Hogarth in parallel
by A. Torelli, E. Notti
Laurence Sterne (1713-1768)
Novelist, son of an officer in the army, and the great-grandson of an Archbishop of York, was born at Clonmel, where his father's regiment happened to be stationed, and passed part of his boyhood in Ireland. At the age of 10 he was handed over to a relation, Mr. Sterne of Elvington in Yorkshire, who put him to school at Halifax, and thereafter sent him to Cambridge. He entered the Church, a profession for which he was very indifferently fitted, and through family influence procured the living of Sutton, Yorkshire. In 1741 he married a lady - Miss Lumley - whose influence obtained for him in addition an adjacent benefice, and he also became a prebendary of York.
It was not until 1760 that the first two volumes of his famous novel, Tristram Shandy, appeared. Its peculiar and original style of humour, its whimsicality, and perhaps also its defiance of conventionality, and even its frequent lapses into indecorum, achieved for it an immediate and immense popularity. He was an amateur painter and musician - these arts were invoked in Tristam Shandy. Sterne went up to London and became the lion of the day. The third and fourth volumes appeared in 1761, the fifth and sixth in 1762, the seventh and eighth in 1765, and the last in 1767. Meanwhile he had published the Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760), and his remaining work, The Sentimental Journey appeared in 1768.
time of his finding himself a celebrity his parishioners saw
but little of him, his time being passed either in the gaieties
of London or in travelling on the Continent. Latterly he was
practically separated from his wife and only daughter, to the
former of whom his behaviour had been anything but exemplary.
His health, which had begun to give way soon after his literary
career had commenced, finally broke down, and he fell into a
consumption, of which he died in London on March 18, 1768, utterly
alone and unattended. His body was followed to the grave by
one coach containing his publisher and another gentleman; it
was then exhumed and appeared in a few days upon the table of
the anatomical professor at Cambridge.
Sterne possessed undoubted genius. He had wit, originality, and pathos, though the last not seldom runs into mawkishness, and an exquisitely delicate and glancing style. He has contributed some immortal characters to English fiction, including Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. His great faults as a writer are affection and a peculiarly deliberate kind of indecency. He was by no means scrupulous in adopting, without acknowledgment, the good things of previous writers. Sterne is very different from a writer to whom he owed a great deal: Jonathan Swift. To Swift the scientific experimentations of the Royal Society, the cogitations of philosophers and theologians were more or less a waste of time. On the contrary Sterne was interested in them because they were genially comic but they were also important in order to minister human needs. Fielding and Richardson lived in an essentialist world of certainties, dominated by Christian absolutes; Sterne on the other hand lived in a modern solipsistic world where there were no absolutes and all values were created by human beings. He comes after Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, before Smollet-sharing with them a chronological time-line. Sterne's major sources were Montaigne, Cervantes and Swift, that is both satire and commedy.1
details about Sterne's life cfr.