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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

Lawrence Sterne

Title:     Lawrence Sterne
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Dec. 10, 1891. Sterne and Thackeray.

It is told by those who write scraps of Thackeray's biography that a youth once ventured to speak disrespectfully of Scott in his presence. "You and I, sir," said the great man, cutting him short, "should lift our hats at the mention of that great name."

An admirable rebuke!--if only Thackeray had remembered it when he sat down to write those famous Lectures on the English Humorists, or at least before he stood up in Willis's Rooms to inform a polite audience concerning his great predecessors. Concerning their work? No. Concerning their genius? No. Concerning the debt owed to them by mankind? Not a bit of it. Concerning their _lives_, ladies and gentlemen; and whether their lives were pure and respectable and free from scandal and such as men ought to have led whose works you would like your sons and daughters to handle. Mr. Frank T. Marzials, Thackeray's latest biographer, finds the matter of these Lectures "excellent":--

"One feels in the reading that Thackeray is a peer among his peers--a sort of elder brother,[A] kindly, appreciative and tolerant--as he discourses of Addison, Steele, Swift, Pope, Sterne, Fielding, Goldsmith. I know of no greater contrast in criticism--a contrast, be it said, not to the advantage of the French critic--than Thackeray's treatment of Pope and that of M. Taine. What allowance the Englishman makes for the physical ills that beset the 'gallant little cripple'; with what a gentle hand he touches the painful places in that poor twisted body! M. Taine, irritated apparently that Pope will not fit into his conception of English literature, exhibits the same deformities almost savagely."

I am sorry that I cannot read this kindliness, this appreciation, this tolerance, into the Lectures--into those, for instance, of Sterne and Fielding: that the simile of the "elder brother" carries different suggestions for Mr. Marzials and for me: and that the lecturer's attitude is to me less suggestive of a peer among his peers than of a tall "bobby"--a volunteer constable--determined to warn his polite hearers what sort of men these were whose books they had hitherto read unsuspectingly.

And even so--even though the lives and actions of men who lived too early to know Victorian decency must be held up to shock a crowd in Willis's Rooms, yet it had been but common generosity to tell the whole truth. Then the story of Fielding's _Voyage to Lisbon_ might have touched the heart to sympathy even for the purely fictitious low comedian whom Thackeray presented: and Sterne's latest letters might have infused so much pity into the polite audience that they, like his own Recording Angel, might have blotted out his faults with a tear. But that was not Thackeray's way. Charlotte Brontë found "a finished taste and ease" in the Lectures, a "something high bred." Motley describes their style as "hovering," and their method as "the perfection of lecturing to high-bred audiences." Mr. Marzials quotes this expression "hovering" as admirably descriptive. It is. By judicious selection, by innuendo, here a pitying aposiopesis, there an indignant outburst, the charges are heaped up. Swift was a toady at heart, and used Stella vilely for the sake of that hussy Vanessa. Congreve had captivating manners--of course he had, the dog! And we all know what that meant in those days. Dick Steele drank and failed to pay his creditors. Sterne--now really I know what Club life is, ladies and gentlemen, and I might tell you a thing or two if I would: but really, speaking as a gentleman before a polite audience, I warn you against Sterne.

I do not suppose for a moment that Thackeray consciously defamed these men. The weaknesses, the pettinesses of humanity interested him, and he treated them with gusto, even as he spares us nothing of that horrible scene between Mrs. Mackenzie and Colonel Newcome. And of course poor Sterne was the easiest victim. The fellow was so full of his confounded sentiments. You ring a choice few of these on the counter and prove them base metal. You assume that the rest of the bag is of equal value. You "go one better" than Sir Peter Teazle and damn all sentiment, and lo! the fellow is no better than a smirking jester, whose antics you can expose till men and women, who had foolishly laughed and wept as he moved them, turn from him, loathing him as a swindler. So it is that although _Tristram Shandy_ continues one of the most popular classics in the language, nobody dares to confess his debt to Sterne except in discreet terms of apology.

