By H.D. Traill

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Sterne alighted from the York mail, just as Byron “awoke one morning," to “find himself famous.” Seldom indeed has any lion so suddenly discovered been pursued so eagerly and by such a distinguished crowd of hunters. The chase was remarkable enough to have left a lasting impression on the spectators; for it was several years after (in 1773) that Dr. Johnson, by way of fortifying his very just remark that “any man who has a name or who has the power of pleasing will be generally invited in London,” observed gruffly that “the man Sterne,” he was told, “had had engagements for three months.” And truly it would appear from abundant evidence that “the man Sterne” gained such a social triumph as might well have turned a stronger head than his. Within twenty-four hours after his arrival his lodgings in Pall Mall were besieged by a crowd of fashionable visitors; and in a few weeks he had probably made the acquaintance of “everybody who was anybody" in the London society of that day.

How thoroughly he relished the delights of celebrity is revealed, with a simple vanity which almost disarms criticism, in many a passage of his correspondence. In one of his earliest letters to Miss Fourmantelle we find him proudly relating to her how already he “was engaged to ten noblemen and men of fashion.” Of Garrick, who had warmly welcomed the humourist whose merits he had been the first to discover, Sterne says that he had “promised him at dinner to numbers of great people.” Amongst these great people who sought him out for themselves was that discerning patron of ability in every shape, Lord Rockingham. In one of the many letters which Madame de Medalle flung dateless upon the world, but which from internal evidence we can assign to the early months of 1760, Sterne writes that he is about to “set off with a grand retinue of Lord Rockingham’s (in whose suite I move) for Windsor” to witness, it should seem, an installation of a Knight of the Garter. It is in his letters to Miss Fourmantelle, however, that his almost boyish exultation at his London triumph discloses itself most frankly. “My rooms,” he writes, “are filling every hour with great people of the first rank, who strive who shall most honour me.” Never, he believes, had such homage been rendered to any man by devotees so distinguished. “The honours paid me were the greatest that were ever known from the great.”

The self-painted portrait is not, it must be confessed, altogether an attractive one. It is somewhat wanting in dignity, and its air of over-inflated complacency is at times slightly ridiculous. But we must not judge Sterne in this matter by too severe a standard. He was by nature neither a dignified nor a self-contained man: he had a head particularly unfitted to stand sudden elevation; and it must be allowed that few men’s power of resisting giddiness at previously unexplored altitudes was ever so severely tried. It was not only “the great” in the sense of the high in rank and social distinction by whom he was courted; he was welcomed also by the eminent in genius and learning; and it would be no very difficult task for him to flatter himself that it was the latter form of recognition which, he really valued most. Much, at any rate, in the way of undue elation may be forgiven to a country clergyman who suddenly found himself the centre of a court, which was regularly attended by statesmen, wits, and leaders of fashion, and with whom even bishops condescended to open gracious diplomatic communication. “Even all the bishops,” he writes, “have sent their compliments;” and though this can hardly have been true of the whole Episcopal Bench, it is certain that Sterne received something more than a compliment from one bishop, who was a host in himself. He was introduced by Garrick to Warburton, and received high encouragement from that formidable prelate.[1]

[Footnote 1: It is admitted, moreover, in the correspondence with Miss Fourmantelle that Sterne received something more substantial from the Bishop, in the shape of a purse of gold; and this strange present gave rise to a scandal on which something will be said hereafter.]

The year 1760, however, was to bring to Sterne more solid gains than that of mere celebrity, or even than the somewhat precarious money profits which depend on literary vogue. Only a few weeks after his arrival in town he was presented by Lord Falconberg with the curacy of Coxwold, “a sweet retirement,” as he describes it, “in comparison of Sutton,” at which he was in future to pass most of the time spent by him in Yorkshire. What obtained him this piece of preferment is unknown. It may be that Tristram Shandy drew the Yorkshire peer’s attention to the fact that there was a Yorkshireman of genius living within a few miles of a then vacant benefice in his lordship’s gift, and that this was enough for him. But Sterne himself says–in writing a year or so afterwards to a lady of his acquaintance–"I hope I have been of some service to his lordship, and he has sufficiently requited me;” and in the face of this plain assertion, confirmed as it is by the fact that Lord Falconberg was on terms of friendly intimacy with the Vicar of Coxwold at a much later date than this, we may dismiss idle tales about Sterne’s having “black-mailed” the patron out of a presentation to a benefice worth no more, after all, than some 70£ a year net.

