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Sterne and Sterneana : Sterne's letters to his friends on various occasions To which is added, his History of a watch coat, with explanatory n...

Sterne, Laurence 1713-1768, Combe, William 1742-1823

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>William Combe (c. 1741-1823) is best known for his comic poem, <i>Dr Syntax</i>, published in three parts from 1809-1811, with illustrations by T. Rowlandson. He can also be held responsible for three collections of mostly bogus letters by Sterne. <i>Sterne's Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions</i> is the first; the others are <i>Letters Supposed to Have Been Written by Yorick and Eliza</i> (1779) and <i>Original Letters of the Late Reverend Mr. Laurence Sterne</i> (1788). Combe was in Bristol when this collection was put together, and it is not clear to what extent he was personally involved, but he later admitted to the authorship of most of the letters here printed. George Kearsly, who published the collection together with J. Johnson, had also published the <i>Letters from Yorick to Eliza</i> and the <i>Letters of Eliza to Yorick</i> in April 1775.</p><p><i>Sterne's Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions</i> came out on 28 June 1775, and contains twelve letters and a truncated version of the <i>Political Romance</i> as “Letter XIII”, without the explanatory notes promised on the title-page. Presumably Kearsly wanted to cash in on the success of the Yorick and Eliza letters, and with good results, since a new edition was called for within the same year. Both editions were brought out in a hurry, and are similarly mispaginated after page 112: the last eight pages are numbered 169-176. The year’s avalanche of mostly spurious letters claimed to be by Sterne forced Lydia Sterne’s hand and hastened her own publication of the major collection of Sterne’s letters published in three volumes on 25 October 1775.</p><p>Of the twelve letters in this volume the first is a version of Sterne’s letter to David Garrick (Letter 46 in the Florida Edition of the <i>Works of Laurence Sterne</i>), which was first published in the <i>Public Advertiser</i> in 1770, and of which the Florida editors say that it is “sadly … wanting in authority”. Letters II and III are from Sterne’s correspondence with Dr Eustace (Letters 241 and xxii in the Florida Edition), and almost certainly simply copied from their first appearance in the 1770 <i>Court Miscellany</i>. Letter V previously appeared in the London Magazine for March 1774. Most problematic is Letter IX, to “Mrs V---” (Letter 177 in the Florida Edition), a bawdy exercise addressed to the bluestocking Elizabeth Vesey, who would not have been amused if the letter had actually been sent. Another version of this appears in Sterne’s <i>Letter Book</i> now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. As the editors of the Florida Edition argue, this letter “raises as many questions as it answers, beginning with doubts that the letter was ever sent, moving to the problem of the many substantive and accidental variants between Sterne's manuscript and Combe's version, and ending with the possibility that the two authors worked jointly, for their own amusement, to construct a Shandean letter that took added piquancy from being addressed to a woman who would have been appalled to receive it.” The remaining eight letters are clever fabrications, based in part on known events in Sterne’s life, like the burning of the parsonage at Sutton-on-the-Forest in 1765. Combe had met Sterne in 1764 in Paris and followed him to Coxwold later that year. From that period he will have been in possession of some of Sterne’s letters.</p><p>Combe’s primary method of falsification was to sprinkle the letters with Sternean epithets and typical “sentiments”. In the “Editor’s Preface” to <i>Letters Supposed to Have Been Written by Yorick and Eliza</i> he is surprisingly open about his method in <i>Sterne's Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions</i>: these letters, he says, “were written by way of experiment” and “blended with a few of Mr. Sterne’s genuine compositions” (p. iii). Intriguingly, he expresses his “great astonishment” to find that one of his fabrications has “found its way” into Lydia’s edition. Was it perhaps Letter I, to Garrick, of which no manuscript is extant?</p><p>Peter de Voogd</p><p><b>References</b></p><p>Hamilton, Harlan W., <i>Doctor Syntax: A Silhouette of William Combe, Esq. (1742-1823)</i> (London: Chatto & Windus, 1969)</p><p><i>The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne, Vols 7&8: The Letters</i>, ed. Melvyn New and Peter de Voogd (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009)</p></p>

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