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 a style that was clearly for readers of yesteryear.
As part of my tour-guide training, one of the assessments we were given was to walk around the National Portrait Gallery and memorise twelve stops – we’d have to deliver a random two, on which we would be marked and assessed. One painting which grabbed my attention was about the life of a man who’s catalogue would go on to influence the likes of Karl Marx and enrage fellow writers such as Dr. Johnson.
Who was Laurence Sterne?
He 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 ecclesiastical career.
Disease and Writing
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 continuing to write – 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. His last hurrah was penning ‘A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy‘ in 1768, which he based upon his travels through those countries three years earlier – writing in the same style as he did in Shandy, its sentimentality secured travel writing as the main genre of the latter half of the 18th century. Dan Vo, volunteer co-ordinator for the V & A, comments:
‘[it] attributed emotions once considered feminine to both sexes and encouraged close bonds between men which could be described as leaning towards homosexuality’
Eventually he succumbed to TB, just under a month after its publication, leaving a second volume to be continued by his friend and writer John-Hall Stevenson. He was buried in St. George’s Hanover Square (where German-born composer Handel was a regular worshipper), thus ending his fifty four years of life.
Life after death
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.
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.