By H.D. Traill

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Chapter IV: “Tristram Shandy,” Vols. I. and II.


Hitherto we have had to construct our conception of Sterne out of materials of more or less plausible conjecture. We are now at last approaching the region of positive evidence, and henceforward, down almost to the last scene of all, Sterne’s doings will be chronicled, and his character revealed, by one who happens, in this case, to be the best of all possible biographers–the man himself. Not that such records are by any means always the most trustworthy of evidence. There are some men whose real character is never more effectually concealed than in their correspondence. But it is not so with Sterne. The careless, slipshod letters which Madame de Medalle “pitchforked" into the book-market, rather than edited, are highly valuable as pieces of autobiography. They are easy, nave, and natural, rich in simple self-disclosure in almost every page; and if they have more to tell us about the man than the writer, they are yet not wanting in instructive hints as to Sterne’s methods of composition and his theories of art.

It was in the year 1759 that the Vicar of Sutton and Prebendary of York–already, no doubt, a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to many worthy people in the county–conceived the idea of astonishing and scandalizing them still further after a new and original fashion. His impulses to literary production were probably various, and not all of them, or perhaps the strongest of them, of the artistic order. The first and most urgent was, it may be suspected, the simplest and most common of all such motive forces. Sterne, in all likelihood, was in want of money. He was not, perhaps, under the actual instruction of that magister artium whom the Roman satirist has celebrated; for he declared, indeed, afterwards, that “he wrote not to be fed, but to be famous.” But the context of the passage shows that he only meant to deny any absolute compulsion to write for mere subsistence. Between this sort of constraint and that gentler form of pressure which arises from the wish to increase an income sufficient for one’s needs, but inadequate to one’s desires, there is a considerable difference; and to repudiate the one is not to disclaim the other. It is, at any rate, certain that Sterne engaged at one time of his life in a rather speculative sort of farming, and we have it from himself in a passage in one of his letters, which may be jest, but reads more like earnest, that it was his losses in this business that first turned his attention to literature.[1] His thoughts once set in that direction, his peculiar choice of subject and method of treatment are easily comprehensible. Pantagruelic burlesque came to him, if not naturally, at any rate by “second nature.” He had a strong and sedulously cultivated taste for Rabelaisian humour; his head was crammed with all sorts of out-of-the-way learning constantly tickling his comic sense by its very uselessness; he relished more keenly than any man the solemn futilities of mediaeval doctors, and the pedantic indecencies of casuist fathers; and, along with all these temptations to an enterprise of the kind upon which he entered, he had been experiencing a steady relaxation of deterrent restraints. He had fallen out with his uncle some years since,[2] and the quarrel had freed him from at least one influence making for clerical propriety of behaviour. His incorrigible levities had probably lost him the countenance of most of his more serious acquaintances; his satirical humour had as probably gained him personal enemies not a few, and it may be that he had gradually contracted something of that “naughty-boy” temper, as we may call it, for which the deliberate and ostentatious repetition of offences has an inexplicable charm. It seems clear, too, that, growth for growth with this spirit of bravado, there had sprung up–in somewhat incongruous companionship, perhaps–a certain sense of wrong. Along with the impulse to give an additional shock to the prejudices he had already offended, Sterne felt impelled to vindicate what he considered the genuine moral worth underlying the indiscretions of the offender. What, then, could better suit him than to compose a novel in which he might give full play to his simious humour, startle more hideously than ever his straighter-laced neighbours, defiantly defend his own character, and caricature whatever eccentric figure in the society around him might offer the most tempting butt for ridicule?

[Footnote 1: “I was once such a puppy myself,” he writes to a certain baronet whom he is attempting to discourage from speculative farming of this sort, “and had my labour for my pains and two hundred pounds out of pocket. Curse on farming! (I said). Let us see if the pen will not succeed better than the spade."]

