By H.D. Traill

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Chapter III: Life At Sutton.–Marriage.–The Parish Priest


Great writers who spring late and suddenly from obscurity into fame and yet die early, must always form more or less perplexing subjects of literary biography. The processes of their intellectual and artistic growth lie hidden in nameless years; their genius is not revealed to the world until it has reached its full maturity, and many aspects of it, which, perhaps, would have easily explained themselves if the gradual development had gone on before men’s eyes, remain often unexplained to the last. By few, if any, of the more celebrated English men of letters is this observation so forcibly illustrated as it is in the case of Sterne: the obscure period of his life so greatly exceeded in duration the brief season of his fame, and its obscurity was so exceptionally profound. He was forty-seven years of age when, at a bound, he achieved celebrity; he was not five-and-fifty when he died. And though it might be too much to say that the artist sprang, like the reputation, full-grown into being, it is nevertheless true that there are no marks of positive immaturity to be detected even in the earliest public displays of his art. His work grows, indeed, most marvellously in vividness and symmetry as he proceeds, but there are no visible signs of growth in the workman’s skill. Even when the highest point of finish is attained we cannot say that the hand is any more cunning than it was from the first. As well might we say that the last light touches of the sculptor’s chisel upon the perfected statue are more skilful than its first vigorous strokes upon the shapeless block.

It is certain, however, that Sterne must have been storing up his material of observation, secreting his reflections on life and character, and consciously or unconsciously maturing his powers of expression, during the whole of those silent twenty years which have now to be passed under brief review. With one exception, to be noted presently, the only known writings of his which belong to this period are sermons, and these–a mere “scratch” collection of pulpit discourses, which, as soon as he had gained the public ear, he hastened in characteristic fashion to rummage from his desk and carry to the book-market–throw no light upon the problem before us. There are sermons of Sterne which alike in manner and matter disclose the author of Tristram Shandy; but they are not among those which he preached or wrote before that work was given to the world. They are not its ancestors but its descendants. They belong to the post-Shandian period, and are in obvious imitation of the Shandian style; while in none of the earlier ones–not even in that famous homily on a Good Conscience, which did not succeed till Corporal Trim preached it before the brothers Shandy and Dr. Slop–can we trace either the trick of style or the turn of thought that give piquancy to the novel. Yet the peculiar qualities of mind, and the special faculty of workmanship of which this turn of thought and trick of style were the product, must of course have been potentially present from the beginning. Men do not blossom forth as wits, humourists, masterly delineators of character, and skilful performers on a highly-strung and carefully-tuned sentimental instrument all at once, after entering their “forties;” and the only wonder is that a possessor of these powers–some of them of the kind which, as a rule, and in most men, seeks almost as irresistibly for exercise as even the poetic instinct itself–should have been held so long unemployed. There is, however, one very common stimulus to literary exertions which in Sterne’s case was undoubtedly wanting–a superabundance of unoccupied time. We have little reason, it is true, to suppose that this light-minded and valetudinarian Yorkshire parson was at any period of his life an industrious “parish priest;” but it is probable, nevertheless, that time never hung very heavily upon his hands. In addition to the favourite amusements which he enumerates in the Memoir, he was all his days addicted to one which is, perhaps, the most absorbing of all–flirtation. Philandering, and especially philandering of the Platonic and ultra-sentimental order, is almost the one human pastime of which its votaries never seem to tire; and its constant ministrations to human vanity may serve, perhaps, to account for their unwearied absorption in its pursuit. Sterne’s first love affair–an affair of which, unfortunately, the consequences were more lasting than the passion–took place immediately upon his leaving Cambridge. To relate it as he relates it to his daughter: “At York I became acquainted with your mother, and courted her for two years. She owned she liked me, but thought herself not rich enough or me too poor to be joined together. She went to her sister’s in Staffordshire, and I wrote to her often. I believe then she was partly determined to have me, but would not say so. At her return she fell into a consumption, and one evening that I was sitting by her, with an almost broken heart to see her so ill, she said: ’My dear Laury, I never can be yours, for I verily believe I have not long to live! But I have left you every shilling of my fortune.’ Upon that she showed me her will. This generosity overpowered me. It pleased God that she recovered, and we were married in 1741.” The name of this lady was Elizabeth Lumley, and it was to her that Sterne addressed those earliest letters which his daughter included in the collection published by her some eight years after her father’s death. They were added, the preface tells us, “in justice to Mr. Sterne’s delicate feelings;” and in our modern usage of the word “delicate,” as equivalent to infirm of health and probably short of life, they no doubt do full justice to the passion which they are supposed to express. It would be unfair, of course, to judge any love-letters of that period by the standard of sincerity applied in our own less artificial age. All such compositions seem frigid and formal enough to us of to-day; yet in most cases of genuine attachment we usually find at least a sentence here and there in which the natural accents of the heart make themselves heard above the affected modulations of the style. But the letters of Sterne’s courtship maintain the pseudo-poetic, shepherd-and-shepherdess strain throughout; or, if the lover ever abandons it, it is only to make somewhat maudlin record of those “tears” which flowed a little too easily at all times throughout his life. These letters, however, have a certain critical interest in their bearing upon those sensibilities which Sterne afterwards learned to cultivate in a forcing-frame, with a view to the application of their produce to the purposes of an art of pathetic writing which simulates nature with such admirable fidelity at its best, and descends to such singular bathos at its worst.

