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Laurence Sterne: Giving Voice to Tristram Shandy

Portrait of Laurence Sterne by Joshua Reynolds, 1760

Laurence Sterne, a contemporary of Jane Austen’s own clerical father, George Austen (1731-1805) was a well known voice to the Austen family. Letters both to and from Jane allude to his writings, and Maria Bertram actually quotes from his Sentimental Journey in chapter 10 of Mansfield Park. Sterne’s most familiar work The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) shares themes with another famously comic novel, Henry Fielding’s 1749 The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, which Jane Austen was also familiar with. How these two (sometimes shocking) novels influenced her own writing is difficult to say.

Portrait of Laurence Sterne by Joshua Reynolds, 1760
Portrait of Laurence Sterne by Joshua Reynolds, 1760

Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) was an Anglo-Irish novelist and an Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novels The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy; but he also published many sermons, wrote memoirs, and was involved in local politics. Sterne died in London after years of fighting consumption.

Sterne was born in Clonmel, County Tipperary. His father, Roger Sterne, was an ensign in a British regiment recently returned from Dunkirk, which was disbanded on the day of Sterne’s birth. Within six months the family had returned to Yorkshire, and in July 1715 they moved back to Ireland, having “decamped with Bag & Baggage for Dublin”, in Sterne’s words.

The first decade of Sterne’s life was spent moving from place to place as his father was reassigned throughout Ireland. During this period Sterne never lived in one place for more than a year. In addition to Clonmel and Dublin, his family also lived in, among other places, Wicklow Town, Annamoe (County Wicklow), Drogheda (County Louth), Castlepollard (County Westmeath), and Carrickfergus (County Antrim). In 1724, his father took Sterne to Roger’s wealthy brother, Richard, so that Sterne could attend Hipperholme Grammar School near Halifax; Sterne never saw his father again as Roger was ordered to Jamaica where he died of a fever in 1731. Sterne was admitted to a sizarship at Jesus College, Cambridge, in July 1733 at the age of 20. His great-grandfather Richard Sterne had been the Master of the college as well as the Archbishop of York. Sterne graduated with a degree of Bachelor of Arts in January 1737; and returned in the summer of 1740 to be awarded his Master of Arts degree.

Sterne was ordained as a deacon in March 1737 and as a priest in August 1738. Shortly thereafter Sterne was awarded the vicarship living of Sutton-on-the-Forest in Yorkshire. Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley in 1741. Both were ill with consumption. In 1743, he was presented to the neighbouring living of Stillington by Rev. Richard Levett, Prebendary of Stillington, who was patron of the living. Subsequently Sterne did duty both there and at Sutton. He was also a prebendary of York Minster. Sterne’s life at this time was closely tied with his uncle, Dr Jaques Sterne, the Archdeacon of Cleveland and Precentor of York Minster. Sterne’s uncle was an ardent Whig, and urged Sterne to begin a career of political journalism which resulted in some scandal for Sterne and, eventually, a terminal falling-out between the two men.

Prime Minister of Great Britain In office 4 April 1721 – 11 February 1742
Sir Robert Walpole, Prime Minister of Great Britain, in office4 April 1721 – 11 February 1742.

Jaques Sterne was a powerful clergyman but a mean-tempered man and a rabid politician. In 1741–42 Sterne wrote political articles supporting the administration of Sir Robert Walpole for a newspaper founded by his uncle but soon withdrew from politics in disgust. His uncle became his arch-enemy, thwarting his advancement whenever possible.

Sterne lived in Sutton for twenty years, during which time he kept up an intimacy which had begun at Cambridge with John Hall-Stevenson, a witty and accomplished bon vivant, owner of Skelton Hall in the Cleveland district of Yorkshire.

In 1759, to support his dean in a church squabble, Sterne wrote A Political Romance (later called The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat), a Swiftian satire of dignitaries of the spiritual courts. At the demands of embarrassed churchmen, the book was burned. Thus, Sterne lost his chances for clerical advancement but discovered his real talents; until the completion of this first work, “he hardly knew that he could write at all, much less with humour so as to make his reader laugh”.

Having discovered his talent, at the age of 46, he turned over his parishes to a curate, and dedicated himself to writing for the rest of his life. It was while living in the countryside, having failed in his attempts to supplement his income as a farmer and struggling with tuberculosis, that Sterne began work on his best known novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the first volumes of which were published in 1759. Sterne was at work on his celebrated comic novel during the year that his mother died, his wife was seriously ill, and his daughter was also taken ill with a fever.[6] He wrote as fast as he possibly could, composing the first 18 chapters between January and March 1759.

