Guy Fawkes, Dr. Slop, and the Actions of Providence

Article excerpt

By the time of Tristram Shandy's birth on November Fifth, 1718, a month short of the "nine kalendar months" he claims have passed since the misfortunes of his conception, that date had been for more than a century a day of thanksgiving for the providential rescue of church and state. It was celebrated, as the clergyman Laurence Sterne certainly realized, by a special commemorative service, and marked by sermons preaching the glories of the Anglican denomination and the cruelties of Roman Catholicism. The popular press reflects this imagery, frequently showing the Eye of God beaming down to reveal and thwart attempted Popish atrocities. One is therefore inclined to be surprised to have the day marked so inauspiciously in Shandy Hall: shortly after the harrowing description of the Inquisition which so moves Trim, the Catholic man-midwife, whom Mrs. Shandy fought to suppress, is given permission to operate, and in doing so crushes the tender infant nose with his obstetrical instrument. The reversal of the usually triumphant imagery should increase in us the suspicion caused by the short gestation period, and draw our attention to a plot which in this case is not revealed or prevented. Dr. Slop's role in the proceedings is significant, because he represents both political and religious agenda for Sterne. His depiction as Catholic, destructive and involved in midwifery is part of a conventional image and not unique to Sterne himself. By following the evolution of the image of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot from the spiritual into the temporal world, we may see how a man born on Guy Fawkes Day through the offices of a Roman Catholic midwife would do well to consider his paternity and to fear for more than his nose.

Laurence Sterne's sermon "National Mercies considered: On the Inauguration of his present Majesty" traces the path of' Christianity in Britain through a series of providential interventions in the history of the nation. He begins with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries who bring about "Our deliverance from darkness and idolatry, by the conveyance of the light which Christianity brought with it into Britain, so early as in the lifetime of the apostles themselves, -- or at furthest, not many years after their death."(1) The succeeding historiography outlines the various attempts, by the Germanic tribes, Queen Mary and others, to put out the light that had been begun by the missionaries of the early church; one effect of this particular approach to history is the establishment of Anglican Christianity as the true faith, built on the apostolic succession. While the republican decapitation of Charles I receives its due, the cruelties and conspiracies of Roman Catholics are particularly emphasized. In the reign of Mary Tudor, Britain's "history looks so unlike herself, stain'd, Mary, by thee, and disfigur'd with blood." After the glories of the reign of Elizabeth, who was able "to fix a wavering persecuted people, and settle them upon such a foundation as must make them happy," trouble once more arrived at the gate: "How providential was our escape in the succeeding reign, when all the choice blood was bespoke and preparations made to offer it up at one sacrifice" (21.201). Finally, a last and severe test was visited upon the church after the restoration. When all appeared to be at last upon the solid foundation, "we were suffered, however, to approach the edge of a precipice, where, if God had not raised up a deliverer to lead us back--all had been lost:--the arts of Jesuitry had decoy'd us forwards, or if that had failed, we had been push'd down by open force, and our destruction had been inevitable" (21.202).

The encapsulation of nearly eighteen hundred years in roughly two pages is potted history; it reflects not only Sterne's own private view of the path of the church in England, but the prevailing approach to history as it developed throughout the seventeenth century. It is noteworthy that, apart from Mary Tudor, Sterne does not name a single person--monarch or traitor alike--in the course of his narrative. …