By H.D. Traill

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Chapter II: School and University.–halifax and Cambridge


It was not–as we have seen from the Memoir–till the autumn of 1723, “or the spring of the following year,” that Roger Sterne obtained leave of his colonel to “fix” his son at school; and this would bring Laurence to the tolerably advanced age of ten before beginning his education in any systematic way. He records, under date of 1721, that “in this year I learned to write, &c.;” but it is not probable that the “&c."–that indolent symbol of which Sterne makes such irritating use in all his familiar writing–covers, in this case, any wide extent of educational advance. The boy, most likely, could just read and write, and no more, at the time when he was fixed at school, “near Halifax, with an able master:” a judicious selection, no doubt, both of place as well as teacher. Mr. Fitzgerald, to whose researches we owe as much light as is ever likely to be thrown upon this obscure and probably not very interesting period of Sterne’s life, has pointed out that Richard Sterne, eldest son of the late Simon Sterne, and uncle, therefore, of Laurence, was one of the governors of Halifax Grammar School, and that he may have used his interest to obtain his nephew’s admission to the foundation as the grandson of a Halifax man, and so, constructively, a child of the parish. But, be this as it may, it is more than probable that from the time when he was sent to Halifax School the whole care and cost of the boy’s education was borne by his Yorkshire relatives. The Memoir says that, “by God’s care of me, my cousin Sterne, of Elvington, became a father to me, and sent me to the University, &c., &c.;” and it is to be inferred from this that the benevolent guardianship of Sterne’s uncle Richard (who died in 1732, the year before Laurence was admitted of Jesus College, Cambridge) must have been taken up by his son. Of his school course–though it lasted for over seven years–the autobiographer has little to say; nothing, indeed, except that he “cannot omit mentioning” that anecdote with which everybody, I suppose, who has ever come across the briefest notice of Sterne’s life is familiar. The schoolmaster “had the ceiling of the schoolroom new-whitewashed, and the ladder remained there. I, one unlucky day, mounted it, and wrote with a brush, in large capital letters, LAU. STERNE for which the usher severely whipped me. My master was very much hurt at this, and said before me that never should that name be effaced, for I was a boy of genius, and he was sure I should come to preferment. This expression made me forget the blows I had received.” It is hardly to be supposed, of course, that this story is pure romance; but it is difficult, on the other hand, to believe that the incident has been related by Sterne exactly as it happened. That the recorded prediction may have been made in jest–or even in earnest (for penetrating teachers have these prophetic moments sometimes)–is, of course, possible; but that Sterne’s master was “very much hurt” at the boy’s having been justly punished for an act of wanton mischief, or that he recognized it as the natural privilege of nascent genius to deface newly-whitewashed ceilings, must have been a delusion of the humourist’s later years. The extreme fatuity which it would compel us to attribute to the schoolmaster seems inconsistent with the power of detecting intellectual capacity in any one else. On the whole, one inclines to suspect that the remark belonged to that order of half sardonic, half kindly jest which a certain sort of pedagogue sometimes throws off, for the consolation of a recently-caned boy; and that Sterne’s vanity, either then or afterwards (for it remained juvenile all his life), translated it into a serious prophecy. In itself, however, the urchin’s freak was only too unhappily characteristic of the man. The trick of befouling what was clean (and because it was clean) clung to him most tenaciously all his days; and many a fair white surface–of humour, of fancy, or of sentiment–was to be disfigured by him in after-years with stains and splotches in which we can all too plainly decipher the literary signature of Laurence Sterne.