But the fellow wrote the book. You can't deny _that_, though Thackeray may tempt you to forget it. (What proportion does my Uncle Toby hold in that amiable Lecture?) The truth is that the elemental simplicity of Captain Shandy and Corporal Trim did not appeal to the author of _The Book of Snobs_ in the same degree as the pettiness of the man Sterne appealed to him: and his business in Willis's Rooms was to talk, not of Captain Shandy, but of the man Sterne, to whom his hearers were to feel themselves superior as members of society. I submit that this was not a worthy task for a man of letters who was also a man of genius. I submit that it was an inversion of the true critical method to wreck Sterne's _Sentimental Journey_ at the outset by picking Sterne's life to pieces, holding up the shreds and warning the reader that any nobility apparent in his book will be nothing better than a sham. Sterne is scarcely arrived at Calais and in conversation with the Monk before you are cautioned how you listen to the impostor. "Watch now," says the critic; "he'll be at his tricks in a moment. Hey, _paillasse_! There!--didn't I tell you?" And yet I am as sure that the opening pages of the _Sentimental Journey_ are full of genuine feeling as I am that if Jonathan Swift had entered the room while the Lecture upon him was going forward, he would have eaten William Makepeace Goliath, white waistcoat and all.

Frenchmen, who either are less awed than we by lecturers in white waistcoats, or understand the methods of criticism somewhat better, cherish the _Sentimental Journey_ (in spite of its indifferent French) and believe in the genius that created it. But the Briton reads it with shyness, and the British critic speaks of Sterne with bated breath, since Thackeray told it in Gath that Sterne was a bad man, and the daughters of Philistia triumphed.

* * * * *

October 6, 1894. Mr. Whibley's Edition of "Tristram Shandy."

We are a strenuous generation, with a New Humor and a number of interesting by-products; but a new _Tristram Shandy_ stands not yet among our achievements. So Messrs. Henley and Whibley have made the best of it and given us a new edition of the old _Tristram_--two handsome volumes, with shapely pages, fair type, and an Introduction. Mr. Whibley supplies the Introduction, and that he writes lucidly and forcibly needs not to be said. His position is neither that so unfairly taken up by Thackeray; nor that of Allibone, who, writing for Heaven knows how many of Allibone's maiden aunts, summed up Sterne thus:--

"A standing reproach to the profession which he disgraced, grovelling in his tastes, indiscreet, if not licentious, in his habits, he lived unhonoured and died unlamented, save by those who found amusement in his wit or countenance in his immorality."[B]

But though he avoids these particular excesses; though he goes straight for the book, as a critic should; Mr. Whibley cannot get quit of the bad tradition of patronizing Sterne:--

"He failed, as only a sentimentalist can fail, in the province of pathos.... There is no trifle, animate or inanimate, he will not bewail, if he be but in the mood; nor does it shame him to dangle before the public gaze those poor shreds of sensibility he calls his feelings. Though he seldom deceives the reader into sympathy, none will turn from his choicest agony without a thrill of disgust. The _Sentimental Journey_, despite its interludes of tacit humour and excellent narrative, is the last extravagance of irrelevant grief.... Genuine sentiment was as strange to Sterne the writer as to Sterne the man; and he conjures up no tragic figure that is not stuffed with sawdust and tricked out in the rags of the green-room. Fortunately, there is scant opportunity for idle tears in _Tristram Shandy_.... Yet no occasion is lost.... Yorick's death is false alike to nature and art. The vapid emotion is properly matched with commonness of expression, and the bad taste is none the more readily excused by the suggestion of self-defence. Even the humour of My Uncle Toby is something: degraded by the oft-quoted platitude: 'Go, poor devil,' says he, to an overgrown fly which had buzzed about his nose; 'get thee gone. Why should I hurt thee? This world surely is big enough to hold both thee and me.'"

But here Mr. Whibley's notorious hatred of sentiment leads him into confusion. That the passage has been over-quoted is no fault of Sterne's. Of My Uncle Toby, if of any man, it might have been predicted that he would not hurt a fly. To me this trivial action of his is more than merely sentimental. But, be this as it may, I am sure it is honestly characteristic.

