By H.D. Traill
Public Domain Books
Chapter I: Birth, Parentage, and Early Years
Towards the close of the month of November, 1713, one of the last of the English regiments which had been detained in Flanders to supervise the execution of the treaty of Utrecht arrived at Clonmel from Dunkirk. The day after its arrival the regiment was disbanded; and yet a few days later, on the 24th of the month, the wife of one of its subalterns gave birth to a son. The child who thus early displayed the perversity of his humour by so inopportune an appearance was Laurence Sterne. “My birthday,” he says, in the slipshod, loosely-strung notes by which he has been somewhat grandiloquently said to have “anticipated the labours” of the biographer–"my birthday was ominous to my poor father, who was the day after our arrival, with many other brave officers, broke and sent adrift into the wide world with a wife and two children.”
Roger Sterne, however, now late ensign of the 34th, or Chudleigh’s regiment of foot, was after all in less evil case than were many, probably, of his comrades. He had kinsmen to whom he could look for, at any rate, temporary assistance, and his mother was a wealthy widow. The Sternes, originally of a Suffolk stock, had passed from that county to Nottinghamshire, and thence into Yorkshire, and were at this time a family of position and substance in the last-named county. Roger’s grandfather had been Archbishop of York, and a man of more note, if only through the accident of the times upon which he fell, than most of the incumbents of that see. He had played an exceptionally energetic part even for a Cavalier prelate in the great political struggle of the seventeenth century, and had suffered with fortitude and dignity in the royal cause. He had, moreover, a further claim to distinction in having been treated with common gratitude at the Restoration by the son of the monarch whom he had served. As Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, he had “been active in sending the University plate to his Majesty,” and for this offence he was seized by Cromwell and carried in military custody to London, whence, after undergoing imprisonment in various goals, and experiencing other forms of hardship, he was at length permitted to retire to an obscure retreat in the country, there to commune with himself until that tyranny should be overpast. On the return of the exiled Stuarts Dr. Sterne was made Bishop of Carlisle, and a few years later was translated to the see of York. He lived to the age of eighty-six, and so far justified Burnet’s accusation against him of “minding chiefly enriching himself,” that he seems to have divided no fewer than four landed estates among his children. One of these, Simon Sterne, a younger son of the Archbishop, himself married an heiress, the daughter of Sir Roger Jaques of Elvington; and Roger, the father of Laurence Sterne, was the seventh and youngest of the issue of this marriage. At the time when the double misfortune above recorded befell him at the hands of Lucina and the War Office, his father had been some years dead; but Simon Sterne’s widow was still mistress of the property which she had brought with her at her marriage, and to Elvington, accordingly, “as soon,” writes Sterne, “as I was able to be carried,” the compulsorily retired ensign betook himself with his wife and his two children. He was not, however, compelled to remain long dependent on his mother. The ways of the military authorities were as inscrutable to the army of that day as they are in our day to our own. Before a year had passed the regiment was ordered to be re-established, and “our household decamped with bag and baggage for Dublin.” This was in the autumn of 1714, and from that time onward, for some eleven years, the movements and fortunes of the Sterne family, as detailed in the narrative of its most famous member, form a history in which the ludicrous struggles strangely with the pathetic.
A husband, condemned to be the Ulysses-like plaything of adverse gods at the War Office; an indefatigably prolific wife; a succession of weak and ailing children; misfortune in the seasons of journeying; misfortune in the moods of the weather by sea and land–under all this combination of hostile chances and conditions was the struggle to be carried on. The little household was perpetually “on the move"–a little household which was always becoming and never remaining bigger–continually increased by births, only to be again reduced by deaths–until the contest between the deadly hardships of travel and the fatal fecundity of Mrs. Sterne was brought by events to a natural close. Almost might the unfortunate lady have exclaimed, Quae regio in terris nostri non plena laboris? She passes from Ireland to England, and from England to Ireland, from inland garrison to sea-port town and back again, incessantly bearing and incessantly burying children–until even her son in his narrative begins to speak of losing one infant at this place, and “leaving another behind” on that journey, almost as if they were so many overlooked or misdirected articles of luggage. The tragic side of the history, however, overshadows the grotesque. When we think how hard a business was travel even under the most favourable conditions in those days, and how serious even in our own times, when travel is easy, are the discomforts of the women and children of a regiment on the march–we may well pity these unresting followers of the drum. As to Mrs. Sterne herself, she seems to have been a woman of a pretty tough fibre, and she came moreover of a campaigning stock. Her father was a “noted suttler” of the name of Nuttle, and her first husband–for she was a widow when Roger Sterne married her–had been a soldier also. She had, therefore, served some years’ apprenticeship to the military life before these wanderings began; and she herself was destined to live to a good old age. But somehow or other she failed to endow her offspring with her own robust constitution and powers of endurance. “My father’s children were,” as Laurence Sterne grimly puts it, “not made to last long;” but one cannot help suspecting that it was the hardships of those early years which carried them off in their infancy with such painful regularity and despatch, and that it was to the same cause that their surviving brother owed the beginnings of that fatal malady by which his own life was cut short.