There is somewhat more substance, however, in the scandal which got abroad with reference to a certain alleged transaction between Sterne and Warburton. Before Sterne had been many days in London, and while yet his person and doings were the natural subjects of the newest gossip, a story found its way into currency to the effect that the new-made Bishop of Gloucester had found it advisable to protect himself against the satiric humour of the author of the Tristram Shandy by a substantial present of money. Coming to Garrick’s ears, it was repeated by him–whether seriously or in jest–to Sterne, from whom it evoked a curious letter, which in Madame de Medalle’s collection has been studiously hidden away amongst the correspondence of seven years later. “’Twas for all the world,” he began, “like a cut across my finger with a sharp pen-knife. I saw the blood–gave it a suck, wrapt it up, and thought no more about it.... The story you told me of Tristram’s pretended tutor this morning"–(the scandal was, that Warburton had been threatened with caricature in the next volume of the novel, under the guise of the hero’s tutor)–"this vile story, I say, though I then saw both how and where it wounded, I felt little from it at first, or, to speak more honestly (though it ruins my simile), I felt a great deal of pain from it, but affected an air, usual in such accidents, of feeling less than I had.” And he goes on to repudiate, it will be observed, not so much the moral offence of corruption, in receiving money to spare Warburton, as the intellectual solecism of selecting him for ridicule. “What the devil!” he exclaims, “is there no one learned blockhead throughout the schools of misapplied science in the Christian world to make a tutor of for my Tristram–are we so run out of stock that there is no one lumber-headed, muddle-headed, mortar-headed, pudding-head chap amongst our doctors...but I must disable my judgment by choosing a Warburton?" Later on, in a letter to his friend, Mr. Croft, at Stillington, whom the scandal had reached through a “society journal” of the time, he asks whether people would suppose he would be “such a fool as to fall foul of Dr. Warburton, my best friend, by representing him so weak a man; or by telling such a lie of him as his giving me a purse to buy off the tutorship of Tristram–or that I should be fool enough to own that I had taken a purse for that purpose?” It will be remarked that Sterne does not here deny having received a purse from Warburton, but only his having received it by way of black-mail: and the most mysterious part of the affair is that Sterne did actually receive the strange present of a “purse of gold” from Warburton (whom at that time he did not know nor had ever seen); and that he admits as much in one of his letters to Miss Fourmantelle. “I had a purse of guineas given me yesterday by a Bishop,” he writes, triumphantly, but without volunteering any explanation of this extraordinary gift. Sterne’s letter to Garrick was forwarded, it would seem, to Warburton; and the Bishop thanks Garrick for having procured for him “the confutation of an impertinent story the first moment I heard of it.” This, however, can hardly count for much. If Warburton had really wished Sterne to abstain from caricaturing him, he would be as anxious–and for much the same reasons–to conceal the fact as to suppress the caricature. He would naturally have the disclosure of it reported to Sterne for formal contradiction, as in fulfilment of a virtual term in the bargain between them. The epithet of “irrevocable scoundrel,” which he afterwards applied to Sterne, is of less importance, as proceeding from Warburton, than it would have been had it come from any one not habitually employing Warburton’s peculiar vocabulary; but it at least argues no very cordial feeling on the Bishop’s side. And, on the whole, one regrets to feel, as I must honestly confess that I do feel, far less confident of the groundlessness of this rather unpleasant story than could be wished. It is impossible to forget, however, that while the ethics of this matter were undoubtedly less strict in those days than they are–or, at any rate, are recognized as being–in our own, there is nothing in Sterne’s character to make us suppose him to have been at all in advance of the morality of his time.

The incumbent-designate did not go down at once to take possession of his temporalities. His London triumph had not yet run its course. The first edition of Vols. I. and II. of Tristram Shandy was exhausted in some three months. In April, Dodsley brought out a second; and, concurrently with the advertisement of its issue, there appeared–in somewhat incongruous companionship–the announcement, “Speedily will be published, The Sermons of Mr. Yorick.” The judicious Dodsley, or possibly the judicious Sterne himself (acute enough in matters of this kind), had perceived that now was the time to publish a series of sermons by the very unclerical lion of the day. There would–they, no doubt, thought–be an undeniable piquancy, a distinct flavour of semi-scandalous incongruity in listening to the Word of Life from the lips of this loose-tongued droll; and the more staid and serious the sermon, the more effective the contrast. There need not have been much trouble in finding the kind of article required; and we may be tolerably sure that, even if Sterne did not perceive that fact for himself, his publisher hastened to inform him that “anything would do.” Two of his pulpit discourses, the Assize Sermon and the Charity Sermon, had already been thought worthy of publication by their author in a separate form; and the latter of these found a place in the series; while the rest seem to have been simply the chance sweepings of the parson’s sermon-drawer. The critics who find wit, eccentricity, flashes of Shandyism, and what not else of the same sort in these discourses, must be able–or so it seems to me–to discover these phenomena anywhere. To the best of my own judgment the Sermons are–with but few and partial exceptions–of the most commonplace character; platitudinous with the platitudes of a thousand pulpits, and insipid with the crambe repetita of a hundred thousand homilies. A single extract will fully suffice for a specimen of Sterne’s pre-Shandian homiletic style; his post-Shandian manner was very different, as we shall see. The preacher is discoursing upon the well-worn subject of the inconsistencies of human character:

  “If such a contrast was only observable in the different stages of
  a man’s life, it would cease to be either a matter of wonder or of
  just reproach. Age, experience, and much reflection may naturally
  enough be supposed to alter a man’s sense of things, and so entirely
  to transform him that, not only in outward appearance but in the
  very cast and turn of his mind, he may be as unlike and different
  from the man he was twenty or thirty years ago as he ever was from
  anything of his own species. This, I say, is naturally to be accounted
  for, and in some cases might be praiseworthy too; but the observation
  is to be made of men in the same period of their lives that in
  the same day, sometimes on the very same action, they are utterly
  inconsistent and irreconcilable with themselves. Look at the man in
  one light, and he shall seem wise, penetrating, discreet, and brave;
  behold him in another point of view, and you see a creature all over
  folly and indiscretion, weak and timorous as cowardice and
  indiscretion can make him. A man shall appear gentle, courteous,
  and benevolent to all mankind; follow him into his own house,
  maybe you see a tyrant morose and savage to all whose happiness
  depends upon his kindness. A third, in his general behaviour,
  is found to be generous, disinterested, humane, and friendly. Hear
  but the sad story of the friendless orphans too credulously trusting
  all their whole substance into his hands, and he shall appear more
  sordid, more pitiless and unjust than the injured themselves have
  bitterness to paint him. Another shall be charitable to the poor,
  uncharitable in his censures and opinions of all the rest of the
  world besides: temperate in his appetites, intemperate in his tongue;
  shall have too much conscience and religion to cheat the man who
  trusts him, and perhaps as far as the business of debtor and creditor
  extends shall be just and scrupulous to the uttermost mite; yet in
  matters of full or great concern, where he is to have the handling
  of the party’s reputation and good name, the dearest, the tenderest
  property the man has, he will do him irreparable damage, and rob him
  there without measure or pity."–Sermon XI.–On Evil Speaking.

There is clearly nothing particularly striking in all that, even conveyed as it is in Sterne’s effective, if loose and careless, style; and it is no unfair sample of the whole. The calculation, however, of the author and his shrewd publisher was that, whatever the intrinsic merits or demerits of these sermons, they would “take” on the strength of the author’s name; nor, it would seem, was their calculation disappointed. The edition of this series of sermons now lying before me is numbered the sixth, and its date is 1764; which represents a demand for a new edition every nine months or so, over a space of four years. They may, perhaps, have succeeded, too, in partially reconciling a certain serious-minded portion of the public to the author. Sterne evidently hoped that they might; for we find him sending a copy to Warburton, in the month of June, immediately after the publication of the book, and receiving in return a letter of courteous thanks, and full of excellent advice as to the expediency of avoiding scandal by too hazardous a style of writing in the future. Sterne, in reply, protests that he would “willingly give no offence to mortal by anything which could look like the least violation of either decency or good manners;” but–and it is an important “but"–he cannot promise to “mutilate everything” in Tristram “down to the prudish humour of every particular” (individual), though he will do his best; but, in any case, “laugh, my Lord, I will, and as loudly as I can." And laugh he did, and in such Rabelaisian fashion that the Bishop (somewhat inconsistently for a critic who had welcomed Sterne on the appearance of the first two volumes expressly as the “English Rabelais”) remarked of him afterwards with characteristic vigour, in a letter to a friend, that he fears the fellow is an “irrevocable scoundrel.”

The volumes, however, which earned “the fellow” this Episcopal benediction were not given to the world till the next year. At the end of May or beginning of June, 1760, Sterne went to his new home at Coxwold, and his letters soon begin to show him to us at work upon further records of Mr. Shandy’s philosophical theory-spinning and the simpler pursuits of his excellent brother. It is probable that this year, 1760, was, on the whole, the happiest year of Sterne’s life. His health, though always feeble, had not yet finally given way; and though the “vile cough” which was to bring him more than once to death’s door, and at last to force it open, was already troubling him, he had that within him which made it easy to bear up against all such physical ills. His spirits, in fact, were at their highest. His worldly affairs were going at least as smoothly as they ever went. He was basking in that sunshine of fame which was so delightful to a temperament differing from that of the average Englishman, as does the physique of the Southern races from that of the hardier children of the North; and lastly, he was exulting in a new-born sense of creative power which no doubt made the composition of the earlier volumes of Tristram a veritable labour of love.

