Laurence Sterne

By Allen, Brooke | New Criterion, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Laurence Sterne


Allen, Brooke, New Criterion


Laurence Sterne's masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, is seldom read any more outside of graduate seminars. This is a sad fate for the author whom Nietszche deemed "the most liberated spirit of all time," and whose style, in its day, was considered "the most rapid, the most happy, the most idiomatic of any that is to be found.... [T]he pure essence of English conversational style." The novel was wildly popular for years after its appearance. As the enthusiastic James Boswell rhymed, "Who has not Tristram Shandy read?/ Is any mortal so ill-bred?"

The book's initial success was due in no small part to its heavy flirtation with obscenity. Such smut was considered bad enough, by certain critics, when the book was published anonymously; when it became known that its author was an Anglican minister, it caused an outright scandal. One correspondent in a popular magazine of the day voiced a widespread objection: "[I]t were greatly to be wished he had been more sparing in the use of indecent expressions. Indecent! Nay, even downright gross and obscene expressions are frequently to be met with throughout the book." This revulsion was shared by Samuel Richardson, at that time the torchbearer of high decorum in fiction: "One extenuating circumstance attends [Sterne's] works, that they are too gross to be inflaming.... [H]is own character as a clergyman seems much impeached by printing such gross and vulgar tales, as no decent mind can endure without extreme disgust!"

All this notwithstanding, Sterne was always able to evade the charge of outright obscenity by the skillful use of insinuation and double-entendre: if the reader is dirty-minded enough to draw certain conclusions, the author implies, he has no one but himself to blame. For instance:

   La Fosseuse's voice was naturally soft and low, yet 'twas an articulate
   voice: and even, letter of the word whiskers fell distinctly upon the queen
   of Navarre's ear--Whiskers! cried the queen, laying a greater stress upon
   the word, and as if she had still distrusted her ears--Whiskers; replied La
   Fosseuse, repeating the word a third time--There is not a cavalier, madam,
   of his age in Navarre, continued the maid of honour, pressing the page's
   interest upon the queen, that has so gallant a pair --Of what? cried
   Margaret, smiling--Of whiskers, said La Fosseuse, with infinite modesty.

This is a peculiarly English species of humor that has survived more on stage and television than in fiction: Monty Python and Benny Hill can claim direct descent from Tristram Shandy, and so can West End sex farces like Run For Your Wife or When Did You Last See ... Your Trousers? The popular and deeply silly Are You Being Served?, a long-running sitcom set in the Men's and Ladies' Wear floor of a London department store, is full of recognizably Shandean humor. For instance, in one episode the salespeople are stuck inside the store due to a transit strike. Mrs. Slocum, a formidable lady of a certain age, telephones her neighbor:

   Mrs. Slocum: Mr. Singh, would you be good enough to go over to my flat,
   look through the letter-box, and if you see my pussy, drop a sardine on the
   mat?

In another show, the salespeople shiver while the heat is turned down in the store during the 1973 oil crisis:

   Captain Peacock (pompous middle-aged floor-walker): I hope you're not too
   cold, Miss Brahms?

   Miss Brahms (buxom twenty-something assistant in the ladies' underwear
   department): No, I borrowed a pair of earmuffs.

All this is straight Sterne, surprisingly unchanged from his day to ours.

Those who were out of sympathy with this style of humor accused Sterne of inserting it merely to attract the vulgar and the prurient. To give him credit, it seems in fact to have sprung to life perfectly spontaneously. Had not his fellow-clerics Rabelais and Swift used obscenity whenever their message required it? …

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