The diary of their travels–for the early part of Sterne’s memoirs amounts to scarcely more–is the more effective for its very brevity and abruptness. Save for one interval of somewhat longer sojourn than usual at Dublin, the reader has throughout it all the feeling of the traveller who never finds time to unpack his portmanteau. On the re-enrolment of the regiment in 1714, “our household,” says the narrative, “decamped from York with bag and baggage for Dublin. Within a month my father left us, being ordered to Exeter; where, in a sad winter, my mother and her two children followed him, travelling from Liverpool, by land, to Plymouth.” At Plymouth Mrs. Sterne gave birth to a son, christened Joram; and, “in twelve months time we were all sent back to Dublin. My mother,” with her three children, “took ship at Bristol for Ireland, and had a narrow escape from being cast away by a leak springing up in the vessel. At length, after many perils and struggles, we got to Dublin.” Here intervenes the short breathing-space, of which mention has been made–an interval employed by Roger Sterne in “spending a great deal of money” on a “large house,” which he hired and furnished; and then “in the year one thousand seven hundred and nineteen, all unhinged again.” The regiment had been ordered off to the Isle of Wight, thence to embark for Spain, on “the Vigo Expedition,” and “we,” who accompanied it, “were driven into Milford Haven, but afterwards landed at Bristol, and thence by land to Plymouth again, and to the Isle of Wight;” losing on this expedition “poor Joram, a pretty boy, who died of the smallpox.” In the Isle of Wight, Mrs. Sterne and her family remained till the Vigo Expedition returned home; and during her stay there “poor Joram’s loss was supplied by the birth of a girl, Anne,” a “pretty blossom,” but destined to fall “at the age of three years.” On the return of the regiment to Wicklow, Roger Sterne again sent to collect his family around him. “We embarked for Dublin, and had all been cast away by a most violent storm; but, through the intercession of my mother, the captain was prevailed upon to turn back into Wales, where we stayed a month, and at length got into Dublin, and travelled by land to Wicklow, where my father had, for some weeks, given us over for lost." Here a year passed, and another child, Devijeher–so called after the colonel of the regiment–was born. “From thence we decamped to stay half a year with Mr. Fetherston, a clergyman, about seven miles from Wicklow, who, being a relative of my mother’s, invited us to his parsonage at Animo.” From thence, again, “we followed the regiment to Dublin,” where again “we lay in the barracks a year.” In 1722 the regiment was ordered to Carrickfergus. “We all decamped, but got no further than Drogheda; thence ordered to Mullingar, forty miles west, where, by Providence, we stumbled upon a kind relation, a collateral descendant from Archbishop Sterne, who took us all to his castle, and kindly entertained us for a year.” Thence, by “a most rueful journey," to Carrickfergus, where “we arrived in six or seven days.” Here, at the age of three, little Devijeher obtained a happy release from his name; and “another child, Susan, was sent to fill his place, who also left us behind in this weary journey.” In the “autumn of this year, or the spring of the next"–Sterne’s memory failing in exactitude at the very point where we should have expected it to be most precise–"my father obtained permission of his colonel to fix me at school;” and henceforth the boy’s share in the family wanderings was at an end. But his father had yet to be ordered from Carrickfergus to Londonderry, where at last a permanent child, Catherine, was born; and thence to Gibraltar, to take part in the Defence of that famous Rock, where the much-enduring campaigner was run through the body in a duel, “about a goose” (a thoroughly Shandian catastrophe); and thence to Jamaica, where, “with a constitution impaired” by the sword-thrust earned in his anserine quarrel, he was defeated in a more deadly duel with the “country fever,” and died. “His malady,” writes his son, with a touch of feeling struggling through his dislocated grammar, “took away his senses first, and made a child of him; and then in a month or two walking about continually without complaining, till the moment he sat down in an arm-chair and breathed his last.”
