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Laurence Sterne | Biography

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Early Life

Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, on November 24, 1713, to Roger Sterne, an English army officer, and Agnes Nuttall. Because of his father's career, Sterne grew up on the march: the family, never prosperous, moved frequently as Roger was deployed to various parts of Ireland. At age 10 Sterne went to live with his uncle, Richard Sterne, who arranged for his education at a nearby grammar school in Hipperholme, Yorkshire. Sterne's surviving notebooks suggest a precocious boy with an ear for humorous language, a fondness for drawing, and a tendency to daydream. Roger Sterne, meanwhile, was deployed to Jamaica, which was then a British colony. In 1731 he fell ill and died there, leaving Laurence reliant on the care and financial support of his paternal relatives.

Education and Career

After his years at Hipperholme, Sterne matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge. There, he was enrolled as a sizar, or scholarship student; family members defrayed his other educational expenses. He graduated in 1737 and took holy orders a year later. Soon after his ordination Sterne became the vicar of the small parish of Sutton-on-the-Forest through the influence of his uncle, Jacques Sterne, a prominent Anglican cleric. In his early postgraduate years Sterne seemed poised to climb through the ranks of the church: he became a canon of York Minster (i.e., a member of the cathedral's governing body) and later succeeded to the vicarage of Stillington in northern Yorkshire. He married Elizabeth Lumley in 1741, but the relationship seems to have been vexed and antagonistic almost from the wedding day. Sources vary as to the cause of the strife, but Sterne's extramarital affairs—one of which is commemorated in his late Bramine's Journal or Journal to Eliza (not published until 1904)—almost certainly contributed to the tension.

Literary Fame and Decline

Sterne's talent as a writer was evident in his early sermons, but his efforts to branch out into other types of literature were hampered by controversy. In the early 1740s Sterne's political views alienated his uncle Jacques, who until that point had been a powerful benefactor. Political Romance (1759) was a satirical jab at various high-ranking Anglican clergymen, a move that cost him any further opportunity to advance in the church hierarchy. Later that year he set aside the majority of his vicarial duties in order to begin the lengthy satirical novel later known as Tristram Shandy. The work brought him immediate, though not always favorable, critical recognition, leading to the publication of new installments at a rate of roughly one volume per year. A prequel of sorts, entitled A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), capitalized on the popularity of Tristram Shandy and of Parson Yorick, one of the novel's best-loved characters.

Sterne's tuberculosis, of which he had experienced intermittent symptoms since his college years, became more severe during the Shandy years, with a near-fatal episode in 1762. Extended trips to France—fictionalized in Vol. 7 of Tristram Shandy—brought temporary relief, but on the whole his health continued to decline. Sterne died on March 18, 1768, shortly after publishing A Sentimental Journey, and he was eulogized by the actor David Garrick, a personal friend who is frequently and fondly mentioned in the pages of Tristram Shandy. In his epitaph for Sterne, Garrick describes the late novelist as a man of great "genius, wit, and humor," an opinion now widely shared by literary critics. Most of Sterne's remaining writings, including three volumes of sermons and a selection of his correspondence, were published by his daughter Lydia in the mid 1770s. Tristram Shandy, however, remains his most noteworthy contribution to English literature.

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