But the witty division of literary spinners into silkworms and spiders–those who spin because they are full, and those who do so because they are empty–is not exhaustive. There are human silk-worms who become gradually transformed into spiders–men who begin writing in order to unburden a full imagination, and who, long after that process has been completely performed, continue writing in order to fill an empty belly; and though Sterne did not live long enough to “write himself out,” there are certain indications that he would not have left off writing if and when he felt that this stage of exhaustion had arrived. His artistic impulses were curiously combined with a distinct admixture of the “potboiler” spirit; and it was with something of the complacency of an annuitant that he looked forward to giving the public a couple of volumes of Tristram Shandy every year as long as they would stand it. In these early days, however, there was no necessity even to discuss the probable period either of the writer’s inspiration or of the reader’s appetite. At present the public were as eager to consume more Shandyism as Sterne was ready to produce it: the demand was as active as the supply was easy. By the end of the year Vols. III. and IV. were in the press, and on January 27, 1761, they made their appearance. They had been disposed of in advance to Dodsley for 380_l.–no bad terms of remuneration in those days; but it is still likely enough that the publisher made a profitable bargain. The new volumes sold freely, and the public laughed at them as heartily as their two predecessors. Their author’s vogue in London, whither he went in December, 1760, to superintend publication, was as great during the next spring as it had been in the last. The tide of visitors again set in all its former force and volume towards the “genteel lodgings.” His dinner list was once more full, and he was feasted and flattered by wits, beaux, courtiers, politicians, and titled-lady lion-hunters as sedulously as ever. His letters, especially those to his friends the Crofts, of Stillington, abound, as before, in touches of the same amusing vanity. With how delicious a sense of self-importance must he have written these words: “You made me and my friends very merry with the accounts current at York of my being forbad the Court, but they do not consider what a considerable person they make of me when they suppose either my going or not going there is a point that ever enters the K.’s head; and for those about him, I have the honour either to stand so personally well-known to them, or to be so well represented by those of the first rank, as to fear no accident of the kind.” Amusing, too, is it to note the familiarity, as of an old habitué of Ministerial antechambers, with which this country parson discusses the political changes of that interesting year; though scarcely more amusing, perhaps, than the solemnity with which his daughter disguises the identity of the new Premier under the title B––e; and by a similar use of initials attempts to conceal the momentous state secret that the D. of R. had been removed from the place of Groom of the Chambers, and that Sir F.D. had succeeded T. as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Occasionally, however, the interest of his letters changes from personal to public, and we get a glimpse of scenes and personages that have become historical. He was present in the House of Commons at the first grand debate on the German war after the Great Commoner’s retirement from office–"the pitched battle,” as Sterne calls it, “wherein Mr. P. was to have entered and thrown down the gauntlet” in defence of his military policy. Thus he describes it:

  “There never was so full a House–the gallery full to the top–I
  was there all the day; when lo! a political fit of the gout seized the
  great combatant–he entered not the lists. Beckford got up and
  begged the House, as he saw not his right honourable friend there,
  to put off the debate–it could not be done: so Beckford rose up
  and made a most long, passionate, incoherent speech in defence of
  the German war, but very severe upon the unfrugal manner it was
  carried on, in which he addressed himself principally to the C[hancellor]
  of the E[xchequer], and laid on him terribly.... Legge
  answered Beckford very rationally and coolly. Lord K. spoke long.
  Sir F. D[ashwood] maintained the German war was most pernicious....
  Lord B[arrington] at last got up and spoke half an hour
  with great plainness and temper, explained many hidden things relating
  to these accounts in favour of the late K., and told two or
  three conversations which had passed between the K. and himself
  relative to these expenses, which cast great honour upon the K.’s
  character. This was with regard to the money the K. had secretly
  furnished out of his own pocket to lessen the account of the
  Hanover-score brought us to discharge. Beckford and Barrington
  abused all who fought for peace and joined in the cry for it,
  and Beckford added that the reasons of wishing a peace now were
  the same as at the Peace of Utrecht–that the people behind the
  curtain could not both maintain the war and their places too, so
  were for making another sacrifice of the nation to their own interests.
  After all, the cry for a peace is so general that it will certainly
  end in one.”

And then the letter, recurring to personal matters towards the close, records the success of Vols. III. and IV.:

“One half of the town abuse my book as bitterly as the other half cry it up to the skies–the best is they abuse and buy it, and at such a rate that we are going on with a second edition as fast as possible." This was written only in the first week of March, so that the edition must have been exhausted in little more than a month. It was, indeed, another triumph; and all through this spring up to midsummer did Sterne remain in London to enjoy it. But, with three distinct flocks awaiting a renewal of his pastoral ministrations in Yorkshire, it would scarcely have done for him, even in those easy-going days of the Establishment, to take up his permanent abode at the capital; and early in July he returned to Coxwold.