The marriage preluded by this courtship did not take place till Sterne had already been three years Vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest, the benefice which had been procured for him by his uncle the Archdeacon; through whose interest also he was appointed successively to two prebends–preferments which were less valuable to him for their emolument than for the ecclesiastical status which they conferred upon him, for the excuse which they gave him for periodical visits to the cathedral city to fulfil the residential conditions of his offices, and for the opportunity thus afforded him of mixing in and studying the society of the Close. Upon his union with Miss Lumley, and, in a somewhat curious fashion, by her means, he obtained in addition the living of Stillington. “A friend of hers in the South had promised her that if she married a clergyman in Yorkshire, when the living became vacant he would make her a compliment of it;” and made accordingly this singular “compliment” was. At Sutton Sterne remained nearly twenty years, doing duty at both places, during which time “books, painting, fiddling, and shooting were,” he says, “my chief amusements.” With what success he shot, and with what skill he fiddled, we know not. His writings contain not a few musical metaphors and allusions to music, which seem to indicate a competent acquaintance with its technicalities; but the specimen of his powers as an artist, which Mr. Fitzgerald has reproduced from his illustrations of a volume of poems by Mr. Woodhull, does not dispose one to rate highly his proficiency in this accomplishment. We may expect that, after all, it was the first-mentioned of his amusements in which he took the greatest delight, and that neither the brush, the bow, nor the fowling-piece was nearly so often in his hand as the book. Within a few miles of Sutton, at Skelton Castle, an almost unique Roman stronghold, since modernized by Gothic hands, dwelt his college-friend John Hall Stevenson, whose well-stocked library contained a choice but heterogeneous collection of books–old French “ana,” and the learning of mediaeval doctors–books intentionally and books unintentionally comic, the former of which Sterne read with an only too retentive a memory for their jests, and the latter with an acutely humorous appreciation of their solemn trifling. Later on it will be time to note the extent to which he utilized these results of his widely discursive reading, and to examine the legitimacy of the mode in which he used them: here it is enough to say generally that the materials for many a burlesque chapter of Tristram Shandy must have been unconsciously storing themselves in his mind in many an amused hour passed by Sterne in the library of Skelton Castle.

