Few of Reverend Laurence Sterne's Yorkshire parishioners could have anticipated his sudden and spectacular transformation from country parson to one of the most internationally-famous novelists of the eighteenth century. Had they been forewarned, they all could have predicted that his favourite themes would be sex and laughter. His sermon on the Sunday after his marriage in 1741 was a discourse upon Luke 5:5 -- "We have toiled all night, and have taken nothing." Sterne's usual pulpit technique was to trot out the predictable scriptural passage and then, heads nodding, trump it: " 'It is better to go to a house of mourning than a house of feasting...sorrow is better than laughter ' -- for a crack-brained order of Carthusian monks, I grant, but not for men of the world...."
Sterne's best friend was an eccentric Yorkshire nobleman who officially renamed the family seat, "Crazy Castle." Here he would host monthly meetings of a group called "The Demoniacs," with Sterne in enthusiastic attendance. Such pastimes were not compatible with career advancement; when Sterne's mother was put in debtor's prison, and his wife's mental state led her to be convinced that she was the Queen of Bohemia, his slow rise through the church hierarchy got even slower. In his mid-forties, and with little left to lose, Sterne began his satiric, nine-volume wonder of the literary world, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
The word "shandy" was a Yorkshire term for 'daft.' In Tristram Shandy, Sterne's slightly touched hero, and his clown-parson Yorick, and his madcap Uncle Toby run riot over the serious and moral-minded. When Bishop Warburton asked Sterne to tone his next volumes down, he said he'd try, "though laugh my lord, I will, and as loud as I can too." My book, he said, "is for the laughing-part of the world -- for the melancholy part of it, I have nothing but my prayers -- so God help them."
Part of the joke is at the expense of logic and science, which Sterne sees as ego, all dressed up in cause-and-effect but nowhere to go. But the laugh is at literature too. In the first, golden age of the English novel, fiction meant travel books, The Life and Adventures of ... somebody or other. Robinson Crusoe went to a realistic island; Gulliver went to imaginary ones; Tom Jones and Moll Flanders went to bed. Adventures of a Guinea was about a coin passed hand to hand; Adventures of an Atom was a smutty account of an atom, originally Japanese, traveling body to body through British political life.
Sterne's book was at the satiric end of the line. His description of it as a "cock and bull" story of "transverse zig-zaggery" does not go far enough, though it seems preferable to the more recent label of "post-modern meta-novel." If you could find a plot in the book, you could call most of the events digressions. There are misplaced chapters, sentences that begin in one volume and finish in the next, doodles and empty black pages. The dedication is in the middle of Volume I. The hero doesn't get born until Volume III, and is only five at the end of Volume IX. "I can conceive a man saying that it would be droll to write a book in that manner," said a reviewer in 1760, "but have no notion of his persevering in executing it."
It is Tristram's belief that the mould for his misadventures was cast early, at conception. Mr. Shandy was a regular man, and on the first Sunday evening of every month it was his habit to perform two household duties. The first was to wind the big family clock; the second was discharged upon retiring. The sound of the clock being wound aroused little more than apprehension in Mrs. Shandy, invariably causing her to be suddenly very busy. Still, Mr. Shandy's second duty was not normally denied. On the Sunday in question, Mr. Shandy was fully wound, but Mrs. Shandy does not appear to have been concentrating:
Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? -------------Good G--! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, ------- Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?
The physiology of Tristram's misfertilization is unclear, but Sterne's young hero never quite finds his composure.
The book was an immediate sensation, and for the last eight years of his life Sterne was the toast of high-society Europe. He died on March 18, 1768, jabbing at his befuddled and morally-outraged critics to the end: "It is too much," mock-moaned the simple country parson, "to write books and find heads to understand them."