[Footnote 2: He himself, indeed, makes a particular point of this in explaining his literary venture. “Now for your desire,” he writes to a correspondent in 1759, “of knowing the reason of my turning author? why, truly I am tired of employing my brains for other people’s advantage. ’Tis a foolish sacrifice I have made for some years for an ungrateful person."–Letters, i. 82.]

All the world knows how far he ultimately advanced beyond the simplicity of the conception, and into what far higher regions of art its execution led him. But I find no convincing reason for believing that Tristram Shandy had at the outset any more seriously artistic purpose than this; and much indirect evidence that this, in fact, it was.

The humorous figure of Mr. Shandy is, of course, the Cervantic centre of the whole; and it was out of him and his crotchets that Sterne, no doubt, intended from the first to draw the materials of that often unsavoury fun which was to amuse the light-minded and scandalize the demure. But it can hardly escape notice that the two most elaborate portraits in Vol. I.–the admirable but very flatteringly idealized sketch of the author himself in Yorick, and the Gilrayesque caricature of Dr. Slop–are drawn with a distinctly polemical purpose, defensive in the former case and offensive in the latter. On the other hand, with the disappearance of Dr. Slop caricature of living persons disappears also; while, after the famous description of Yorick’s death-bed, we meet with no more attempts at self-vindication. It seems probable, therefore, that long before the first two volumes were completed Sterne had discovered the artistic possibilities of “My Uncle Toby” and “Corporal Trim,” and had realized the full potentialities of humour contained in the contrast between the two brothers Shandy. The very work of sharpening and deepening the outlines of this humorous antithesis, while it made the crack-brained philosopher more and more of a burlesque unreality, continually added new touches of life and nature to the lineaments of the simple-minded soldier; and it was by this curious and half-accidental process that there came to be added to the gallery of English fiction one of the most perfect and delightful portraits that it possesses.

We know from internal evidence that Tristram Shandy was begun in the early days of 1759; and the first two volumes were probably completed by about the middle of the year. “In the year 1760,” writes Sterne, “I went up to London to publish my two first volumes of Shandy.” And it is stated in a note to this passage, as cited in Scott’s memoir, that the first edition was published “the year before” in York. There is, however, no direct proof that it was in the hands of the public before the beginning of 1760, though it is possible that the date of its publication may just have fallen within the year. But, at all events, on the 1st of January, 1760, an advertisement in the Public Advertiser informed the world that “this day” was “published, printed on superfine writing-paper, &c., The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. York. Printed for and sold by John Hinxham, Bookseller in Stonegate.” The great London publisher, Dodslecy, to whom the book had been offered, and who had declined the venture, figures in the advertisement as the principal London bookseller from whom it was to be obtained. It seems that only a few copies were in the first instance sent up to the London market; but they fell into good hands, for there is evidence that Tristram Shandy had attracted the notice of at least one competent critic in the capital before the month of January was out. But though the metropolitan success of the book was destined to be delayed for still a month or two, in York it had already created a furore in more senses than one. For, in fact, and no wonder, it had in many quarters given the deepest offence. Its Rabelaisian license of incident and allusion was calculated to offend the proprieties–the provincial proprieties especially–even in that free-spoken age; and there was that in the book, moreover, which a provincial society may be counted on to abominate, with a keener if less disinterested abhorrence than any sins against decency. It contained, or was supposed to contain, a broadly ludicrous caricature of one well-known local physician; and an allusion, brief, indeed, and covert, but highly scandalous, to a certain “droll foible” attributed to another personage of much wider celebrity in the scientific world. The victim in the latter case was no longer living; and this circumstance brought upon Sterne a remonstrance from a correspondent, to which he replied in a letter so characteristic in many respects as to be worth quoting. His correspondent was a Dr. * * * * * (asterisks for which it is now impossible to substitute letters); and the burden of what seem to have been several communications in speech and writing on the subject was the maxim, “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” With such seriousness and severity had his correspondent dwelt upon this adage, that “at length,” writes Sterne, “you have made me as serious and as severe as yourself; but, that the humours you have stirred up might not work too potently within me, I have waited four days to cool myself before I could set pen to paper to answer you.” And thus he sets forth the results of his four days’ deliberation:

“’De mortuis nil nisi bonum.’ I declare I have considered the wisdom and foundation of it over and over again as dispassionately and charitably as a good Christian can, and, after all, I can find nothing in it, or make more of it than a nonsensical lullaby of some nurse, put into Latin by some pedant, to be chanted by some hypocrite to the end of the world for the consolation of departing lechers. ’Tis, I own, Latin, and I think that is all the weight it has, for, in plain English, ’tis a loose and futile position below a dispute. ’You are not to speak anything of the dead but what is good.’ Why so? Who says so? Neither reason nor Scripture. Inspired authors have done otherwise, and reason and common sense tell me that, if the characters of past ages and men are to be drawn at all, they are to be drawn like themselves, that is, with their excellences and their foibles; and it as much a piece of justice to the world, and to virtue, too, to do the one as the other. The ruling passion, et les garements du coeur, are the very things which mark and distinguish a man’s character, in which I would as soon leave out a man’s head as his hobby-horse. However, if, like the poor devil of a painter, we must conform to the pious canon, ’De mortuis,’ &c., which I own has a spice of piety in the sound of it, and be obliged to paint both our angels and our devils out of the same pot, I then infer that our Sydenhams and our Sangrados, our Lucretias and our Messalinas, our Somersets and our Bolingbrokes, are alike entitled to statues, and all the historians or satirists who have said otherwise since they departed this life, from Sallust to S––e, are guilty of the crimes you charge me with, ’cowardice and injustice.’ But why cowardice? ’Because ’tis not courage to attack a dead man who can’t defend himself.’ But why do you doctors attack such a one with your incision knife? Oh! for the good of the living. ’Tis my plea.”

And, having given this humorous twist to his argument, he glides off into extenuatory matter. He had not even, he protests, made as much as a surgical incision into his victim (Dr. Richard Mead, the friend of Bentley and of Newton, and a physician and physiologist of high repute in his day); he had but just scratched him, and that scarce skin-deep. As to the “droll foible” of Dr. Mead, which he had made merry with, “it was not first reported (even to the few who can understand the hint) by me, but known before by every chambermaid and footman within the bills of mortality"–a somewhat daring assertion, one would imagine, considering what the droll foible was; and Dr. Mead, continues Sterne, great man as he was, had, after all, not fared worse than “a man of twice his wisdom"–to wit Solomon, of whom the same remark had been made, that “they were both great men, and, like all mortal men, had each their ruling passion.”

The mixture of banter and sound reasoning in this reply is, no doubt, very skilful. But, unfortunately, neither the reasoning nor the banter happens to meet the case of this particular defiance of the “De mortuis” maxim, and as a serious defence against a serious charge (which was what the occasion required) Sterne’s answer is altogether futile. For the plea of “the good of the living,” upon which, after all, the whole defence, considered seriously, rests, was quite inapplicable as an excuse for the incriminated passage. The only living persons who could possibly be affected by it, for good or evil, were those surviving friends of the dead man, to whom Sterne’s allusion to what he called Dr. Mead’s “droll foible” was calculated to cause the deepest pain and shame.