But before finally quitting this part of my subject it may be as well, perhaps, to deal somewhat at length with a matter which will doubtless have to be many times incidentally referred to in the course of this study, but which I now hope to relieve myself from the necessity of doing more than touch upon hereafter. I refer of course to Sterne’s perpetually recurring flirtations. This is a matter almost as impossible to omit from any biography of Sterne as it would be to omit it from any biography of Goethe. The English humourist did not, it is true, engage in the pastime in the serious, not to say scientific, spirit of the German philosopher-poet; it was not deliberately made by the former as by the latter to contribute to his artistic development; but it is nevertheless hardly open to doubt that Sterne’s philandering propensities did exercise an influence upon his literary character and work in more ways than one. That his marriage was an ill-assorted and unhappy union was hardly so much the cause of his inconstancy as its effect. It may well be, of course, that the “dear L.,” whose moral and mental graces her lover had celebrated in such superfine, sentimental fashion, was a commonplace person enough. That she was really a woman of the exquisite stolidity of Mrs. Shandy, and that her exasperating feats as an assentatrix did, as has been suggested, supply the model for the irresistibly ludicrous colloquies between the philosopher and his wife, there is no sufficient warrant for believing. But it is quite possible that the daily companion of one of the most indefatigable jesters that ever lived may have been unable to see a joke; that she regarded her husband’s wilder drolleries as mere horse-collar grimacing, and that the point of his subtler humour escaped her altogether. But even if it were so, it is, to say the least of it, doubtful whether Sterne suffered at all on this ground from the wounded feelings of the mari incompris, while it is next to certain that it does not need the sting of any such disappointment to account for his alienation. He must have had plenty of time and opportunity to discover Miss Lumley’s intellectual limitations during the two years of his courtship; and it is not likely that, even if they were as well marked as Mrs. Shandy’s own, they would have done much of themselves to estrange the couple. Sympathy is not the necessity to the humourist which the poet finds, or imagines, it to be to himself: the humourist, indeed, will sometimes contrive to extract from the very absence of sympathy in those about him a keener relish for his reflections. With sentiment, indeed, and still more with sentimentalism, the case would of course be different; but as for Mr. Sterne’s demands for sympathy in that department of his life and art, one may say without the least hesitation that they would have been beyond the power of any one woman, however distinguished a disciple of the “Laura Matilda” school, to satisfy. “I must ever,” he frankly says in one of the “Yorick to Eliza” letters, “I must ever have some Dulcinea in my head: it harmonizes the soul;” and he might have added that he found it impossible to sustain the harmony without frequently changing the Dulcinea. One may suspect that Mrs. Sterne soon had cause for jealousy, and it is at least certain that several years before Sterne’s emergence into notoriety their estrangement was complete. One daughter was born to them in 1745, but lived scarcely mare than long enough to be rescued from the limbus infantium by the prompt rites of the Church. The child was christened Lydia, and died on the following day. Its place was filled in 1747 by a second daughter, also christened Lydia, who lived to become the wife of M. de Medalle, and the not very judicious editress of the posthumous “Letters.” For her as she grew up Sterne conceived a genuine and truly fatherly affection, and it is in writing to her and of her that we see him at his best; or rather one might say it is almost only then that we can distinguish the true notes of the heart through that habitual falsetto of sentimentalism which distinguishes most of Sterne’s communications with the other sex. There was no subsequent issue of the marriage, and, from one of the letters most indiscreetly included in Madame de Medalle’s collection, it is to be ascertained that some four years or so after Lydia’s birth the relations between Sterne and Mrs. Sterne ceased to be conjugal, and never again resumed that character.

