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Laurence Sterne. (1713–1768). A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Biographical Note

LAURENCE STERNE was born in Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, on November 24, 1713. His father, Roger Sterne, was an English soldier who never rose above the rank of lieutenant; and the first ten years of Laurence’s life were passed in various garrison towns, the life of the barracks being occasionally varied by periods spent in the houses of compassionate relatives. In 1723 the boy was placed in a school in Halifax, where he stayed till his father’s death in 1731. Then, after two years of idleness, the liberality of a cousin enabled him to go to Jesus College, Cambridge, whence he graduated in 1736. Though totally without fitness or inclination for the ministry, he took holy orders, and after a short period as curate of Buckden became vicar of Sutton-in-the-Forest, eight miles from York, in 1738. Here he lived for twenty-two years, his income from the living being supplemented by a prebend in York Cathedral and various other ecclesiastical offices. After a two years’ courtship, in his description of which Sterne invented the term “sentimental,” he married in 1741 Elizabeth Lumley. The union did not bring great happiness to either party. Sterne found the life of a country parson somewhat dull, and he sought to vary its monotony by dabbling in music and painting, by wide reading, and by social amusements, notable among which were the carousals at Skelton Hall, where a college friend, John Hall-Stevenson, used to gather a roistering company under the name of “The Demoniacks.”

Until he was past forty Sterne had apparently no thought of authorship and had published nothing but one or two sermons. About 1748, however, the success of a privately circulated skit on a local ecclesiastical quarrel suggested a new line of activity, the result of which appeared in the first two books of “Tristram Shandy,” published at York, January 1, 1760. Their success was great and immediate, and in a few months the author went up to London to enjoy his triumph. He was lionized to his heart’s content, his fame bringing him not only the acquaintance of many of the distinguished men of the time, but the more tender attentions of the other sex.

Sterne’s relations with women in Yorkshire had been by no means beyond reproach, and now in London he was able to indulge his passion for flirtation on a great scale. The most notorious of his affairs of this kind was with Mrs. Eliza Draper, the young wife of an officer in India. It began in 1765 and led to the composition of “Letters” and the “Journal to Eliza,” and to an endless amount of scandal.

In 1760 he was presented to a curacy at Coxwold in Yorkshire, and he moved thither the same year, retaining his other livings. This remained his home for the rest of his life, but he was much in London or abroad. Early in 1762 he was ordered to France for his health, and on crossing to Paris was received with high distinction. When he returned to England in 1764 he left his wife and daughter in the south of France. Meantime he continued to add to “Tristram Shandy,” concluding it with a ninth book in 1766. In the previous year he had made the trip to the Continent that formed the basis of “The Sentimental Journey,” which he finished in 1767. He went to London to attend to its publication, and when it came out in February, 1768, he had the satisfaction of seeing it raise his reputation still higher. Three weeks later, on March 18, he died.

A defense of Sterne’s character is impossible; he had no character, but only a temperament. From childhood he was excessively sensitive, and throughout his life the pleasure that he got out of his feelings was the controlling and almost the sole cause of his actions.

The extraordinary thing is that the writings of such a man should have had so profound an effect throughout Europe, and an effect largely for good. He did, indeed, set a lamentable fashion of mawkish “sensibility”; but, in an age that had tended to cultivate the reason somewhat exclusively, he did much to restore emotion to its place, and by quickening the power of sympathy, helped to make possible the great humanitarian movements which culminated in such achievements as the abolition of slavery.

The sentimentality which brought Sterne immediate popularity is no longer his attraction. Mingled with it there is a delightfully whimsical humor which is entirely his own; and he commanded a style of unsurpassed clarity and ease. The distinctness with which we can picture the successive scenes of his not extraordinary journey and the lastingness of the impressions left on us are the best testimony to his quality as a master of English prose.

W. A. N.