Tristram Shandy First edition spines by The Laurence Sterne Trust - This file was donated by the Laurence Sterne Trust as part of the Yorkshire Network GLAMwiki. The Trust runs Shandy Hall, Sterne's home in Coxwold, Yorkshire
Tristram Shandy First edition spines by The Laurence Sterne Trust – This file was donated by the Laurence Sterne Trust as part of the Yorkshire Network GLAMwiki. The Trust runs Shandy Hall, Sterne’s home in Coxwold, Yorkshire.

An initial, sharply satiric version was rejected by Robert Dodsley, the London printer, just when Sterne’s personal life was upset. His mother and uncle both died. His wife had a nervous breakdown and threatened suicide. Sterne continued his comic novel, but every sentence, he said, was “written under the greatest heaviness of heart.” In this mood, he softened the satire and recounted details of Tristram’s opinions, eccentric family and ill-fated childhood with a sympathetic humour, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sweetly melancholic—a comedy skirting tragedy.

Shandy Hall, Sterne's home in Coxwold, North Yorkshire
Shandy Hall, Sterne’s home in Coxwold, North Yorkshire

The publication of Tristram Shandy made Sterne famous in London and on the continent. He was delighted by the attention, and spent part of each year in London, being fêted as new volumes appeared. Indeed, Baron Fauconberg rewarded Sterne by appointing him as the perpetual curate of Coxwold, North Yorkshire.

Sterne continued to struggle with his illness, and departed England for France in 1762 in an effort to find a climate that would alleviate his suffering. Sterne was lucky to attach himself to a diplomatic party bound for Turin, as England and France were still adversaries in the Seven Years’ War. Sterne was gratified by his reception in France where reports of the genius of Tristram Shandy had made him a celebrity. Aspects of this trip to France were incorporated into Sterne’s second novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, the composer and former slave Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne encouraging him to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade.

“That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only one—Gracious God!—what a feast to a benevolent heart!”

In July 1766 Sterne received Sancho’s letter shortly after he had finished writing a conversation between his fictional characters Corporal Trim and his brother Tom in Tristram Shandy, wherein Tom described the oppression of a black servant in a sausage shop in Lisbon which he had visited. Sterne’s widely publicised response to Sancho’s letter became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature:

There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or your’s, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ’ere mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so.|Laurence Sterne, 27 July 1766

by Louis Carrogis ('Louis de Carmontelle'),drawing,circa 1762
by Louis Carrogis (‘Louis de Carmontelle’),drawing,circa 1762

Sentimental Journey was published at the beginning of 1768. The novel was written during a period in which Sterne was increasingly ill and weak. Less than a month after Sentimental Journey was published, early in 1768, Sterne’s strength failed him, and he died in his lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street on 18 March, at the age of 54. He was buried in the churchyard of St George’s, Hanover Square.

It was widely rumoured that Sterne’s body was stolen shortly after it was interred and sold to anatomists at Cambridge University. Circumstantially, it was said that his body was recognised by Charles Collignon who knew him and discreetly reinterred back in St George’s, in an unknown plot. A year later a group of Freemasons erected a memorial stone with a rhyming epitaph near to his original burial place. A second stone was erected in 1893, correcting some factual errors on the memorial stone. When the churchyard of St. George’s was redeveloped in 1969, amongst 11,500 skulls disinterred, several were identified with drastic cuts from anatomising or a post-mortem examination. One was identified to be of a size that matched a bust of Sterne made by Nollekens.

Laurence Sterne by Joseph Nollekens, 1766, National Portrait Gallery, London
Laurence Sterne by Joseph Nollekens, 1766, National Portrait Gallery, London

The skull was held up to be his, albeit with “a certain area of doubt”. Along with nearby skeletal bones, these remains were transferred to Coxwold churchyard in 1969 by the Laurence Sterne Trust.

The story of the reinterment of Sterne’s skull in Coxwold is alluded to in Malcolm Bradbury’s novel To The Hermitage.

Legacy
Sterne’s early works were letters; he had two ordinary sermons published (in 1747 and 1750), and tried his hand at satire. He was involved in, and wrote about, local politics in 1742. His major publication prior to Tristram Shandy was the satire A Political Romance (1759), aimed at conflicts of interest within York Minster. A posthumously published piece on the art of preaching, A Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais, appears to have been written in 1759. Rabelais was by far Sterne’s favourite author, and in his correspondence he made clear that he considered himself as Rabelais’ successor in humour writing, distancing himself from Jonathan Swift:

I … deny I have gone as far as Swift: he keeps a due distance from Rabelais; I keep a due distance from him.