It is, however, probable, upon the husband’s own confessions, that he had given his wife earlier cause for jealousy, and certainly from the time when he begins to reveal himself in correspondence there seems to be hardly a moment when some such cause was not in existence–in the person of this, that, or the other lackadaisical damsel or coquettish matron. From Miss Fourmantelle, the “dear, dear Kitty,” to whom Sterne was making violent love in 1759, the year of the York publication of Tristram Shandy, down to Mrs. Draper, the heroine of the famous “Yorick to Eliza” letters, the list of ladies who seem to have kindled flames in that susceptible breast is almost as long and more real than the roll of mistresses immortalized by Horace. How Mrs. Sterne at first bore herself under her husband’s ostentatious neglect there is no direct evidence to show. That she ultimately took refuge in indifference we can perceive, but it is to be feared that she was not always able to maintain the attitude of contemptuous composure. So, at least, we may suspect from the evidence of that Frenchman who met “le bon et agréable Tristram,” and his wife, at Montpellier, and who, characteristically sympathizing with the inconstant husband, declared that his wife’s incessant pursuit of him made him pass “d’assez mauvais moments,” which he bore “with the patience of an angel." But, on the whole, Mrs. Sterne’s conduct seems by her husband’s own admissions to have been not wanting in dignity.

As to the nature of Sterne’s love-affairs I have come, though not without hesitation, to the conclusion that they were most, if not all of them, what is called, somewhat absurdly, Platonic. In saying this, however, I am by no means prepared to assert that they would all of them have passed muster before a prosaic and unsentimental British jury as mere indiscretions, and nothing worse. Sterne’s relations with Miss Fourmantelle, for instance, assumed at last a profoundly compromising character, and it is far from improbable that the worst construction would have been put upon them by one of the plain-dealing tribunals aforesaid. Certainly a young woman who leaves her mother at York, and comes up to London to reside alone in lodgings, where she is constantly being visited by a lover who is himself living en garçonin the metropolis, can hardly complain if her imprudence is fatal to her reputation; neither can he if his own suffers in the same way. But, as I am not of those who hold that the conventionally “innocent" is the equivalent of the morally harmless in this matter, I cannot regard the question as worth any very minute investigation. I am not sure that the habitual male flirt, who neglects his wife to sit continually languishing at the feet of some other woman, gives much less pain and scandal to others, or does much less mischief to himself and the objects of his adoration, than the thorough-going profligate; and I even feel tempted to risk the apparent paradox that, from the artistic point of view, Sterne lost rather than gained by the generally Platonic character of his amours. For, as it was, the restraint of one instinct of his nature implied the over-indulgence of another which stood in at least as much need of chastenment. If his love-affairs stopped short of the gratification of the senses, they involved a perpetual fondling and caressing of those effeminate sensibilities of his into that condition of hyper-aesthesia which, though Sterne regarded it as the strength, was in reality the weakness, of his art.