From the middle of this year, 1761, the scene begins to darken, and from the beginning of the next year onward Sterne’s life was little better than a truceless struggle with the disease to which he was destined, prematurely, to succumb. The wretched constitution which, in common with his short-lived brothers and sisters, he had inherited probably from his father, already began to show signs of breaking up. Invalid from the first, it had doubtless been weakened by the hardships of Sterne’s early years, and yet further, perhaps, by the excitements and dissipations of his London life; nor was the change from the gaieties of the capital to hard literary labour in a country parsonage calculated to benefit him as much as it might others. Shandy Hall, as he christened his pretty parsonage at Coxwold, and as the house, still standing, is called to this day, soon became irksome to him. The very reaction begotten of unwonted quietude acted on his temperament with a dispiriting rather than a soothing effect. The change from his full and stimulating life in London to the dull round of clerical duties in a Yorkshire village might well have been depressing to a mind better balanced and ballasted than his. To him, with his light, pleasure-loving nature, it was as the return of the schoolboy from pantomimes and pony-riding to the more sober delights of Dr. Swishtail’s; and, in a letter to Hall Stevenson, Sterne reveals his feelings with all the juvenile frankness of one of the Doctor’s pupils:

  “I rejoice you are in London–rest you there in peace; here ’tis the
  devil. You were a good prophet. I wish myself back again, as you
  told me I should, but not because a thin, death-doing, pestiferous
  north-east wind blows in a line directly from Crazy Castle turret
  fresh upon me in this cuckoldly retreat (for I value the north-east
  wind and all its powers not a straw), but the transition from rapid
  motion to absolute rest was too violent. I should have walked about
  the streets of York ten days, as a proper medium to have passed
  through before I entered upon my rest; I stayed but a moment, and
  I have been here but a few, to satisfy me. I have not managed my
  miseries like a wise man, and if God for my consolation had not
  poured forth the spirit of Shandyism unto me, which will not suffer
  me to think two moments upon any grave subject, I would else just
  now lay down and die.”

It is true he adds, in the next sentence, that in half an hour’s time “I’ll lay a guinea I shall be as merry as a monkey, and forget it all,” but such sudden revulsions of high spirits can hardly be allowed to count for much against the prevailing tone of discontented ennuiwhich pervades this letter.

Apart, moreover, from Sterne’s regrets of London, his country home was becoming from other causes a less pleasant place of abode. His relations with his wife were getting less and less cordial every year. With a perversity sometimes noticeable in the wives of distinguished men, Mrs. Sterne had failed to accept with enthusiasm the rôleof distant and humbly admiring spectator of her brilliant husband’s triumphs. Accept it, of course, she did, being unable, indeed, to help herself; but it is clear that when Sterne returned home after one of his six months’ revels in the gaieties of London, his wife, who had been vegetating the while in the retirement of Yorkshire, was not in the habit of welcoming him with effusion. Perceiving so clearly that her husband preferred the world’s society to hers, she naturally, perhaps, refused to disguise her preference of her own society to his. Their estrangement, in short, had grown apace, and had already brought them to that stage of mutual indifference which is at once so comfortable and so hopeless–secure alike against the risk of “scenes" and the hope of reconciliation, shut fast in its exemption from amantium irae against all possibility of redintegratio amoris.To such perfection, indeed, had the feeling been cultivated on both sides, that Sterne, in the letter above quoted, can write of his conjugal relations in this philosophic strain:

  “As to matrimony I should be a beast to rail at it, for my wife is
  easy, but the world is not, and had I stayed from her a second longer
  it would have been a burning shame–else she declares herself
  happier without me. But not in anger is this declaration made (the
  most fatal point, of course, about it), but in pure, sober, good sense,
  built on sound experience. She hopes you will be able to strike a
  bargain for me before this twelvemonth to lead a bear round Europe,
  and from this hope from you I verily believe it is that you are
  so high in her favour at present. She swears you are a fellow of wit,
  though humorous;[2] a funny, jolly soul, though somewhat splenetic,
  and (hating the love of women) as honest as gold. How do you
  like the simile?”

There is, perhaps, a touch of affected cynicism in the suggestion that Mrs. Sterne’s liking for one of her husband’s friends was wholly based upon the expectation that he would rid her of her husband; but mutual indifference must, it is clear, have reached a pretty advanced stage before such a remark could, even half in jest, be possible. And with one more longing, lingering look at the scenes which he had quitted for a lot like that of the Duke of Buckingham’s dog, upon whom his master pronounced the maledictory wish that “he were married and lived in the country,” this characteristic letter concludes:

  “Oh, Lord! now are you going to Ranelagh to-night, and I am sitting
  sorrowful as the prophet was when the voice cried out to him
  and said, ’What do’st thou here, Elijah?’ ’Tis well that the spirit
  does not make the same at Coxwold, for unless for the few sheep
  left me to take care of in the wilderness, I might as well, nay, better,
  be at Mecca. When we find we can, by a shifting of places, run
  away from ourselves, what think you of a jaunt there before we
  finally pay a visit to the Vale of Jehoshaphat? As ill a fame as we
  have, I trust I shall one day or other see you face to face, so tell the
  two colonels if they love good company to live righteously and soberly,
  as you do, and then they will have no doubts or dangers within
  or without them. Present my best and warmest wishes to them,
  and advise the eldest to prop up his spirits, and get a rich dowager
  before the conclusion of the peace. Why will not the advice suit
  both, par nobile fratrum?_”

[Footnote 1: It is curious to note, as a point in the chronology of language, how exclusive is Sterne’s employment of the words “humour," “humourists,” in their older sense of “whimsicality,” “an eccentric." The later change in its meaning gives to the word “though” in the above passage an almost comic effect.]

