Radical literary techniques allowed Laurence Sterne to depict the whole of his characters' mind. Image: Wikimedia/National Gallery

From stem to Sterne: how a Yorkshire parson reinvented the novel

250 years since Laurence Sterne's death, Tristam Shandy is as puzzling and entertaining as ever—and not only for its rude jokes
September 18, 2018

“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity,” writes Martin Amis in his memoir Experience. “Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending...”

Amis’s words show the extent to which Laurence Sterne was an unorthodox writer, even by contemporary standards. For Amis, writing fiction ought to be a reaction against the incomprehensibility of life, the writer slotting fictional episodes into a sleek, coherent narrative. Useful in this process, says Amis, is “the novelist’s addiction to seeing parallels and making connections.”

But what is striking about Sterne—who died 250 years ago—is how much of his work retains the “amorphousness” and “ridiculous fluidity” of life. His masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman does not “organise” its ideas into something coherent, let alone digestible. Rather, it is a free-flowing stream of philosophical musing, character sketches and bawdy jokes. There is no consistent storyline whatsoever.

Ostensibly it is a fictional autobiography, but ultimately we learn little about his life, and less of his opinions. The dialogue is digressive as well as “violently uneven.” The twists can be sentimental (famously the death of Tristram’s jolly minder Yorick) but are often undercut with a joke. And the book ends with an interruption from Tristram’s mother: “L—d! said my mother, what is all this story about?—A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”

Published in 1759, the novel’s first instalment was written in three short months while Sterne was a parson in an obscure Yorkshire village. It instantly catapulted the 47-year-old to fame. Actor David Garrick was among its first advocates, and its popularity spread abroad among influential Europeans, including Voltaire.

Though its strangeness has been an object of suspicion over the years—“Nothing odd will do long,” sniffed Dr Johnson in 1776, “Tristram Shandy did not last”—the truth is that it has lasted. Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx and Virginia Woolf hailed it as one of their favourite works. It was number six in The Observer’s recent list of the 100 best novels written in English. Today it continues to be well known, if not often actually read.

The first chapter involves Tristram describing his conception—that is to say, a sex scene between his parents. He laments the fact that the experience was underwhelming, and that at the crucial moment, his mother distracted his father by asking: “Have you not forgot to wind up the clock?” (This is the 18th-century version of: “Did you remember to take the bins out?”). Tristram argues that had this not happened his life might have been less disappointing; that he “should have cut quite a different figure in the world.”

When we finally hear of Tristram’s birth—roughly 300 pages in—it is a similarly disastrous affair: the doctor is called in to pull him out with some tongs, and in the clumsy process Tristram’s nose is dented irreparably. It doesn’t take an especially lewd imagination to figure out what this crooked nose might signify. Nor does it take much to read into what the “lines’” may symbolise in the passage below:

I may arrive hereafter at the excellency of going on even thus;

which is a line drawn as straight as I could draw it… turning neither to the right hand nor to the left. This right line—the path-way for Christians to walk in! say divines—

—The emblem of moral rectitude! Says Cicero—

—The best line! say cabbage-planters—is the shortest line, says Archimedes, which can be drawn from one point to another. —

I wish your ladyships would lay this matter to heart, in your next birth-day suits!  

Tristram can’t help himself from slanting off in a series of “violently uneven” directions. He cannot simply go “from one point to another”—and so when it comes to telling the story of his life, his rampant digressions are “a line drawn as straight” as he can muster.

Not being able to start is one of Tristram’s problems—not being able to adequately “finish” is another. His narrative is in no way straight or “erect,” and consistently fails to come to a conclusion. The ways in which language and sex are so tightly bound together in the novel contribute to its giddy atmosphere. “One of [Sterne’s] most important innovations,” says the critic Christopher Ricks, “was to make the bawdy joke at home in the novel.”

Bawdy jokes are no surprise given the state of Sterne’s own love life. As a man of the cloth Sterne preached on the sanctity of marriage. But in reality he was less a messiah than a very naughty boy. His most famous affair was with a married woman called Elizabeth Draper, the subject of the posthumously published Journal to Eliza. (Sterne was 54; Draper 22). It is unclear whether they consummated their relationship, but her sensuality made a strong impression on him.

“A something in your eyes, and voice, you possess in a degree more persuasive than any woman I ever read, or saw or heard of,” he swoons, “but it is that bewitching sort of nameless excellence…” Sterne often refers to himself in their correspondence as “Yorick”—but this salivating extract contains stronger shades of the creepy Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

Sterne conducted a number of other extramarital affairs during his life. On one occasion in 1758, his wife is said to have caught him in bed with one of their maids. A few months later, while writing the first section of Tristram Shandy, he became embroiled with the opera singer Catherine Fourmantel. One of Sterne’s sultry letters to “dear dear Kitty” begins as follows: “If this billet catches you in bed, you are a lazy, sleepy little slut—and I am a foolish unthinking fellow for keeping you so late up.”

Sterne’s letters reveal his obsession with the physical experience of reading. The function of a love-letter, after all, is to serve as a substitute for the absent lover. Sterne’s letters drip with sentimental longing for Fourmantel’s and Draper’s bodies, as well as their responses. Words on a page are intended to fill the mental gap between the lovers, to bridge the physical space between them.

This concern seeps into Sterne’s fiction. One of the most notable aspects of Tristram Shandy is its fixation with the book as a physical object. Where words fail—and often they do—the gap is filled with a diagram, symbol or a bibliographic joke. The black page is one such trick; a missing chapter is another (asterisks mark the “fragment”); so too is the use of blackprint font. Marbled pages are inserted in the middle of the novel where they would usually appear at the end. During a debate about liberty, the character Corporal Trim swirls his stick on the floor, represented as a swirly black line.

As Ricks points out, “you can’t say a footnote.” You can’t say a scribble either, nor a straight line, nor a font change. By breaking free from the restrictive confines of language, Sterne illustrates how Tristram’s mind works: what he really sees. A consciousness does not function merely as an internal monologue but also involves blank spots: blots and symbols where thoughts are unclear or imprecise, where language won’t do. There is a directness in the way the book attempts to communicate these symbols. The mad sound of Tristram’s brain echoes inside ours via the eccentricities of the printed page.

This is the primary reason why audiobooks of Tristram Shandy don’t come off. It’s also why it has been touted as an “unfilmable novel.” There is, in fact, a film version—Michael Winterbottom’s appropriately post-modern 2006 A Cock and Bull Story, a “mockumentary” film-within-a-film that follows actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they attempt to make an adaptation of Tristram Shandy. But in order to experience Tristram authentically we can’t just have the content—we need to have the medium represented in some form as well.

Two and a half centuries after the death of Laurence Sterne, the medium through which we read books is changing significantly. We read not just via the physical page, but electronically and online. This could add a new dimension to our reading of the novel.

This summer, the British Library uploaded part of an original manuscript of Tristram Shandy on to its website, allowing readers to examine Sterne’s handwritten notes alongside the text. Whether onscreen or on the printed page the “no filter” ramblings of Tristram Shandy remain as puzzling and entertainingly irrelevant as ever.