The other matter of offence to Sterne’s Yorkshire readers was of a much more elaborate kind. In the person of Dr. Slop, the grotesque man-midwife, who was to have assisted, but missed assisting, at Tristram’s entry into the world, the good people of York were not slow to recognize the physical peculiarities and professional antecedents of Dr. Burton, the local accoucheur, whom Archdeacon Sterne had arrested as a Jacobite. That the portrait was faithful to anything but the external traits of the original, or was intended to reproduce anything more than these, Sterne afterwards denied; and we have certainly no ground for thinking that Burton had invited ridicule on any other than the somewhat unworthy ground of the curious ugliness of his face and figure. It is most unlikely that his success as a practitioner in a branch of the medical art in which imposture is the most easily detected, could have been earned by mere quackery; and he seems, moreover, to have been a man of learning in more kinds than one. The probability is that the worst that could be alleged against him was a tendency to scientific pedantry in his published writings, which was pretty sure to tickle the fancy of Mr. Sterne. Unscrupulously, however, as he was caricatured, the sensation which appears to have been excited in the county by the burlesque portrait could hardly have been due to any strong public sympathy with the involuntary sitter. Dr. Burton seems, as a suspected Jacobite, to have been no special favourite with the Yorkshire squirearchy in general, but rather the reverse thereof. Ucalegon, however, does not need to be popular to arouse his neighbour’s interest in his misfortunes; and the caricature of Burton was doubtless resented on the proximus ardetprinciple by many who feared that their turn was coming next.

To all the complaints and protests which reached him on the subject Sterne would in any case, probably, have been indifferent; but he was soon to receive encouragement which would have more than repaid a man of his temper for twice the number of rebukes. For London cared nothing for Yorkshire susceptibilities and Yorkshire fears. Provincial notables might be libelled, and their friends might go in fear of similar treatment, but all that was nothing to “the town,” and Tristram Shandy had taken the town by storm. We gather from a passage in the letter above quoted that as early as January 30 the book had “gained the very favourable opinion” of Mr. Garrick, afterwards to become the author’s intimate friend; and it is certain that by the time of Sterne’s arrival in London, in March, 1760, Tristram Shandy had become the rage.

To say of this extraordinary work that it defies analysis would be the merest inadequacy of commonplace. It was meant to defy analysis; it is of the very essence of its scheme and purpose that it should do so; and the mere attempt to subject it systematically to any such process would argue an altogether mistaken conception of the author’s intent. Its full “official" style and title is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., and it is difficult to say which it contains the less about–the opinions of Tristram Shandy or the events of his life. As a matter of fact, its proper description would be “The Opinions of Tristram Shandy’s Father, with some Passages from the Life of his Uncle.” Its claim to be regarded as a biography of its nominal hero is best illustrated by the fact that Tristram is not born till the third volume, and not breeched till the sixth; that it is not till the seventh that he begins to play any active part in the narrative, appearing then only as a completely colourless and unindividualized figure, a mere vehicle for the conveyance of Sterne’s own Continental impressions de voyage; and that in the last two volumes, which are entirely taken up with the incident of his uncle’s courtship, he disappears from the story altogether. It is to be presumed, perhaps, though not very confidently, that the reader would have seen more of him if the tale had been continued; but how much or how little is quite uncertain. The real hero of the book is at the outset Mr. Shandy, senior, who is, later on, succeeded in this place of dignity by my Uncle Toby. It not only served Sterne’s purpose to confine himself mainly to these two characters, as the best whereon to display his powers, but it was part of his studied eccentricity to do so. It was a “point” to give as little as possible about Tristram Shandy in a life of Tristram Shandy; just as it was a point to keep the reader waiting throughout the year 1760 for their hero to be so much as born. In the first volume, therefore, the author does literally everything but make the slightest progress with his story. Starting off abruptly with a mock physiologic disquisition upon the importance of a proper ordering of their mental states on the part of the intending progenitors of children, he philosophizes gravely on this theme for two or three chapters; and then wanders away into an account of the local midwife, upon whose sole services Mrs. Shandy, in opposition to her husband, was inclined to rely. From the midwife it is an easy transition to her patron and protector, the incumbent of the parish, and this, in its turn, suggests a long excursus on the character, habits, appearance, home, friends, enemies, and finally death, burial, and epitaph of the Rev. Mr. Yorick. Thence we return to Mr. and Mrs. Shandy, and are made acquainted, in absurdly minute detail, with an agreement entered into between them with reference to the place of sojourn to be selected for the lady’s accouchement, the burlesque deed which records this compact being actually set out at full length. Thence, again, we are beckoned away by the jester to join him in elaborate and not very edifying ridicule of the Catholic doctrine of ante-natal baptism; and thence–but it would be useless to follow further the windings and doublings of this literary hare.