In conclusion, he tells his friend that the next morning, if Heaven permit, he begins the fifth volume of Shandy, and adds, defiantly, that he “cares not a curse for the critics,” but “will load my vehicle with what goods He sends me, and they may take ’em off my hands or let ’em alone.”

The allusions to foreign travel in this letter were made with, something more than a jesting intent. Sterne had already begun to be seriously alarmed, and not without reason, about the condition of his health. He shrank from facing another English winter, and meditated a southward flight so soon as he should have finished his fifth and sixth volumes, and seen them safe in the printer’s hands. His publisher he had changed, for what reason is not known, and the firm of Becket & De Hondt had taken the place of Dodsley. Sterne hoped by the end of the year to be free to depart from England, and already he had made all arrangements with his ecclesiastical superiors for the necessary leave of absence. He seems to have been treated with all consideration in the matter. His Archbishop, on being applied to, at once excused him from parochial work for a year, and promised, if it should be necessary, to double that term. Fortified with this permission, Sterne bade farewell to his wife and daughter, and betook himself to London, with his now completed volumes, at the setting in of the winter. On the 21st of December they made their appearance, and in about three weeks from that date their author left England, with the intention of wintering in the South of France. There were difficulties, however, of more kinds than one which had first to be faced–a pecuniary difficulty, which Garrick met by a loan of 20£., and a political difficulty, for the removal of which Sterne had to employ the good offices of new acquaintance later on. He reached Paris about the 17th of January, 1762, and there met with a reception which interposed, as might have been expected, the most effectual of obstacles to his further progress southward. He was received in Paris with open arms, and stepped at once within the charmed circle of the philosophic salons. Again was the old intoxicating cup presented to his lips–this time, too, with more dexterous than English hands–and again did he drink deeply of it. “My head is turned,” he writes to Garrick, “with what I see, and the unexpected honour I have met with here. Tristram was almost as much known here as in London, at least among your men of condition and learning, and has got me introduced into so many circles (’tis comme à Londres_) I have just now a fortnight’s dinners and suppers on my hands.” We may venture to doubt whether French politeness had not been in one respect taken somewhat too seriously by the flattered Englishman, and whether it was much more than the name and general reputation of Tristram, which was “almost as much known” in Paris as in London. The dinners and suppers, however, were, at any rate, no figures of speech, but very liberal entertainments, at which Sterne appears to have disported himself with all his usual unclerical abandon. “I Shandy it away,” he writes in his boyish fashion to Garrick, “fifty times more than I was ever wont, talk more nonsense than ever you heard me talk in all your days, and to all sorts of people. ’Qui le diable est cet homme-là?’ said Choiseul, t’other day, ’ce Chevalier Shandy?’” [We might be listening to one of Thackeray’s Irish heroes.] “You’ll think me as vain as a devil was I to tell you the rest of the dialogue.” But there were distinguished Frenchmen who were ready to render to the English author more important services than that of offering him hospitality and flattery. Peace had not been formally concluded between France and England, and the passport with which Sterne had been graciously furnished by Pitt was not of force enough to dispense him from making special application to the French Government for permission to remain in the country. In this request he was influentially backed. “My application,” he writes, “to the Count de Choiseul goes on swimmingly, for not only M. Pelletière (who by-the-bye sends ten thousand civilities to you and Mrs. G.) has undertaken my affair, but the Count de Limbourg. The Baron d’Holbach has offered any security for the inoffensiveness of my behaviour in France–’tis more, you rogue! than you will do.” And then the orthodox, or professedly orthodox, English divine, goes on to describe the character and habits of his strange new friend: “This Baron is one of the most learned noblemen here, the great protector of wits and of the savans who are no wits; keeps open house three days a week–his house is now, as yours was to me, my own–he lives at great expense.” Equally communicative is he as to his other great acquaintances. Among these were the Count de Bissie, whom by an “odd incident” (as it seemed to his unsuspecting vanity) “I found reading Tristram when I was introduced to him, which I was," he adds (without perceiving the connexion between this fact and the “incident”), “at his desire;” Mr. Fox and Mr. Macartney (afterwards the Lord Macartney of Chinese celebrity), and the Duke of Orleans (not yet Égalité) himself, “who has suffered my portrait to be added to the number of some odd men in his collection, and has had it taken most expressively at full length by a gentleman who lives with him.” Nor was it only in the delights of society that Sterne was now revelling. He was passionately fond of the theatre, and his letters to Garrick are full of eager criticism of the great French performers, intermingled with flatteries, sometimes rather full-bodied than delicate, of their famous English rival. Of Clairon, in Iphigénie, he says “she is extremely great. Would to God you had one or two like her. What a luxury to see you with one of such power in the same interesting scene! But ’tis too much.” Again he writes: “The French comedy I seldom visit; they act scarce anything but tragedies; and the Clairon is great, and Mdlle. Dumesmil in some parts still greater than her. Yet I cannot bear preaching–I fancy I got a surfeit of it in my younger days.” And in a later letter:

  “After a vile suspension of three weeks, we are beginning with
  our comedies and operas. Yours I hear never flourished more; here
  the comic actors were never so low; the tragedians hold up their
  heads in all senses. I have known one little man support the theatrical
  world like a David Atlas upon his shoulders, but Préville can’t
  do half as much here, though Mad. Clairon stands by him and sets
  her back to his. She is very great, however, and highly improved
  since you saw her. She also supports her dignity at table, and has
  her public day every Thursday, when she gives to eat (as they say
  here) to all that are hungry and dry. You are much talked of here,
  and much expected, as soon as the peace will let you. These two
  last days you have happened to engross the whole conversation at
  the great houses where I was at dinner. ’Tis the greatest problem
  in nature in this meridian that one and the same man should possess
  such tragic and comic powers, and in such an equilibrio as to divide
  the world for which of the two Nature intended him.”

And while on this subject of the stage let us pause for a moment to glance at an incident which connects Sterne with one of the most famous of his French contemporaries. He has been asked “by a lady of talent,” he tells Garrick, “to read a tragedy, and conjecture if it would do for you. ’Tis from the plan of Diderot; and, possibly, half a translation of it: The Natural Son, or the Triumph of Virtue, in five acts. It has too much sentiment in it (at least for me); the speeches too long, and savour too much of preaching. This may be a second reason it is not to my taste–’tis all love, love, love throughout, without much separation in the characters. So I fear it would not do for your stage, and perhaps for the very reason which recommends it to a French one.” It is curious to see the “adaptator cerebrosuga” at work in those days as in these; though not, in this instance, as it seems, with as successful results. The Natural Son, or the Triumph of Virtue, is not known to have reached either English readers or English theatrical audiences. The French original, as we know, fared scarcely better. “It was not until 1771,” says Diderot’s latest English biographer, “that the directors of the French Comedy could be induced to place Le Fils Naturel on the stage. The actors detested their task, and, as we can well believe, went sulkily through parts which they had not taken the trouble to master. The public felt as little interest in the piece as the actors had done, and after one or two representations, it was put aside.[1]”

[Footnote 1: Morley: Diderot and the Encyclopaedists, ii. 305.]

Another, and it is to be guessed a too congenial, acquaintance formed by Sterne in Paris was that of Crébillon; and with him he concluded “a convention,” unedifying enough, whether in jest or earnest: “As soon as I get to Toulouse he has agreed to write me an expostulatory letter upon the indecorums of T. Shandy, which is to be answered by recrimination upon the liberties in his own works. These are to be printed together–Crébillon against Sterne, Sterne against Crébillon–the copy to be sold, and the money equally divided. This is good Swiss-policy,” he adds; and the idea (which was never carried out) had certainly the merit of ingenuity, if no other.

The words “as soon as I get to Toulouse,” in a letter written from Paris on the 10th of April, might well have reminded Sterne of the strange way in which he had carried out his intention of “wintering in the South.” He insists, however, upon the curative effects of his winter of gaiety in Paris. “I am recovered greatly,” he says; “and if I could spend one whole winter at Toulouse, I should be fortified in my inner man beyond all danger of relapsing.” There was another, too, for whom this change of climate had become imperatively necessary. For three winters past his daughter Lydia, now fourteen years old, had been suffering severely from asthma, and needed to try “the last remedy of a warmer and softer air.” Her father, therefore, was about to solicit passports for his wife and daughter, with a view to their joining him at once in Paris, whence, after a month’s stay, they were to depart together for the South. This application for passports he intended, he said, to make “this week:” and it would seem that the intention was carried out; but, for reasons explained in a letter which Mr. Fitzgerald was the first to publish, it was not till the middle of the next month that he was able to make preparation for their joining him. From this letter–written to his Archbishop, to request an extension of his leave–we learn that while applying for the passports he was attacked with a fever, “which has ended the worst way it could for me, in a défluxion (de) poitrine, as the French physicians call it. It is generally fatal to weak lungs, so that I have lost in ten days all I have gained since I came here; and from a relaxation of my lungs have lost my voice entirely, that ’twill be much if I ever quite recover it. This evil sends me directly to Toulouse, for which I set out from this place directly my family arrives.” Evidently there was no time to be lost, and a week after the date of this letter we find him in communication with Mrs. and Miss Sterne, and making arrangements for what was, in those days, a somewhat formidable undertaking–the journey of two ladies from the North of England to the centre of France. The correspondence which ensued may be said to give us the last pleasant glimpse of Sterne’s relations with his wife. One can hardly help suspecting, of course, that it was his solicitude for the safety and comfort of his much-loved daughter that mainly inspired the affectionate anxiety which pervades these letters to Mrs. Sterne; but their writer is, at the very least, entitled to credit for allowing no difference of tone to reveal itself in the terms in which he speaks of wife and child. And, whichever of the two he was mainly thinking of, there is something very engaging in the thoughtful minuteness of his instructions to the two women travellers, the earnestness of his attempts to inspire them with courage for their enterprise, and the sincere fervour of his many commendations of them to the Divine keeping. The mixture of “canny” counsel and pious invocation has frequently a droll effect: as when the advice to “give the custom-house officers what I told you, and at Calais more, if you have much Scotch snuff;” and “to drink small Rhenish to keep you cool, that is, if you like it,” is rounded off by the ejaculation, “So God in Heaven prosper and go along with you!” Letter after letter did he send them, full of such reminders as that “they have bad pins and vile needles here,” that it would be advisable to bring with them a strong bottle-screw, and a good stout copper tea-kettle; till at last, in the final words of preparation, his language assumes something of the solemnity of a general addressing his army on the eve of a well-nigh desperate enterprise: “Pluck up your spirits–trust in God, in me, and yourselves; with this, was you put to it, you would encounter all these difficulties ten times told. Write instantly, and tell me you triumph over all fears–tell me Lydia is better, and a help-mate to you. You say she grows like me: let her show me she does so in her contempt of small dangers, and fighting against the apprehensions of them, which is better still.”