Sterne is best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for which he became famous not only in England, but throughout Europe. Translations of the work began to appear in all the major European languages almost upon its publication, and Sterne influenced European writers as diverse as Diderot and the German Romanticists. His work had also noticeable influence over Brazilian author Machado de Assis, who made exceptional (and outstandingly original) usage of the digressive technique in the masterful novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas. Indeed, the novel, in which Sterne manipulates narrative time and voice, parodies accepted narrative form, and includes a healthy dose of “bawdy” humour, was largely dismissed in England as being too corrupt. Samuel Johnson’s verdict in 1776 was that “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”

This is strikingly different from the views of European critics of the day, who praised Sterne and Tristram Shandy as innovative and superior. Voltaire called it “clearly superior to Rabelais”, and later Goethe praised Sterne as “the most beautiful spirit that ever lived.” Both during his life and for a long time after, efforts were made by many to reclaim Sterne as an arch-sentimentalist; parts of Tristram Shandy, such as the tale of Le Fever, were excerpted and published separately to wide acclaim from the moralists of the day. The success of the novel and its serialised nature also allowed many imitators to publish pamphlets concerning the Shandean characters and other Shandean-related material even while the novel was yet unfinished.

The novel itself is difficult to describe. The story starts with the narration, by Tristram, of his own conception. It proceeds by fits and starts, but mostly by what Sterne calls “progressive digressions” so that we do not reach Tristram’s birth before the third volume. The novel is rich in characters and humour, and the influences of Rabelais and Cervantes are present throughout. The novel ends after 9 volumes, published over a decade, but without anything that might be considered a traditional conclusion. Sterne inserts sermons, essays and legal documents into the pages of his novel; and he explores the limits of typography and print design by including marbled pages and, most famously, an entirely black page, within the narrative. Many of the innovations that Sterne introduced, adaptations in form that should be understood as an exploration of what constitutes the novel, were highly influential to Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and more contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Italo Calvino referred to Tristram Shandy as the “undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century”. The Russian Formalist writer Viktor Shklovsky regarded Tristram Shandy as the archetypal, quintessential novel, of which all other novels are mere subsets: “Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature.”

However, the leading critical opinions of Tristram Shandy tend to be markedly polarised in their evaluations of its significance. Since the 1950s, following the lead of DW Jefferson, there are those who argue that, whatever its legacy of influence may be, Tristram Shandy in its original context actually represents a resurgence of a much older, Renaissance tradition of “Learned Wit” – owing a debt to such influences as the Scriblerian approach.

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy is a less influential book, although it was better received by English critics of the day. The book has many stylistic parallels with Tristram Shandy, and indeed, the narrator is one of the minor characters from the earlier novel. Although the story is more straightforward, A Sentimental Journey can be understood to be part of the same artistic project to which Tristram Shandy belongs.

Two volumes of Sterne’s Sermons were published during his lifetime; more copies of his Sermons were sold in his lifetime than copies of Tristram Shandy, and for a while he was better known in some circles as a preacher than as a novelist. The sermons, though, are conventional in both style and substance. Several volumes of letters were published after his death, as was Journal to Eliza, a more sentimental than humorous love letter to a woman Sterne was courting during the final years of his life. Compared to many eighteenth-century authors, Sterne’s body of work is quite small.

Biographical information from www.wikipedia.com. For more information on Jane Austen’s familiarity with the works of Sterne, read Ken Robert’s Jane Austen and Laurence Sterne.

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Has Lord Elgin Lost His Marbles?

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

Lord Elgin_by_Anton_Graff_around_1788Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – Lord Elgin – and 11th Earl of Kincardine (20 July 1766 – 14 November 1841) was a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, known primarily for the removal of marble sculptures (also known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens.

Elgin was born in Broomhall, Fife, the second son of Charles Bruce, 5th Earl of Elgin and his wife Martha Whyte. He succeeded his older brother William Robert, the 6th Earl, in 1771 while he was only five. He entered the army as an ensign in the 3rd Guards. He was elected as a Scottish Representative Peer in 1790, remaining one until 1807.

In 1791, he was sent as a temporary envoy-extraordinary to Austria, while Sir Robert Keith was ill. He was then sent as envoy-extraordinary in Brussels until the conquest of the Austrian Netherlands by France. After spending time in Britain, he was sent as envoy-extraordinary to Prussia in 1795. Elgin was appointed as ambassador to The Porte in December 1798.

