The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sterne, Laurence

Edition of 1920. See also Laurence Sterne on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

STERNE, Laurence, English humorist: b. Clonmel, Ireland, 24 Nov. 1713; d. London, 18 March 1768, He was a great-grandson of Richard Sterne, the master of Jesus College, who attended Laud to the scaffold and afterwards became archbishop of York. The archbishop's third son, named Simon, married Mary Jaques, heiress to the lordship of Elvington, near York, on the river Derwent, and subsequently purchased Woodhouse Hall in the parish of Halifax. Their eldest son Richard succeeded to the two estates. Jaques, the third son, entered the church, and rose to many dignities, including an archdeaconry. Between them was born Roger Sterne, father of the humorist, who turned for a career to the army. When a mere stripling, Roger Sterne was appointed an ensign in the 34th regiment of foot and passed the rest of his life in service on the continent or in English and Irish barracks. He took part in the siege and capture of Vigo and in the defence of Gibraltar. In 1711 he married at Dunkirk, Agnes Hebert, of a humble Irish family and widow to a brother officer. Of their seven children only three lived beyond the fourth year. For 10 years the boy moved about with his parents from place to place, wherever the regiment happened to be stationed. Eventually the poor ensign left his family and went out to Jamaica, where he died of fever in 1731. As Laurence remembered him, Roger Sterne was “a little smart man . . . most patient of fatigue and disappointments . . . in temper somewhat rapid and hasty, but of a kindly, sweet disposition.”

Long before this, Laurence had been placed, by the aid of his uncle Richard, in the Halifax grammar school, where he was kept at his accidence for some seven years, and then sent to Cambridge on an allowance of £30 a year. Laurence Steme was admitted to Jesus College as a sizar in 1733, and the next year he was elected to one of the several scholarships founded by his great grandfather. At the university the young man in no way distinguished himself, and in after life he ridiculed the curriculum. Graduating A.B., in January 1736-37, he was ordained deacon in the following March. In 1738 he was admitted to the priesthood and obtained, through the influence of his uncle Jaques, the vicarage of Sutton-in-the-Forest, eight miles from York. To this preferment was soon added the neighboring Stillington and a prebendal stall in York minster. On 30 March 1741 he married Elizabeth, daughter to Robert Lumley, sometime rector of Bedale, and immediately settled in the parsonage at Sutton. He lived there for 20 years. Two daughters were born, of whom only Lydia reached maturity. Besides officiating in his two parishes and taking his turns at preaching in the cathedral, the vicar cultivated his glebe and purchased two farms for large crops of oats and barley. He amused himself with fiddling and painting, read hundreds of books on all sorts of subjects and visited extensively among convival squires. Possessing a facile pen, he wrote for a time political articles for his uncle Jaques, and twice he appeared in print with a sermon. A pamphlet called ‘A Political Romance’ (January 1795) brought to a gay close a hot dispute then waging in the York chapter. Aware now that he could write so as to make his reader laugh, he began ‘The Life and Opinions, of Tristram Shandy, Gent,’ the first two volumes of which were given to the public in December 1759. In the following march Sterne went up to London and met his great fame. After seeing through the press a second edition of his book and two volumes of sermons, he returned to the north and settled at Coxwold, a parish at the foot of the Hambleton Hills, which had been bestowed upon him by Lord Fauconberg. In the parsonage there, renamed Shady Hall, Sterne went on with his comic romance, nine volumes in the whole, which appeared in further instalments near the beginning of several years down to 1767. Two more volumes of sermons were issued in 1765.

Never strong, Sterne broke down in January 1762, and hurried across the channel. After a brief stay in Paris, where statesmen, philosophers and the world of fashion crowded about him, he moved south to Toulouse, where he was joined by wife and daughter. He remained in southern France till the summer of 1764, when he returned alone to Coxwold. His health failing again, he set out for France in October 1765 on his famous sentimental journey. He traveled mostly by chaise from Calais via Montreuil to Paris, on to the south through Languedoc and then crossing over into Italy on to Rome and Naples. He was back at Coxwold in the summer of 1766. All this time his wife and daughter remained abroad. While in London for the winter of 1766-67, Sterne met and fell in love with Mrs. Elizabeth Draper, wife to a writer in the service of the East India Company. She sailed for India in April 1767 and poor Yorick was left broken-hearted. Mrs. Draper is the Eliza of the ‘Sentimental Journey’ and of a series of letters. After her departure for India, Sterne had a serious illness from which he barely recovered. In June he returned to Coxwold, where he recorded his sensations from day to day in a journal he kept for Eliza, and began ‘A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.’ In the following January he went up to London with the new book, which was published on 26 Feb. 1768. He soon took to his bed and died 18 March 1768 at his lodgings in Old Bond street. At the time he was alone save for a nurse and a footman whom friends had sent to inquire after him. Four days later he was buried in Saint George's cemetery on the Bayswater road. According to a story which is probably true, his body was taken up and sold for dissection to the professors of anatomy at Cambridge. The next year Mrs. Sterne swept his study for three more volumes of sermons; and in 1775, Lydia, then Mrs. Medalle, brought out her father's letters and brief autobiography.

Stem's career appeals strongly to the imagination. An obscure country parson till his 47th year, he at once became known throughout western Europe. Everybody wished to see the man who had written ‘Tristram Shandy.’ In London and in Paris there always awaited him “dinners a fortnight deep.” A letter addressed to ‘Mr. Tristram Shandy, Europe,’ was handed him by the postboy on the way to Sutton. When Lessing heard of Yorick's death, he said that he would gladly have given him five years from his own life. See Sentimental Journey, A; and Tristram Shandy.

Bibliography. — In 1780, Sterne's original publishers issued his work in 10 volumes. Of the numerous reprints, the best is the one edited by J. P. Brown (London 1873). It includes some additional letters. The convenient edition by Saintsbury (6 vols., London 1894) omits most of the sermons. The ‘Works and Life’ (12 vols., New York 1904), edited by Cross, contains the recently recovered ‘Journal to Eliza,’ additions to the correspondence, Mrs. Draper's letters to friends in England, a body of anecdotes, and the ‘Life’ (annotated) by Fitzgerald. This standard biography by Fitzgerald, published in 1864, was revised in 1896 and reprinted in 1905. Consult also Traill's ‘Laurence Sterne’ in ‘English Men of Letters Series’ (London and New York 1882); Stapfer's ‘Laurence Sterne, sa personne at ses ouvrages’ (Paris 1870), and Thackeray's ‘English Humorists.’ Of more special interest are Texte's ‘Rousseau et le cosmopolitisme littèrarie au XVIIIème siècle’ (Paris 1895), and Thayer's ‘Laurence Sterne in Germany,’ with a bibliography (New York 1905).

Professor of English, Yale Univertity.