At last this anxiously awaited journey was taken; and, on Thursday, July 7, Mrs. Sterne and her daughter arrived in Paris. Their stay there was not long–not much extended, probably, beyond the proposed week. For Sterne’s health had, some ten days before the arrival of his family, again given him warning to depart quickly. He had but a few weeks recovered from the fever of which he spoke in his letter to the Archbishop, when he again broke a blood-vessel in his lungs. It happened in the night, and “finding in the morning that I was likely to bleed to death, I sent immediately,” he says, in a sentence which quaintly brings out the paradox of contemporary medical treatment, “for a surgeon to bleed me at both arms. This saved me"–i.e. did not kill me–"and, with lying speechless three days, I recovered upon my back in bed: the breach healed, and in a week after I got out." But the weakness which ensued, and the subsequent “hurrying about,” no doubt as cicerone of Parisian sights to his wife and daughter, “made me think it high time to haste to Toulouse.” Accordingly, about the 20th of the month, and “in the midst of such heats that the oldest Frenchman never remembers the like,” the party set off by way of Lyons and Montpellier for their Pyrenean destination. Their journey seems to have been a journey of many mischances, extraordinary discomfort, and incredible length; and it is not till the second week in August that we again take up the broken thread of his correspondence. Writing to Mr. Foley, his banker in Paris, on the 14th of that month, he speaks of its having taken him three weeks to reach Toulouse; and adds that “in our journey we suffered so much from the heats, it gives me pain to remember it. I never saw a cloud from Paris to Nismes half as broad as a twenty-four sols piece. Good God! we were toasted, roasted, grilled, stewed, carbonaded, on one side or other, all the way: and being all done through (_assez cuits_) in the day, we were eat up at night by bugs and other unswept-out vermin, the legal inhabitants, if length of possession give right, at every inn on the way.” A few miles from Beaucaire he broke a hind wheel of his carriage, and was obliged in consequence “to sit five hours on a gravelly road without one drop of water, or possibility of getting any;” and here, to mend the matter, he was cursed with “two dough-hearted fools” for postilions, who “fell a-crying ’nothing was to be done!’” and could only be recalled to a worthier and more helpful mood by Sterne’s “pulling off his coat and waistcoat,” and “threatening to thrash them both within an inch of their lives.”

The longest journey, however, must come to an end; and the party found much to console them at Toulouse for the miseries of travel. They were fortunate enough to secure one of those large, old comfortable houses which were and, here and there, perhaps, still are to be hired on the outskirts of provincial towns, at a rent which would now be thought absurdly small; and Sterne writes in terms of high complacency of his temporary abode. “Excellent,” “well furnished,” “elegant beyond anything I ever looked for,” are some of the expressions of praise which it draws from him. He observes with pride that the “very great salle à compagnie is as large as Baron d’Holbach’s;” and he records with great satisfaction–as well he might–that for the use of this and a country house two miles out of town, “besides the enjoyment of gardens, which the landlord engaged to keep in order,” he was to pay no more than thirty pounds a year. “All things,” he adds, “are cheap in proportion: so we shall live here for a very, very little.”

And this, no doubt, was to Sterne a matter of some moment at this time. The expenses of his long and tedious journey must have been heavy; and the gold-yielding vein of literary popularity, which he had for three years been working, had already begun to show signs of exhaustion. Tristram Shandy had lost its first vogue; and the fifth and sixth volumes, the copyright of which he does not seem to have disposed of, were “going off” but slowly.


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
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