By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
The materials for a biography of Sterne are by no means abundant. Of the earlier years of his life the only existing record is that preserved in the brief autobiographical memoir which, a few months before his death, he composed, in the usual quaint staccato style of his familiar correspondence, for the benefit of his daughter. Of his childhood; of his school-days; of his life at Cambridge, and in his Yorkshire vicarage; of his whole history, in fact, up to the age of forty-six, we know nothing more than he has there jotted down. He attained that age in the year 1759; and at this date begins that series of his Letters, from which, for those who have the patience to sort them out of the chronological confusion in which his daughter and editress involved them, there is, no doubt, a good deal to be learnt. These letters, however, which extend down to 1768, the year of the writer’s death, contain pretty nearly all the contemporary material that we have to depend on. Freely as Sterne mixed in the best literary society, there is singularly little to be gathered about him, even in the way of chance allusion and anecdote, from the memoirs and ana of his time. Of the many friends who would have been competent to write his biography while the facts were yet fresh, but one, John Wilkes, ever entertained–if he did seriously entertain–the idea of performing this pious work; and he, in spite of the entreaties of Sterne’s widow and daughter, then in straitened circumstances, left unredeemed his promise to do so. The brief memoir by Sir Walter Scott, which is prefixed to many popular editions of Tristram Shandy and the Sentimental Journey, sets out the so-called autobiography in full, but for the rest is mainly critical; Thackeray’s well-known lecture essay is almost wholly so; and nothing, worthy to be dignified by the name of a Life of Sterne, seems ever to have been published, until the appearance of Mr. Percy Fitzgerald’s two stout volumes, under this title, some eighteen years ago. Of this work it is hardly too much to say that it contains (no doubt with the admixture of a good deal of superfluous matter) nearly all the information as to the facts of Sterne’s life that is now ever likely to be recovered. The evidence for certain of its statements of fact is not as thoroughly sifted as it might have been; and with some of its criticism I, at least, am unable to agree. But no one interested in the subject of this memoir can be insensible of his obligations to Mr. Fitzgerald for the fruitful diligence with which he has laboured in a too long neglected field.