[Footnote 1: “It was in this parish,” says Sterne, “that I had that wonderful escape in falling through a mill race while the mill was going, and being taken up unhurt; the story is incredible, but known to all that part of Ireland, where hundreds of the common people flocked to seeme.” More incredible still does it seem that Thoresby should relate the occurrence of an accident of precisely the same kind to Sterne’s great-grandfather, the Archbishop. “Playing near a mill, he fell within a claw; there was but one board or bucket wanting in the whole wheel, but a gracious Providence so ordered it that the void place came down at that moment, else he had been crushed to death; but was reserved to be a grand benefactor afterwards.” (Thoresby, ii. 15.) But what will probably strike the reader as more extraordinary even than this coincidence is that Sterne should have been either unaware of it, or should have omitted mention of it in the above passage.]
There is, as has been observed, a certain mixture of the comic and the pathetic in the life-history of this obscure father of a famous son. His life was clearly not a fortunate one, so far as external circumstances go; but its misfortunes had no sort of consoling dignity about them. Roger Sterne’s lot in the world was not so much an unhappy as an uncomfortable one; and discomfort earns little sympathy, and absolutely no admiration, for its sufferers. He somehow reminds us of one of those Irish heroes–good-natured, peppery, debt-loaded, light-hearted, shiftless–whose fortunes we follow with mirthful and half-contemptuous sympathy in the pages of Thackeray. He was obviously a typical specimen of that class of men who are destitute alike of the virtues and failings of the “respectable” and successful; whom many people love and no one respects; whom everybody pities in their struggles and difficulties, but whom few pity without a smile.
It is evident, however, that he succeeded in winning the affection of one who had not too much affection of the deeper kind to spare for any one. The figure of Roger Sterne alone stands out with any clearness by the side of the ceaselessly flitting mother and phantasmal children of Laurence Sterne’s Memoir; and it is touched in with strokes so vivid and characteristic that critics have been tempted to find in it the original of the most famous portrait in the Shandy gallery. “My father,” says Sterne, “was a little, smart man, active to the last degree in all exercises, most patient of fatigue and disappointments, of which it pleased God to give him full measure. He was, in his temper, somewhat rapid and hasty, but of a kindly, sweet disposition, void of all design, and so innocent in his own intentions, that he suspected no one; so that you might have cheated him ten times a day, if nine had not been sufficient for your purpose.” This is a captivating little picture; and it no doubt presents traits which may have impressed themselves early and deeply on the imagination which was afterwards to give birth to “My Uncle Toby.” The simplicity of nature and the “kindly, sweet disposition” are common to both the ensign of real life and to the immortal Captain Shandy of fiction; but the criticism which professes to find traces of Roger Sterne’s “rapid and hasty temper” in my Uncle Toby is compelled to strain itself considerably. And, on the whole, there seems no reason to believe that Sterne borrowed more from the character of his father than any writer must necessarily, and perhaps unconsciously, borrow from his observation of the moral and mental qualities of those with whom he has come into most frequent contact.
That Laurence Sterne passed the first eleven years of his life with such an exemplar of these simple virtues of kindliness, guilelessness, and courage ever before him, is perhaps the best that can be said for the lot in which his early days were cast. In almost all other respects there could hardly have been–for a quick-witted, precocious, imitative boy–a worse bringing-up. No one, I should imagine, ever more needed discipline in his youth than Sterne; and the camp is a place of discipline for the soldier only. To all others whom necessity attaches to it, and to the young especially, it is rather a school of license and irregularity. It is fair to remember these disadvantages of Sterne’s early training, in judging of the many defects as a man, and laxities as a writer, which marked his later life; though, on the other hand, there is no denying the reality and value of some of the countervailing advantages which came to him from his boyish surroundings. The conception of my Uncle Toby need not have been taken whole from Roger Sterne, or from any one actual captain of a marching regiment; but the constant sight of, and converse with, many captains and many corporals may undoubtedly have contributed much to the vigour and vitality of Toby Shandy and Corporal Trim. So far as the externals of portraiture were concerned, there can be no doubt that his art benefited much from his early military life. His soldiers have the true stamp of the soldier about them in air and language; and when his captain and corporal fight their Flemish battles over again we are thoroughly conscious that we are listening, under the dramatic form, to one who must himself have heard many a chapter of the same splendid story from the lips of the very men who had helped to break the pride of the Grand Monarque under Marlborough and Eugene.