Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy still resonates today
Tuesday, September 14 1762. In East Hoathly, a small Sussex village, Thomas Turner, the local shopkeeper, recorded the usual entry for the day in his diary. "At home all day and pretty busy. In the afternoon employed myself a-writing. In the even Mr Tipper read to me part of a - I know not what to call it but Tristram Shandy."
Turner was familiar with the staples of 18th-century reading, from sermons and Shakespeare to the matter of the monthly reviews. But his consternation at quite what it was that his friend had brought along that evening suggests something of the impact of the most fashionable book of the age: Laurence Sterne's Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
As the first volumes of this comic, wayward narrative emerged in the early 1760s, many critics were none the wiser. It did not conform to the narrative conventions of the telling of a biographical "life", since it started at the unhappy point of conception and took pages for the main character to be born.
The figure of Parson Yorick, the double of its author, an Irish Church of England minister (whose popular collection of sermons would be published under this pseudonym), dies in volume one - his demise marked by a black page - only to reappear for the rest of the tale.
The author's preface appears in volume three, chapters are jumbled and missing, a dedication is hawked to the highest bidder, and at one point the reader is offered a blank page with the invitation to draw his or her own version of the sexually frustrated Widow Wadman: "as like your mistress as you can - as unlike your wife as conscience will let you".
The narrative appeared curiously fragmented by numerous digressions and stories. Punctuation ran riot, with a breathless use of dashes, asterisks and squiggly lines. It seemed both dizzyingly tied to the present moment, the narrator noting that he was living "364 times faster than I should write", and at the same time anachronistic in its nostalgia for the time of an earlier generation, the Shandy family household of 40 years before.
Horace Walpole was intrigued, deciding that its strategy involved "the whole narration always going backwards". "I can conceive of a man saying it would be droll to write a book in that manner," he continued, "but have no notion of his persevering in executing it." Samuel Johnson was dismissive. It was "not English, Sir". "Nothing odd will do for long," he later reflected. "Tristram Shandy did not last."
Sterne's difficulty in keeping the novelty going throughout the nine volumes and eight years of the novel's publication between 1759 and 1767 suggests that Johnson had a point. What he recognised was that the book was a creature of the market, vulnerable to literary fashion. With a neat classical epigraph from Horace - "All dare to write, who can or cannot read" - Johnson had noted in his journal The Adventurer in 1753 that "so widely is spread the itch of literary praise, that almost every man is an author, either in act or in purpose". Almost every woman too, for part of the crisis of this "epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper" was the rise of a generation of "Amazons of the pen".
Sterne's novel got under the skin of the public culture of its time. Its opening gambit, in which Mrs Shandy interrupts her husband as he religiously goes about his regular sexual duty on the first Sunday of the month with the euphemistic question "have you not forgot to wind up the clock?", reputedly changed relations between the sexes. As one pamphlet, The Clockmakers' Outcry, explained in 1760, no gentleman could wind his watch in public without a woman thinking he had designs on her, and the market for clocks was suffering. Many believed it, though the pamphlet may well have been written by Sterne himself, who knew the value of advertising.
Not only did the novel set numerous "writing mills a-going" in imitation, as one pamphlet had it, so many that its author had to authenticate with his signature all the copies of volumes five and six as they came off the press, it also reared its head in unexpected places. A racehorse was named after it, street ballads bawdily celebrated "playing Tristram Shandy, O!", financial tracts such as Thomas Mortimer's Every Man His Own Broker saw the stock market's susceptibility to rumour as a sign of the "reigning Shandean taste". Its author was feted in the best company, painted by Joshua Reynolds, and presented to the new king, George III.
Tristram Shandy's power to shock lay in its frank and comic acknowledgement of the libidinal energies that animated 18th-century life. In its exhortation to its readers, assembled "Sirs", "Worships" and especially "Madams", to "ride" the meaning of the narrative, Sterne called attention to the passional roots of the imagination, and to the "medicinal" nature of laughter, essential for the health of "the body politic as body natural". A scandalous line to take for a Yorkshire parson; decades later Sterne's writing was still seen by some as challenging the moral order of church and state.
But those who managed to read beyond the bawdy jokes and double meanings (which later anthologies such as The Beauties of Sterne quickly removed in favour of the more sentimental highlights), found something more: an acute satirical take on the "vices of the age" or, according to one comic pamphlet, a "political allegory" of its present, in which the nation had been plunged into a global war for empire, at great risk and cost to many, and huge commercial gain for a few.
If Tristram Shandy testifies to what we might now see as a culture fascinated by celebrity, it is also a critical response to those commercial forces that flow beyond the local trials of the book market to underpin economic adventurism and "curiosity" around the globe. What does it mean to be born into a world of risk and imaginative experiment, the novel seems to be asking, where the boundaries of the self and the body politic are suddenly remade? What are the human affections - the "trust" and "credit" - that bind people and their communities together, like readers and authors, in such a world? "Is a man to follow rules, or they to follow him?"
Sterne posed these questions in the form of an eccentric family saga, which is perhaps the nearest way of describing the story of Tristram Shandy. The son of a soldier who had died in Jamaica on an earlier campaign, Sterne had been used as a young child to the itinerant life of a military family, where the brutalities of 18th-century risk society were at their most intense. The child born into the pages of Tristram Shandy is surrounded by the anecdotal world view of a previous generation, above and below stairs, and in particular by the tales of the military veteran, uncle Toby, a patriot "of the old stamp" and bashful source of philanthropic feeling in the novel.
Military veterans populate 18th-century fiction, often overly keen to relate their stories, as poet Charles Hanbury Williams describes in "The Old General": "If you name one of Marlboro's 10 campaigns, / He tells you its whole history for your pains." If there is something representative about Toby, he is also a register of a contemporary sense of grievance, since the Seven Years' war brought many discharged soldiers on to the streets, allowed to display their wounds and beg in shoddy recompense for their sacrifice.
Toby's foil is his brother, the hapless patriarch Walter Shandy, a rationalist who attempts to control all elements of risk in his son's life, even the physical pressure exerted in childbirth that might crush his manhood. It is science and determinism - and the newly invented forceps - that will keep the threatening realm of chaos at bay.
Like many texts from its time, Tristram Shandy weighs the values of the past to make sense of its uncertain present. Like Sterne's contemporary, Adam Smith, the novel portrays the "good soldier" as a touchstone of the moral values of fellow-feeling and self-sacrifice. Like the shopkeeper Thomas Turner, Walter Shandy finds order and security in quantifying. But there is a new kind of irony in Sterne's novel too: the consciousness of what it means to live the "strange absurdity" of a world that exchanges people for things. An absurdity, in the words of Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, that had brought the warring nation to sacrifice "her best and bravest subjects for raw silk, hemp and tobacco... her hardy veterans and honest trades-men... for a box of snuff or a silk petticoat".