Injurious, however, as was the effect which Sterne’s philanderings exercised upon his personal and literary character, it is not likely that, at least at this period of his life at Sutton, they had in any degree compromised his reputation. For this he had provided in other ways, and principally by his exceedingly injudicious choice of associates. “As to the squire of the parish,” he remarks in the Memoir, “I cannot say we were on a very friendly footing, but at Stillington the family of the C[rofts] showed us every kindness: ’twas most agreeable to be within a mile and a half of an amiable family who were ever cordial friends;” and who, it may be added, appear to have been Sterne’s only reputable acquaintances. For the satisfaction of all other social needs he seems to have resorted to a companionship which it was hardly possible for a clergyman to frequent without scandal–that, namely, of John Hall Stevenson and the kindred spirits whom he delighted to collect around him at Skelton–familiarly known as “Crazy” Castle. The club of the “Demoniacs,” of which Sterne makes mention in his letters, may have had nothing very diabolical about it except the name; but, headed as it was by the suspected ex-comrade of Wilkes and his brother monks of Medmenham, and recruited by gay militaires like Colonels Hall and Lee, and “fast” parsons like the Rev. “Panty” Lascelles (mock godson of Pantagruel), it was certainly a society in which the Vicar of Sutton could not expect to enroll himself without offence. We may fairly suppose, therefore, that it was to his association with these somewhat too “jolly companions” that Sterne owed that disfavour among decorous country circles, of which he shows resentful consciousness in the earlier chapters of Tristram Shandy. But before we finally cross the line which separates the life of the obscure country parson from the life of the famous author, a word or two must be said of that piece of writing which was alluded to a few pages back as the only known exception to the generally “professional" character of all Sterne’s compositions of the pre-Shandian era. This was a piece in the allegoric-satirical style, which, though not very remarkable in itself, may not improbably have helped to determine its author’s thoughts in the direction of more elaborate literary efforts. In the year 1758 a dispute had arisen between a certain Dr. Topham, an ecclesiastical lawyer in large local practice, and Dr. Fountayne, the then Dean of York. This dispute had originated in an attempt on the part of the learned civilian, who appears to have been a pluralist of an exceptionally insatiable order, to obtain the reversion of one of his numerous offices for his son, alleging a promise made to him on that behalf by the Archbishop. This promise–which had, in fact, been given–was legally impossible of performance, and upon the failure of his attempt the disappointed Topham turned upon the Dean, and maintained that by him, at any rate, he had been promised another place of the value of five guineas per annum, and appropriately known as the “Commissaryship of Pickering and Pocklington.” This the Dean denied, and thereupon Dr. Topham fired off a pamphlet setting forth the circumstances of the alleged promise, and protesting against the wrong inflicted upon him by its non-performance. At this point Sterne came to Dr. Fountayne’s assistance with a sarcastic apologue entitled the “History of a good Warm Watchcoat,” which had “hung up many years in the parish vestry,” and showing how this garment had so excited the cupidity of Trim, the sexton, that “nothing would serve him but he must take it home, to have it converted into a warm under-petticoat for his wife and a jerkin for himself against the winter.” The symbolization of Dr. Topham’s snug “patent place,” which he wished to make hereditary, under the image of the good warm watchcoat, is of course plain enough; and there is some humour in the way in which the parson (the Archbishop) discovers that his incautious assent to Trim’s request had been given ultra vires. Looking through the parish register, at the request of a labourer who wished to ascertain his age, the parson finds express words of bequest leaving the watch-coat “for the sole use of the sextons of the church for ever, to be worn by them respectively on winterly cold nights,” and at the moment when he is exclaiming, “Just Heaven! what an escape have I had! Give this for a petticoat to Trim’s wife!” he is interrupted by Trim himself entering the vestry with “the coat actually ript and cut out” ready for conversion into a petticoat for his wife. And we get a foretaste of the familiar Shandian impertinence in the remark which follows, that “there are many good similes subsisting in the world, but which I have neither time to recollect nor look for,” which would give you an idea of the parson’s astonishment at Trim’s impudence. The emoluments of “Pickering and Pocklington” appear under the figure of a “pair of black velvet plush breeches” which ultimately “got into the possession of one Lorry Slim (Sterne himself, of course), an unlucky wight, by whom they are still worn: in truth, as you will guess, they are very thin by this time.”

The whole thing is the very slightest of “skits;” and the quarrel having been accommodated before it could be published, it was not given to the world until after its author’s death. But it is interesting, as his first known attempt in this line of composition, and the grasping sexton deserves remembrance, if only as having handed down his name to a far more famous descendant.


Prefatory Note  •  Chapter I: Birth, Parentage, and Early Years  •  Chapter II: School and University.–halifax and Cambridge  •  Chapter III: Life At Sutton.–Marriage.–The Parish Priest  •  Chapter V: London Triumphs.–First Set of Sermons  •  (1760-1762.)  •  Chapter VI: Life in the South  •  (1762-1765.)  •  Chapter VII: France and Italy  •  (1765-1768.)  •  Chapter VIII: Last Days and Death  •  Chapter IX: Sterne As a Writer  •  Chapter X: Style and General Characteristics  •  Chapter XI: Creative and Dramatic Power  • 

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Laurence Sterne
By H. D. Traill
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