At Halifax School the boy, as has been said, remained for about eight years; that is, until he was nearly nineteen, and for some months after his father’s death at Port Antonio, which occurred in March, 1731. “In the year ’32,” says the Memoir, “my cousin sent me to the University, where I stayed some time.” In the course of his first year he read for and obtained a sizarship, to which the college records show that he was duly admitted on the 6th of July, 1733. The selection of Jesus College was a natural one: Sterne’s great-grandfather, the afterwards Archbishop, had been its Master, and had founded scholarships there, to one of which the young sizar was, a year after his admission, elected. No inference can, of course, be drawn from this as to Sterne’s proficiency, or even industry, in his academical studies: it is scarcely more than a testimony to the fact of decent and regular behaviour. He was bene natus, in the sense of being related to the right man, the founder; and in those days he need be only very modicé doctus indeed in order to qualify himself for admission to the enjoyment of his kinsman’s benefactions. Still he must have been orderly and well-conducted in his ways; and this he would also seem to have been, from the fact of his having passed through his University course without any apparent break or hitch, and having been admitted to his Bachelor’s degree after no more than the normal period of residence. The only remark which, in the Memoir, he vouchsafes to bestow upon his academical career is, that “’twas there that I commenced a friendship with Mr. H––, which has been lasting on both sides;” and it may, perhaps, be said that this was, from one point of view, the most important event of his Cambridge life. For Mr. H–– was John Hall, afterwards John Hall Stevenson, the “Eugenius” of Tristram Shandy, the master of Skelton Castle, at which Sterne was, throughout life, to be a frequent and most familiar visitor; and, unfortunately, also a person whose later reputation, both as a man and a writer, became such as seriously to compromise the not very robust respectability of his clerical comrade. Sterne and Hall were distant cousins, and it may have been the tie of consanguinity which first drew them together. But there was evidently a thorough congeniality of the most unlucky sort between them; and from their first meeting, as undergraduates at Jesus, until the premature death of the elder, they continued to supply each other’s minds with precisely that sort of occupation and stimulus of which each by the grace of nature stood least in need. That their close intimacy was ill-calculated to raise Sterne’s reputation in later years may be inferred from the fact that Hall Stevenson afterwards obtained literary notoriety by the publication of Crazy Tales, a collection of comic but extremely broad ballads, in which his clerical friend was quite unjustly suspected of having had a hand. Mr. Hall was also reported, whether truly or falsely, to have been a member of Wilkes’s famous confraternity of Medmenham Abbey; and from this it was an easy step for gossip to advance to the assertion that the Rev. Mr. Sterne had himself been admitted to that unholy order.

Among acquaintances which the young sizar of Jesus might have more profitably made at Cambridge, but did not, was that of a student destined, like himself, to leave behind him a name famous in English letters. Gray, born three years later than Sterne, had entered a year after him at Cambridge as a pensioner of Peterhouse, and the two students went through their terms together, though the poet at the time took no degree. There was probably little enough in common between the shy, fastidious, slightly effeminate pensioner of Peterhouse, and a scholar of Jesus, whose chief friend and comrade was a man like Hall; and no close intimacy between the two men, if they had come across each other, would have been very likely to arise. But it does not appear that they could have ever met or heard of each other, for Gray writes of Sterne, after Tristram Shandy had made him famous, in terms which clearly show that he did not recall his fellow-undergraduate.

In January, 1736, Sterne took his B.A. degree, and quitted Cambridge for York, where another of his father’s brothers now makes his appearance as his patron. Dr. Jacques Sterne was the second son of Simon Sterne, of Elvington, and a man apparently of more marked and vigorous character than any of his brothers. What induced him now to take notice of the nephew, whom in boyhood and early youth he had left to the unshared guardianship of his brother, and brother’s son, does not appear; but the personal history of this energetic pluralist–Prebendary of Durham, Archdeacon of Cleveland, Canon Residentiary, Precentor, Prebendary, and Archdeacon of York, Rector of Rise, and Rector of Hornsey-cum-Riston–suggests the surmise that he detected qualities in the young Cambridge graduate which would make him useful. For Dr. Sterne was a typical specimen of the Churchman-politician, in days when both components of the compound word meant a good deal more than they do now. The Archdeacon was a devoted Whig, a Hanoverian to the backbone; and he held it his duty to support the Protestant succession, not only by the spiritual but by the secular arm. He was a great electioneerer, as befitted times when the claims of two rival dynasties virtually met upon the hustings, and he took a prominent part in the great Yorkshire contest of the year 1734. His most vigorous display of energy, however, was made, as was natural, in “the ’45.” The Whig Archdeacon, not then Archdeacon of the East Riding, nor as yet quite buried under the mass of preferments which he afterwards accumulated, seems to have thought that this indeed was the crisis of his fortunes, and that, unless he was prepared to die a mere prebendary, canon, and rector of one or two benefices, now was the time to strike a blow for his advancement in the Church. His bustling activity at this trying time was indeed portentous, and at last took the form of arresting the unfortunate Dr. Burton (the original of Dr. Slop), on suspicion of holding communication with the invading army of the Pretender, then on its march southward from Edinburgh. The suspect, who was wholly innocent, was taken to London and kept in custody for nearly a year before being discharged, after which, by way of a slight redress, a letter of reprimand for his trop de zèle was sent by direction of Lord Carteret to the militant dignitary. But the desired end was nevertheless attained, and Dr. Sterne succeeded in crowning the edifice of his ecclesiastical honours.[1]

