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Sterne and Sterneana : Explanatory Remarks upon the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy wherein, the Morals and Politics of this Piece are clearly...

Sterne, Laurence 1713-1768

Sterne and Sterneana

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p><i>Explanatory Remarks upon the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; wherein, the Morals and Politics of this Piece are clearly laid open</i> is notable as the first of a flurry of critical responses to, and imitations and adaptations of, Sterne's remarkable comic novel. Ostensibly the work of Jeremiah Kunastrokius, the son of the 'Dr. <i>Kunastrokius</i>' who is bawdily alluded to in passing in <i>Tristram Shandy</i>'s seventh chapter, the pamphlet appeared on or around 23 April 1760, at a moment when Sterne's celebrity was at its height. The day before, he had visited Joshua Reynolds' studio for the sixth and final time so that the painter could complete his portrait of a hitherto obscure clergyman who had become the literary sensation of the moment. Three weeks earlier, the second edition of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, I-II, was published in London under the prestigious Dodsley imprint, updating the York edition of December 1759 with a newly penned dedication to Pitt and a freshly commissioned frontispiece by Hogarth.</p><p>Nothing is known about the anonymous author of <i>Explanatory Remarks</i>, but we do know that its publisher, E. Cabe, joined the cultural conversation created by Sterne's success with some zeal. He published two Shandean imitations in 1760 - <i>Tristram Shandy's Bon Mots, Repartees, Odd Adventures, and Humorous Stories</i> and <i>The Life and Opinions of Jeremiah Kunastrokius</i> - and another volume of mock-elucidation, <i>Explanatory Remarks on the Third and Fourth Volumes of Tristram Shandy</i> in the following year. Determined to ride on the coat-tails of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>'s fame, Cabe adopted a canny marketing strategy, as the advertisement for first <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> in the <i>Public Advertiser</i> for 24 April makes clear: 'This Explanation is printed in the same Letter and Size of Tristram Shandy, to accommodate them who chuse to bind it with that Work'. Such a move might be dismissed as brazenly parasitic, but the fact that Dodsley appears to have sold copies of <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> bound with the second volume of <i>Tristram Shandy</i> suggests a more complicated picture. Similarly, Sterne's own response points to the role of the commentaries and imitations in generating interest in the work that inspired them: 'There is a shilling pamphlet wrote against Tristram', he wrote to his friend Stephen Croft, 'I wish they would write a hundred such'.</p><p>What Sterne made of the <i>Critical Review</i>'s hunch that he had written <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> himself - to 'give breath to the trumpet of fame; and, under the form of explanatory notes, pointing the finger at some of those latent strokes of wit in Tristram's life and opinions, which may perchance have escaped the eye of the less discerning reader' (<i>Critical Review</i> 9 (April 1760), 319) - is not known, but it seems unlikely that he would have been flattered by the reviewer's discovery 'of the same turn of humour' in the pamphlet and his novel. To an attentive reader of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, there is a gulf between the carefully contrived artlessness of Sterne's digressive narrative and the brilliance of his handling of the unifying presence of Tristram as self-conscious narrator, and the often-unsubtle attempts at imitation in <i>Explanatory Remarks</i>.</p><p>It is interesting, nonetheless, that while the Shandean style was being celebrated as the rare and novel product of an admirably eccentric genius, critics were not always able to distinguish copy from original. Even two years after the sensation of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>'s first appearance, the seasoned reviewer James Fitzpatrick found the informing aesthetic of John Hall-Stevenson's anonymously published <i>Fables for Grown Gentlemen</i> sufficiently '<i>Shandean</i>' to wonder if Sterne was the author of the 'mere connected sketches in odd rhymes' (<i>Monthly Review</i> 26 (1762), 69). In 'writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself' to no 'man's rules that ever lived' (<i>TS</i>, 1.4), Sterne has Tristram boldly claim, and in delighting and surprising readers by means of his convention-defying 'rhapsodical' (<i>TS</i>, 1.13) method he seems to have temporarily disturbed some of the usually certain critical judgments of the reviewers. 