On 11 March 1799, shortly before setting off to serve as ambassador at Constantinople, Elgin married Mary, daughter and heiress of William Hamilton Nisbet, of Dirleton; Elgin finally arrived at Constantinople on 6 November 1799.

Elgin was ambassador to the Ottoman Empire between 1799 and 1803; he showed considerable skill and energy in fulfilling a difficult mission, the extension of British influence during the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and France. He departed Turkey at last on 16 January 1803.

 

Parthenon_pediment_statues
Acting on the advice of Sir William Hamilton, Lord Elgin procured the services of the Neapolitan painter, Lusieri, and of several skilful draughtsmen and modellers. These artists were dispatched to Athens in the summer of 1800, and were principally employed in making drawings of the ancient monuments, though very limited facilities were given them by the authorities. About the middle of the summer of 1801, Elgin received (as is said) a firman, from the Porte which allowed his lordship’s agents not only to ‘fix scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols [the Parthenon], and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum,’ but also ‘to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.’ Due to the loss of the original firman, it isn’t sure that the translation is correct.

The actual removal of ancient marbles from Athens formed no part of Elgin’s first plan. The collection thus formed by operations at Athens, and by explorations in other parts of Greece, and now known by the name of the ‘Elgin Marbles,’ consists of portions of the frieze, metopes, and pedimental sculptures of the Parthenon, as well as of sculptured slabs from the Athenian temple of Nike Apteros, and of various antiquities from Attica and other districts of Hellas.

Elgin_horse_2d
Part of the Elgin collection was prepared for embarkation for England in 1803, considerable difficulties having to be encountered at every stage of its transit. Elgin’s vessel, the Mentor, wrecked near Cerigo with its cargo of marbles, and it was not till after the labours of three years, and the expenditure of a large sum of money, that the marbles were successfully recovered by the divers. On Elgin’s departure from Turkey in 1803, he withdrew all his artists from Athens with the exception of Lusieri, who remained to direct the excavations which were still carried on, though on a much reduced scale. Additions continued to be made to the Elgin collections, and as late as 1812, eighty fresh cases of antiquities arrived in England.

Temporary_Elgin_Room_at_the_Museum_in_1819

The removal of about 1/2 of the frieze metopes, frieze and pedimental sculpture was a decision taken on the spot by Philip Hunt, Elgin’s chaplain (and temporary private secretary, i.e. representative, in Athens), who persuaded the voivode (governor of Athens) to interpret the terms of the firman very broadly.

Lord Elgin bribed local Ottoman authorities into permitting the removal of about half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He used these antiquities to decorate his mansion in Scotland and then later sold them to the British Museum in an attempt to repay his escalating debt. Continue reading Has Lord Elgin Lost His Marbles?

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Jane Austen’s ‘Forgotten’ Characters by Priyanka Chavda

Talulah Riley as Mary Bennet, 2005.

By Priyanka Chavda

Jane Austen has many beloved characters – Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Marianne Dashwood.

There are a few, however, who are lesser known and often less appreciated, whether it be due to the continued growing admiration of her more popular characters or simply the story and characters themselves. For many Jane Austen fans some of these characters may not be under-appreciated- for them there could be others that need to be added to the list. Nevertheless, here are few who aren’t as recognised as perhaps they could be.

Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price.
Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price, 1999.

Fanny Price is one of the most underrated Austen characters. Even more, Mansfield Park is underrated as a novel in comparison to Austen’s other publications. For many, Fanny comes across as “insipid” (s quoted by Austen’s own mother.) For others, Fanny comes as a demure heroine. Unlike previous heroines such as Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny is not strongly spoken or particularly daring. She is placed in a household where her value is undermined, where she is floating in the middle; forced between what she knew and what she’s forced to learn. Yet Austen has cleverly created her character, suggest literary authors who examined Mansfield Park and Fanny Price for the novel’s anniversary–and pushes us to follow through. She has created someone who stands in full opposition to many characters within Mansfield Park and someone who comes in on her own as the novel progresses.

In fact much could be said about Mansfield Park and the characters within.

But it is not only a protagonist of Austen who is under appreciated. Within the novels, supporting characters are often underdeveloped or neglected. Whether this is intentional or not, two characters who are not often seen as they should be are Mrs Weston and Mary Bennet.

