediate and immense popularity. Sterne went up to London and became the lion of the day. The third and fourth vols. appeared in 1761, the fifth and sixth in 1762, the seventh and eighth in 1765, and the last in 1767. Meanwhile he had published the Sermons of Mr. Yorick [1760], and his remaining work, The Sentimental Journey appeared in 1768.

From the time of his finding himself a celebrity his parishioners saw but little of him, his time being passed either in the gaieties of London or in travelling on the Continent. Latterly he was practically separated from his wife and only daughter, to the former of whom his behaviour had been anything but exemplary. His health, which had begun to give way soon after his literary career had commenced, finally broke down, and he fell into a consumption, of which he died in London on March 18, 1768, utterly alone and unattended. His body was followed to the grave by one coach containing his publisher and another gentleman; and it was exhumed and appeared in a few days upon the table of the anatomical professor at Cambridge He died in debt, but a subscription was raised for his wife and daughter, the latter of whom married a Frenchman, and is said to have perished under the guillotine.

Worthless as a man, Sterne possessed undoubted genius. He had wit, originality, and pathos, though the last not seldom runs into mawkishness, and an exquisitely delicate and glancing style. He has contributed some immortal characters to English fiction, including Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. His great faults as a writer are affectation and a peculiarly deliberate kind of indecency, which his profession renders all the more offensive; and he was by no means scrupulous in adopting, without acknowledgment, the good things of previous writers.

[From A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin, 1910]

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