Funny, peculiar - Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy

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

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