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Sterne and Sterneana : The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. Vol. 1

Sterne, Laurence 1713-1768

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>When Sterne produced the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759, he was forty-six years old and had spent his adult life as an Anglican minister in a rural Yorkshire parish. His earlier writings consisted almost solely of sermons. The turn to fiction, so far as extant evidence allows us to surmise, was abrupt, triggered by a petty dispute over privileges among clerics within the diocese of York. The quarrel triggered A Political Romance, a pamphlet by Sterne published in York in 1759 satirising (by diminishment) all the parties involved which suggests a strong influence by Scriblerian predecessors such as Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot. The pamphlet was suppressed by Church authorities and only six copies are known to have survived, but Sterne's literary urge had been awakened. 'A Rabelaisian Fragment' again shows a satiric impetus, with Pope's Peri Bathous, or the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727), Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub (1704) and Rabelais being strongly apparent (hence the title), but taken with Romance, we might suggest that when Sterne turned author, he was most influenced by the earliest Scriblerian effort, A Tale of a Tub (1704)</p><p>These literary influences - alongside others that Sterne identifies in Tristram Shandy, including Cervantes, Montaigne, and Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy - are crucial to the style and tone of his full-length fictional venture. Volumes 1 and 2 of Tristram Shandy were first printed by Anne Ward at York, but Sterne arranged for copies to be sold in the shop of notable London bookseller Robert Dodsley. They were an instant success, appealing to readers for reasons we can only surmise, since contemporary critics were both adulatory and apoplectic over Sterne's 'unaccountable' text. For example, Sterne used typographic play extensively - rows of asterisks, for instance, where words may or may not be implied, and dashes of varying length - and unusual graphic features, such as the famous black page announcing a character's death in volume 1. While sometimes taken to be a radical subversion of novelistic conventions and the visual appearance of the printed text, the novel form itself was still only nascent in the mid eighteenth century and many contemporaries and predecessors had, in fact, similarly played with the appearance of their text. The satiric background provided by Sterne's literary influences, Swift's Tale of a Tub in particular, also suggests the extent to which Tristram Shandy is in dialogue with these earlier works. There Swift used visual and textual play, including digression and multiple asterisks. Yes, Sterne puts his dedication in chapter 8 of volume 1, but Swift's text features a 'Digression in Praise of Digression', 'An Apology', a dedication, a bookseller's address to the reader, a second dedication ( to Prince Posterity), and a preface before we get to 'The Introduction'. But let Sterne speak for himself: 'what has this book done more than . . . the Tale of a Tub, that it may not swim down the gutter of Time along with' it, he wrote in the final volume of Tristram, seven years after he had opened his satiric fiction.</p><p>Such was the success of Tristram Shandy's first two volumes that they rapidly went into a second edition - now entirely under Dodsley as bookseller - and Sterne was able to produce further instalments, despite diminishing popularity, a total of nine volumes appearing by 1767. His success also made possible the publication of four volumes of his own sermons during this period. Alongside the literary influences noted, in fact, Sterne's sermons provide a helpful though rarely accessed entry to his fictions; they remind us, for example, that when Sterne inserts a complete sermon into the second volume of Tristram, he is contextualising his account of the Shandy family, giving us a yardstick by which to measure their eccentricities ('Abuses of Conscience' was first published by Sterne in 1750, and again in volume IV of Sermons in 1766). Sterne was a serious professor of his Anglican faith, and for all the bawdy innuendo and seemingly facetious scepticism of Tristram Shandy, the work also projects a considered, perhaps didactic view of the importance of religious belief. Philosophical reflection is also present throughout the work; John Locke may be the most often-cited reference-point - Tristram claims that his narrative is a 'history of what passes in a man's own mind', facetiously referring the reader to 'the sagacious Locke' and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) - but his attempt to write his life story is, perhaps, as much an exploration of how to record the complexity of lived experience as both an empirical (physical) and spiritual (moral) event.</p><p>The subsequent seven volumes of Tristram Shandy demonstrate qualities similar to the first instalment: satiric humour, self-reflexive narrative technique, graphic play. Sterne includes a marbled leaf, the 'motly emblem of my work', in volume 3 to indicate the idiosyncratic uniqueness of his text. These later volumes also expand on qualities and themes apparent in the first, and which had proved popular with Sterne's early readers. He developed the touching pathos of the portrait of the whimsical, eccentric parson, named Yorick, and of Tristram's much-loved uncle Toby - a retired soldier accompanied by his faithful manservant, Trim. Toby's amours with the Widow Wadman provide an affectionately drawn, although continually bawdy, focus of Tristram Shandy's later volumes. The episode of the death of Le Fever, a decayed army officer, was a sentimentalised scene that proved quite successful with Sterne's contemporary readers, as was the highly popular character Maria, whom Tristram encounters while death pursues him across France, a young woman made mad by a frustrated romance. Many of these episodes were extracted and reprinted in magazines and newspapers and reached an even wider circulation than the volumes of Tristram Shandy themselves.</p><p>In addition to the obvious advantages of access, a digitalised version of Tristram Shandy allows the reader to see the difference between a page in the original format and one in a modern readily accessible edition. Sterne's original page has 130-140 words; the Penguin edition, some 400 words per page, three times as many. And while the Penguin volume is a conveniently sized paperback (130mm x 198mm) containing the entire novel, the original had to be read in nine thin volumes (95mm x 150mm), a size small enough to fit easily into the oversized pockets of eighteenth-century coats. Tristram in its original form was, clearly, a more inviting reading experience than in any modern textbook edition. Whether the same pleasure can be reproduced with a digitalised version will be debated; what one gains in reproducing the actual size of the page, is then lost in the fact that one is looking at a screen rather than touching and turning pages; as Sterne says in another context: 'De gustibus non est disputandum'.</p><p>One final caveat. When we look at a screen, we are conditioned to see images. This can be particularly damaging to a work like Tristram, where several innovative plays with textuality (the black leaf, marbled leaf, blank page, various drawings (lines of progress), the motion of Trim's stick, a missing ten pages, a dislocation of chapters) may have attracted more attention than has been useful for a full appreciation of Sterne. Without suggesting these elements are nugatory, it is important to place them fully within the context of the more than 200,000 words of Tristram. This is neither a visual nor graphic fiction: it is a work in words, and about words - so, while we admire the brilliant inclusion of a marbled leaf in volume 3, Sterne introduces it with a warning as to what is required to grasp its meaning: 'Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! Read, ... for without much reading ... you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world ... has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one' (3.36). It might help to know that at the end of his sentence Sterne is quoting the translator of the edition of Rabelais that he uses throughout Tristram Shandy.</p><p>Melvyn New</p></p>

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