Laurence Sterne was a name I’d encountered before. I’d read his most prominent novel on a free to download app on my iPhone, and was rather confused by what I was reading. It was enjoyable: but it was written in an archaic style that was clearly of its time. Taking note of the hype that surrounded its author, I was fascinated to read about his life and in particular, his death.
His life has once more become of interest: for my tour-guiding assessment I am to learn twelve stops of a tour in the National Portrait Gallery. I will write more about that in a separate post, but one of the stops I’ve been researching (a few of the stops we have free reign to choose which portrait we talk about) that highlights arts in the late 18th Century has brought to my attention the life of a man who’s activities after his death rival anything one of his most famous creations probably would have encountered in his whimsical life.
Laurence Sterne was a Vicar in Yorkshire, who was the son of a British Ensign who had been serving in Ireland in 1712. Subjected to a transient childhood, he studied at Cambridge and then entered into the priesthood. It seems he was destined for the Clergy although his heart was never truly in it, commenting that he preferred other pursuits than the salvation that Jesus offered. In the 1740’s he completed his first satirical piece of writing, ‘A Political Romance’ – written to help support his Dean in a Church Squabble. The Church was so embarrassed by his writing that they demanded every copy of it to be burnt and as a result prevented any advancement to his career.
Perhaps tiring of the ways of being a minister of God, he assigned control of his Parish to his curates and became a farmer. Battling Consumption which he’d been blighted with since he was a young man, he supported himself by writing what many regard to be his Magnum Opus, ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman‘, a comedic farce that relates the ‘autobiography’ of the titular character. Amusingly, Shandy can’t deliver his life story without going off on a significant tangent: the book was a success upon its release and was one of the first popular novels to grip the nation. Sterne celebrated his book’s reception by having a portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, where he is depicted in black clerical garb in a very forthright pose. His cocked eyebrow hinting at the satirical wit that had made him a household name.
His success produced more books, however his Consumption grew steadily worse and began to weaken a man who’s career was achieving lofty heights. Eventually he succumbed to the disease, dying in lodgings on Old Bond Street whilst he was courting London society. He was buried in St. George’s Hanover Square (where German-born composer Handel was a regular worshipper), dead at the age of fifty four.
His adventures didn’t end there, and this is where my interested piqued. Sterne died at a time when the thirst to know the inner workings of the Human body gave bodysnatchers a very healthy income exhuming the recently dead for dissection. The Churchyard of St. George’s was not spared from this practice, and the story goes that at Cambridge University, a student recognised Sterne’s corpse and secretly arranged for his body to be returned to his grave once the dissection had been performed in 1768.
There he lay, perhaps now hopefully permitted the sleep he’d worked so hard for. The rest was not to last; in 1969, the Churchyard was to be redeveloped and over 11,500 skulls were removed. A number showed the signs of being handled by Anatomists. Sterne’s remains were located and befitting a man who’d chosen the nickname ‘Yorick’, an exhumer held his skull aloft proclaiming his name ‘with a certain element of doubt’. The Laurence Sterne Trust then removed his remains to a new grave in Coxwold in Yorkshire, the parish he served for many years, where he rests to this day.
One wonders what Shandy-esque event next awaits this 18th Century Dan Brown.