Jodhi May and Romola Garai as Mrs. Weston and Emma Woodhouse, 2009.
Jodhi May and Romola Garai as Mrs. Weston and Emma Woodhouse, 2009.

Mrs Weston, previously known as Miss Taylor, is/was the beloved governess in Emma. At the start of the novel she is the governess and companion for Emma Woodhouse, being part of the family even before Emma’s birth. However, upon her marriage to Mr Weston, Mrs Weston gradually disappears from the appreciation she deserves as a successful Austen character. Despite marrying and moving away from Hartfield, she continues to hold a special place in the Woodhouse household and in Emma’s life – meeting daily with her, and being the one to tell Emma about Frank’s engagement. Yet in spite of all this, for some, she isn’t as appreciated or recognised as being Emma most trusted confidant and in many respects Emma’s role model.

Talulah Riley as Mary Bennet, 2005.
Talulah Riley as Mary Bennet, 2005.

Despite being one of the most loved novels of all time, and containing some of Austen’s most popular characters, Pride and Prejudice does have one person who is not appreciated. Mary Bennet is an underdeveloped character, but stands out in her own right. Bookish, solemn and often outspoken, she remains throughout the novel often unappreciated, even by the characters themselves. Mary Bennet is the forgotten sister of the five. The novel explores Lizzie, Jane, Lydia and even Kitty but Mary is often marginalised. Being the middle child, Mary does not share the closeness that Lizzie shares with Jane, and Lydia shares with Kitty. Due to this she spends much of her time in her own company and when in the company of others she uses her knowledge gained from books as a way of communication even when others disagree. And it is not only readers who are hard on Mary, but some may say even Austen herself. For example, the possibility of her relationship with Mr Collins– yet Austen decided on Charlotte Lucas. Why? Even though Mary has been overlooked, there is much scope to her story, which many contemporary authors have explored.

A few of Mr. Darcy's companion heroes:
A few of Mr. Darcy’s companion heroes: J.J Feild as Henry Tilney, 2007; Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley, 1996; Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth, 1996.

Now with Mr Darcy, other heroes of Austen’s novels had competition. One character some believe doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves is Mr Tilney from Northanger Abbey. A fascinating character, his personality and simple charm makes him unique. Although, he differs from previous heroes, his traits and uniqueness places him as a perfect companion opposite Catherine Morland, the novel’s self-proclaimed heroine. He is unafraid to say things as they are, and is not afraid to stand up to what he believes – even defying his father to marry Catherine.

Similarly, John Knightley and Captain Wentworth are also not seen in the same light as Darcy. Knightley is genuine, good-looking, caring, unafraid of risks and strongly spoken; Captain Wentworth is charming, good-looking and caring. However, it seems none of these traits are able to match that of their predecessor.

Despite all this, these characters stand out in their own right. They all tell a different perspective within the novels, and are open to new stories and adaptations which present them in a whole new light. Mary Bennet becomes the protagonist of Jennifer Paynter’s novel ‘The Forgotten Sister: Mary Bennet and Pride and Prejudice and ‘Henry Tilney’s Diary by Amanda Grange retells Northanger Abbey through Henry Tilney.

 Priyanka is an English Literature graduate, aspiring to be a writer and work in the film industry.

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Jane Austen Novels Books life and times

Jane Austen Novels Books Life and Times

JANE AUSTEN – A LIFE IN TWO WORLDS?

Jane AustenIt is truth universally acknowledged that the author of these opening words, which are among the most famous in English literature, is perhaps the greatest writer the English language, indeed any language, has known, bar Shakespeare.

One might find it hard to think of a time when Jane Austen’s novels was not a byword for romantic fiction, and Pride & Prejudice, where the above quote derives, the last word on it. But there was, of course, such a time and this lasted up until the early years of the nineteenth century.

Once her novels began to be published, however, they came at a rate that would make Stephen King proud: Sense & Sensibility (1811); Pride & Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1815); and Emma (1816). Add to this quartet the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, a year after Austen died, and it becomes one of most impressive canons of any writer.

For all the popularity of the novels during her lifetime, however, it was not until after her death that Jane Austen’s name became widely attached to them, having originally published them under the pseudonym A. Lady. And it is not until the last two decades has she achieved the world prominence reserved normally for pop stars and screen idols.

The question still remains though as to what exactly makes Austen so immensely popular in the modern day. The television and film adaptations have gone a long way, of course, but the fact remains that her books were being read, enjoyed and acclaimed more than a century before the first screen outing ever appeared.

Continue reading Jane Austen Novels Books life and times