'Rhapsody' (any 'number of parts joined together, without necessary dependence or natural connection', according to Johnson's <i>Dictionary</i>) breaks with orthodox Aristotelian notions of structural coherence, and the <i>Critical Review</i>'s equalling of the 'humorous rhapsody' of <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> to that of <i>Tristram Shandy</i> suggests a telling element of doubt about how to distinguish good from bad when a level of incoherence is elevated to the status of an artistic ideal.</p><p>In keeping with its parodic and playfully satirical engagement with the first instalment of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>, <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> is something of a hotchpotch in terms of the range of its concerns, but its structure is relatively straightforward. The opening chapters give us a sense of the narrator's Shandean credentials, as Jeremiah Kunastrokius is presented as a 'good friend, and arch companion' (5) of Sterne's hero; chapters 4-12 focus on the morals of Sterne's book; chapters 13-20 on its politics; chapters 21-23 aim a few miscellaneous swipes at, among other things, Sterne's use of a Greek motto (51), the black page (53; <i>TS</i>, 1.12), the new frontispiece by Hogarth (53), and the price paid by the Dodsleys for the copyright of volumes 1-4 of <i>Tristram Shandy</i> (56); and the pamphlet concludes with a mock 'Advertisement to the Nobility and Gentry of all Europe' (57-59) in which some of the rewards of Sterne's fame (including his being presented by the Earl of Fauconberg to the curacy of Coxwold (58), and being granted the privilege of free access to Garrick's Drury Lane Theatre (58)) are implicitly treated as unmerited.</p><p>The thrust of the pamphlet as a whole is that there is something of an Emperor's-new-clothes quality to <i>Tristram Shandy</i>'s success: readers are baffled by it and in their perplexity discover profundity where there is none. The pamphleteer thus focuses on the ironic claim that <i>Tristram Shandy</i> is a 'moral-political (not <i> bawdy</i>, <i>ludicrous</i>, as some may imagine it) piece' (54). In pretending to elucidate the novel's morality, <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> highlights and exploits the bawdry that outraged many of Sterne's critics. The commentary on, and translation of, the Sorbonne Memoir (14-2; <i>TS,</i> 1.20), the protracted unpacking of the meaning of the four asterisks which complete Uncle Toby's reference to his sister's '****' (25; <i>TS</i>, 2.6) emphasise Sterne's transgressiveness and give it wings, while the eleventh chapter's discussion of hobby horses reveals the disingenuousness of Kunastrokius's implied affront as he demonstrates his own penchant for double entendres and sexual suggestion.</p><p>While the treatment of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>'s morality makes its case by a strategy of ironic inversion, the account of its political dimension seeks to generate humour and press home its satirical point by the absurdity of its claims. When the narrator tells us that '<i>Tristram Shandy</i> is one compleat system of modern politics', the assertion is meant to be preposterous enough to make us question any notion of depth in Sterne's novel. And yet, in suggesting that 'the Siege of <i>Namur</i>' alludes to the 'Siege of Fort St. Philip's in Minorca' and that uncle Toby's wound signifies 'the distress the nation was thrown into thereupon' (44-5) the pamphleteer inadvertently lights upon the very deliberate way in which Sterne asks his readers to understand present history by means of parallels with the past. Here, as elsewhere, the pamphleteer underestimates the degree to which <i>Tristram Shandy</i> is the considered product of design, mistaking satire for careless play and too readily conflating Sterne with his narrator.</p><p>Nevertheless, <i>Explanatory Remarks</i> merits attention not only as the first of the 'shilling pamphlets', inaugurating a tradition of creative responses to Sterne's fiction, but also for its broader place in the remarkable early reception of <i>Tristram Shandy</i>. Its playful attacks on Sterne and his book are rarely subtle or just, but it sounds some of the keynotes of a persistent strain in the early responses.</p><p>Tim Parnell</p></p>

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