Yet though the book, as one thus summarizes it, may appear a mere farrago of digressions, it nevertheless, after its peculiar fashion, advances. Such definite purpose as underlies the tricks and grimaces of its author is by degrees accomplished; and before we reach the end of the first volume the highly humorous, if extravagantly idealized, figure of Mr. Shandy takes bodily shape and consistency before our eyes. It is a mistake, I think, of Sir Walter Scott’s to regard the portrait of this eccentric philosopher as intended for a satire upon perverted and deranged erudition–as the study of a man “whom too much and too miscellaneous learning had brought within a step or two of madness.” Sterne’s conception seems to me a little more subtle and less commonplace than that. Mr. Shandy, I imagine, is designed to personify not “crack-brained learning” so much as “theory run mad.” He is possessed by a sort of Demon of the Deductive, ever impelling him to push his premises to new conclusions without ever allowing him time to compare them with the facts. No doubt we are meant to regard him as a learned man; but his son gives us to understand distinctly and very early in the book that his crotchets were by no means those of a weak receptive mind, overladen with more knowledge than it could digest, but rather those of an over-active intelligence, far more deeply and constantly concerned with its own processes than with the thoughts of others. Tristram, indeed, dwells pointedly on the fact that his father’s dialectical skill was not the result of training, and that he owed nothing to the logic of the schools. “He was certainly,” says his son, “irresistible both in his orations and disputations,” but that was because “he was born an orator ([Greek: Theodidaktos]). Persuasion hung upon his lips, and the elements of logic and rhetoric were so blended in him, and withal he had so shrewd a guess at the weaknesses and passions of his respondent, that Nature might have stood up and said, ’This man is eloquent.’ And yet,” continues the filial panegyric,

  “He had never read Cicero nor Quintilian de Oratore, nor Aristotle,
  nor Longinus among the ancients, nor Vossius, nor Skioppius, nor
  Ramus, nor Farnaby among the moderns: and what is more astonishing
  he had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtilty
  struck into his mind by one single lecture upon Crackenthorpe or
  Burgersdicius or any Dutch commentator: he knew not so much as
  in what the difference of an argument ad ignorantiam and an argument
  ad hominem consisted; and when he went up along with me to
  enter my name at Jesus College, in * * * *, it was a matter of just
  wonder with my worthy tutor and two or three Fellows of that learned
  society that a man who knew not so much as the names of his tools
  should be able to work after that fashion with them.”

Surely we all know men of this kind, and the consternation–comparable only to that of M. Jourdain under the impromptu carte-and-tierce of his servant-maid–which their sturdy if informal dialectic will often spread among many kinds of “learned societies.” But such men are certainly not of the class which Scott supposed to have been ridiculed in the character of Walter Shandy.

Among the crotchets of this born dialectician was a theory as to the importance of Christian names in determining the future behaviour and destiny of the children to whom they are given; and, whatever admixture of jest there might have been in some of his other fancies, in this his son affirms he was absolutely serious. He solemnly maintained the opinion “that there was a strange kind of magic bias which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impressed upon our character and conduct.” How many Caesars and Pompeys, he would say, by mere inspiration of their names have been rendered worthy of them! And how many, he would add, are there who might have done exceeding well in the world had not their characters and spirits been totally depressed and Nicodemus’d into nothing! He was astonished at parents failing to perceive that “when once a vile name was wrongfully or injudiciously given, ’twas not like a case of a man’s character, which, when wronged, might afterwards be cleared; and possibly some time or other, if not in the man’s life, at least after his death, be somehow or other set to rights with the world.” This name-giving injury, he would say, “could never be undone; nay, he doubted whether an Act of Parliament could reach it; he knew, as well as you, that the Legislature assumed a power over surnames; but for very strong reasons, which he could give, it had never yet adventured, he would say, to go a step further.”