Still, on the whole Mr. Whibley has justice. Sterne _is_ a sentimentalist. Sterne _is_ indecent by reason of his reticence--more indecent than Rabelais, because he uses a hint where Rabelais would have said what he meant, and prints a dash where Rabelais would have plumped out with a coarse word and a laugh. Sterne _is_ a convicted thief. On a famous occasion Charles Reade drew a line between plagiary and justifiable borrowing. To draw material from a heterogeneous work--to found, for instance, the play of _Coriolanus_ upon Plutarch's _Life_--is justifiable: to take from a homogeneous work--to enrich your drama from another man's drama--is plagiary. But even on this interpretation of the law Sterne must be condemned; for in decking out _Tristram_ with feathers from the history of Gargantua he was pillaging a homogeneous work. Nor can it be pleaded in extenuation that he improved upon his originals--though it can, I think, be pleaded that he made his borrowings his own. I do not think much of Mr. Whibley's instance of Servius Sulpicius' letter. No doubt Sterne took his translation of it from Burton; but the letter is a very well known one, and Burton's translation happened to be uncommonly good, and the borrowing of a good rendering without acknowledgment was not, as far as I know, then forbidden by custom. In any case, the whole passage is intended merely to lead up to the beautiful perplexity of My Uncle Toby. And that is Sterne's own, and could never have been another man's. "After all," says Mr. Whibley, "all the best in Sterne is still Sterne's own."

But the more I agree with Mr. Whibley's strictures the more I desire to remove them from an Introduction to _Tristram Shandy_, and to read them in a volume of Mr. Whibley's collected essays. Were it not better, in reading _Tristram Shandy_, to take Sterne for once (if only for a change) at his own valuation, or at least to accept the original postulates of the story? If only for the entertainment he provides we owe him the effort. There will be time enough afterwards to turn to the cold judgment of this or that critic, or to the evidence of this or that thief-taker. For the moment he claims to be heard without prejudice; he has genius enough to make it worth our while to listen without prejudice; and the most lenient "appreciation" of his sins, if we read it beforehand, is bound to raise prejudice and infect our enjoyment as we read. And, as a corollary of this demand, let us ask that he shall be allowed to present his book to us exactly as he chooses. Mr. Whibley says, "He set out upon the road of authorship with a false ideal: 'Writing,' said he, 'when properly managed, is but a different name for conversation.' It would be juster to assert that writing is never properly managed, unless it be removed from conversation as far as possible." Very true; or, at least, very likely. But since Sterne _had_ this ideal, let us grant him full liberty to make his spoon or spoil his horn, and let us judge afterwards concerning the result. The famous blackened page and the empty pages (all omitted in this new edition) are part of Sterne's method. They may seem to us trick-work and foolery; but, if we consider, they link on to his notion that writing is but a name for conversation; they are included in his demand that in writing a book a man should be allowed to "go cluttering away like hey-go mad." "You may take my word"--it is Sterne who speaks, and in his very first chapter--

"You may take my word that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his success and miscarriages in this world, depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set going--whether right or wrong, 'tis not a halfpenny matter--away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and smooth as a garden walk, which, when once they are used to, the devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it."

This, at any rate, is Sterne's own postulate. And I had rather judge him with all his faults after reading the book than be prepared beforehand to make allowances.

* * * * *

Nov. 12, 1895. Sterne's Good-nature.

Let one thing be recorded to the credit of this much-abused man. He wrote two masterpieces of fiction (one of them a work of considerable length), and in neither will you find an ill-natured character or an ill-natured word. On the admission of all critics My Father, My Mother, My Uncle Toby, Corporal Trim, and Mrs. Wadman are immortal creations. To the making of them there has gone no single sour or uncharitable thought. They are essentially amiable: and the same may be said of all the minor characters and of the author's disquisitions. Sterne has given us a thousand occasions to laugh, but never an occasion to laugh on the wrong side of the mouth. For savagery or bitterness you will search his books in vain. He is obscene, to be sure. But who, pray, was ever the worse for having read him? Alas, poor Yorick! He had his obvious and deplorable failings. I never heard that he communicated them. Good-humor he has been communicating now for a hundred and fifty years.


[A] But why "elder"?

[B] "Pan might _indeed_ be proud if ever he begot
Such an Allibone ..."
---Spenser (revised).

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Lawrence Sterne