[Footnote 1: A once-familiar piece of humorous verse describes the upset of a coach containing a clerical pluralist:

  “When struggling on the ground was seen
  A Rector, Vicar, Canon, Dean;
  You might have thought the coach was full,
  But no! ’twas only Dr. Bull.”

Dr. Jacques Sterne, however, might have been thrown out of one of the more capacious vehicles of the London General Omnibus Company, with almost the same misleading effect upon those who only heard of the mishap.]

There can be little doubt that patronage extended by such an uncle to such a nephew received its full equivalent in some way or other, and indeed the Memoir gives us a clue to the mode in which payment was made. “My uncle,” writes Sterne, describing their subsequent rupture, “quarrelled with me because I would not write paragraphs in the newspapers; though he was a party-man, I was not, and detested such dirty work, thinking it beneath me. From that time he became my bitterest enemy.” The date of this quarrel cannot be precisely fixed; but we gather from an autograph letter (now in the British Museum) from Sterne to Archdeacon Blackburne that by the year 1750 the two men had for some time ceased to be on friendly terms. Probably, however, the breach occurred subsequently to the rebellion of ’45, and it may be that it arose out of the excess of partisan zeal which Dr. Sterne developed in that year, and which his nephew very likely did not, in his opinion, sufficiently share. But this is quite consistent with the younger man’s having up to that time assisted the elder in his party polemics. He certainly speaks in his “Letters” of his having “employed his brains for an ungrateful person,” and the remark is made in a way and in a connexion which seems to imply that the services rendered to his uncle were mainly literary. If so, his declaration that he “would not write paragraphs in the newspapers” can only mean that he would not go on writing them. Be this as it may, however, it is certain that the Archdeacon for some time found his account in maintaining friendly relations with his nephew, and that during that period he undoubtedly did a good deal for his advancement. Sterne was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln in March, 1736, only three months after taking his B.A. degree, and took priest’s orders in August, 1738, whereupon his uncle immediately obtained for him the living of Sutton-on-the-Forest, into which he was inducted a few days afterwards. Other preferments followed, to be noted hereafter; and it must be admitted that until the quarrel occurred about the “party paragraphs” the Archdeacon did his duty by his nephew after the peculiar fashion of that time. When that quarrel came, however, it seems to have snapped more ties than one, for in the Memoir Sterne speaks of his youngest sister Catherine as “still living, but most unhappily estranged from me by my uncle’s wickedness and her own folly.” Of his elder sister Mary, who was born at Lille a year before himself, he records that “she married one Weemans in Dublin, who used her most unmercifully, spent his substance, became a bankrupt, and left my poor sister to shift for herself, which she was able to do but for a few months, for she went to a friend’s house in the country and died of a broken heart.” Truly an unlucky family.[1] Only three to survive the hardships among which the years of their infancy were passed, and this to be the history of two out of the three survivors!

[Footnote 1: The mother, Mrs. Sterne, makes her appearance once more for a moment in or about the year 1758. Horace Walpole, and after him Byron, accused Sterne of having “preferred whining over a dead ass to relieving a living mother,” and the former went so far as to declare “on indubitable authority” that Mrs. Sterne, “who kept a school (in Ireland), having run in debt on account of an extravagant daughter, would have rotted in a gaol if the parents of her scholars had not raised a subscription for her.” Even “the indubitable authority," however, does not positively assert–whatever may be meant to be insinuated–that Sterne himself did nothing to assist his mother, and Mr. Fitzgerald justly points out that to pay the whole debts of a bankrupt school might well have been beyond a Yorkshire clergyman’s means. Anyhow there is evidence that Sterne at a later date than this was actively concerning himself about his mother’s interests. She afterwards came to York, whither he went to meet her; and he then writes to a friend: “I trust my poor mother’s affair is by this time ended to our comfort and hers."]


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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