With all this extravagance, however, there was combined an admirable affectation of sobriety. Mr. Shandy would have us believe that he was no blind slave to his theory. He was quite willing to admit the existence of names which could not affect the character either for good or evil–Jack, Dick, and Tom, for instance; and such the philosopher styled “neutral names,” affirming of them, “without a satire, that there had been as many knaves and fools at least as wise and good men since the world began, who had indifferently borne them, so that, like equal forces acting against each other in contrary directions, he thought they mutually destroyed each other’s effects; for which reason he would often declare he would not give a cherry-stone to choose among them. Bob, which was my brother’s name, was another of these neutral kinds of Christian names which operated very little either way; and as my father happened to be at Epsom when it was given him, he would ofttimes thank Heaven it was no worse." Forewarned of this peculiarity of Mr.

Shandy’s, the reader is, of course, prepared to hear that of all the names in the universe the philosopher had the most unconquerable aversion for Tristram, “the lowest and most contemptible opinion of it of anything in the world.” He would break off in the midst of one of his frequent disputes on the subject of names, and “in a spirited epiphonema, or rather erotesis,” demand of his antagonist “whether he would take upon him to say he had ever remembered, whether he had ever read, or whether he had ever heard tell of a man called Tristram performing anything great or worth recording. No, he would say. Tristram! the thing is impossible.” It only remained that he should have published a book in defence of the belief, and sure enough “in the year sixteen,” two years before the birth of his second son, “he was at the pains of writing an express dissertation simply upon the word Tristram, showing the world with great candour and modesty the grounds of his great abhorrence to the name.” And with this idea Sterne continues to amuse himself at intervals till the end of the chapter.

That he does not so persistently amuse the reader it is, of course, scarcely necessary to say. The jest has not substance enough–few of Sterne’s jests have–to stand the process of continual attrition to which he subjects it. But the mere historic gravity with which the various turns of this monomania are recorded–to say nothing of the seldom failing charm of the easy, gossiping style–prevents the thing from ever becoming utterly tiresome. On the whole, however, one begins to grow impatient for more of the same sort as the three admirable chapters on the Rev. Mr. Yorick, and is not sorry to get to the opening of the second volume, with its half-tender, half-humorous, and wholly delightful account of Uncle Toby’s difficulties in describing the siege operations before Namur, and of the happy chance by which these difficulties made him ultimately the fortunate possessor of a “hobby.”

Throughout this volume there are manifest signs of Sterne’s unceasing interest in his own creations, and of his increasing consciousness of creative power. Captain Toby Shandy is but just lightly sketched-in the first volume, while Corporal Trim has not made his appearance on the scene at all; but before the end of the second we know both of them thoroughly, within and without. Indeed, one might almost say that in the first half-dozen chapters which so excellently recount the origin of the corporal’s fortification scheme, and the wounded officer’s delighted acceptance of it, every trait in the simple characters–alike yet so different in their simplicity–of master and of man becomes definitely fixed in the reader’s mind. And the total difference between the second and the first volume in point of fulness, variety, and colour is most marked. The artist, the inventor, the master of dialogue, the comic dramatist, in fact, as distinct from the humorous essayist, would almost seem to have started into being as we pass from the one volume to the other. There is nothing in the drolleries of the first volume–in the broad jests upon Mr. Shandy’s crotchets, or even in the subtler humour of the intellectual collision between these crotchets and his brother’s plain sense–to indicate the kind of power displayed in that remarkable colloquy quatre, which begins with the arrival of Dr. Slop and ends with Corporal Trim’s recital of the Sermon on Conscience. Wit, humour, irony, quaint learning, shrewd judgment of men and things, of these Sterne had displayed abundance already; but it is not in the earlier but in the later half of the first instalment of Tristram Shandy that we first become conscious that he is something more than the possessor of all these things; that he is gifted with the genius of creation, and has sent forth new beings into that world of immortal shadows which to many of us is more real than our own.


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