Biography of Laurence Sterne

Laurence Stern

Laurence Sterne was an eighteenth century cleric and author of “Tristram Shandy”.

When and Where was he Born?

24th November 1713, Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland where his father’s regiment was stationed.

Family Background:

Laurence Sterne was the son of a penniless Ensign in Chudleigh’s Regiment of Foot (although born a gentleman) under the and his wife Agnes (of relatively low birth). Great-grandson of Richard Sterne, Archbishop of York.

Education:

Hipperholme School, Halifax. Jesus College, Cambridge.

Timeline of Laurence Sterne:

1713: His father’s regiment is disbanded on the day of his birth and the family moves back to Yorkshire.

1723: Sterne goes to school in Halifax where he was taught Greek and Latin and stays with his wealthy uncle Richard.

1727: Laurence Sterne’s father’s new regiment takes part in the defence of Gibraltar. He receives a wound in a duel over the theft of a goose and never fully recovered.

1731: Death of his father of a fever in Jamaica.

1733: Sterne goes up to Cambridge where he study mathematics and logic. He was more taken by literature and made a lifelong friend of fellow student John-Hall Stevenson. He runs up large debts whilst a student which were to plague him for some time.

1736: He receives a BA degree.

1737: He is ordained as a Deacon on the recommendation of his uncle Jaques who was Precentor and Canon of York.

1738: Sterne is appointed vicar of Sutton-in-the-Forest, eight miles from York and was to live the life of a country parson for the next 28 years.

1740: He receives an MA. He suffers from a hemorrhage of the lungs which was the first sign of his consumption.

1741: He marries Elizabeth Lumley in York Minster.

1741–42: Sterne writes political articles in support of Sir Robert Walpole for his uncle’s newspaper but soon had enough of politics and fell out with his uncle as well who was a staunch Whig.

1743: He takes on the extra parish of Stillington and was also a prebendary of York Minster.

York Minster
View of York Minster from the steps of W. H. Auden’s Birthplace (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1747: Birth of his daughter Lydia.

1758: His wife becomes temporarily insane when she finds out about his affair with a maidservant and threatens suicide. She is taken away to a private house in York. He had failed in his attempts at farming. His own health was never good nor that of his daughter. It was around this time of melancholy that he starts writing “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” which is one of the most joyful books in the English language.

1759: Death of his mother. Laurence Sterne writes “A Political Romance” (later called “The History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat”) to support his Dean which proved he could write but it also deeply upset the clergy who ordered it to be burned.,

1760: The first two volumes of “Tristram Shandy” are published in York and London and Sterne becomes famous overnight. He goes to London and stays in St Alban’s Street where visitors would flock to his rooms. He was also invited to all the most fashionable dinners in the capital and he became known as a witty speaker. His characters, loosely based on real people in York got him into trouble with local people and Doctor Johnson complained of the rude innuendo that pervades the book, commenting in 1776 “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer privately rebutted Johnson, saying: “The man Sterne is worth 1,000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr. J.” Other Germans were also impressed with the work and Karl Marx was a devotee of Tristram Shandy and Goethe also praised Sterne which in turn influenced Friedrich Nietzsche. Although Elizabeth’s state of mind improved Sterne stayed in London and fell in love with a French singer called Catherine Fourmantelle. In the summer he finally returns to Yorkshire and the family take on a cottage in Coxwold which he renames “Shandy Hall”.

St Michael's Church, Coxwold.
St Michael’s Church, Coxwold, North Yorkshire from the outside (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1761: Two more volumes of “Tristram Shandy” are published and Sterne goes to London to oversea their publication. He then returns to Shandy Hall and completes the fifth and sixth volumes. In December he suffers a major hemorrhage of the lungs and is advised to take a trip to the South of France for his health.

1762: Sterne sets out for Paris. He was accepted by polite society there as he had been in London and his wife and daughter finally follow him. They then move on to Toulouse.

1763: They visit the Pyrenees and over winter in Montpelier.

1764: He decides to return to England but Elizabeth and Lydia want to stay in France.

1765: The Seventh and Eighth volumes of Tristram Shandy” are published. He makes a major tour of France and Italy which he wrote about in his second novel “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy”. On his way back through France he meets up with his wife who realised that she could live better without him.

Interior of St Michael's, Coxwold
Interior of St Michael’s Church, Coxwold where Laurence Sterne was vicar (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1766: Sterne returns to England alone. His only companion now in Yorkshire was John Hall-Stevenson. He was now short of money having spent most of his earnings on foreign tours. Back in London in December he falls in love with Mrs Eliza Draper from Bombay. After two months she goes home to Bombay but he never forgot her and wore her portrait around his neck.

1767: Laurence Sterne returns to Yorkshire and is visited by his wife and daughter. He upped their allowance so that they could move back to the South of France and they were not with him when he died.

When and Where did he Die?

18th March 1768, 41 Old Bond Street, London, England of consumption.

Age at Death:

55.

Written Works:

1747: Ordinary sermons.
1750: Ordinary sermons.
1759: “A Political Romance”. (The History of a Good Warm Watch Coat), “A Fragment in the Manner of Rabelais”.
1760: “A Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy”.
1765: “A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy”.
1773: “Letters from Yorrick to Eliza”.
1775: “Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions”.

Marriage:

1741 to Elizabeth Lumley in York Minster.

Site of Grave:

Remains removed from St. George’s Burial Ground, Hanover Square, London, England when it was closed in 1969 to St. Michael’s Church, Coxwold, Yorkshire, England (A rumour persists that his body was stolen from London and sold for dissection to the professor of anatomy at Cambridge. His features were said to be recognised by a student at the dissecting table. His skeleton, it is said, was for a long time preserved in the anatomy school at Cambridge).

Sterne's Grave stone
Sterne’s Gravestone now sheltering in the porch 
of St Michael’s Church Coxwold, Yorkshire
. (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

YORKSHIRE:

Sterne Museum at Shandy Hall, Coxwold, where Sterne Moved in 1760.
York Minster.