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Book of the Month

October 2000

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 

London: 1765-1769

Hepburn 7-15

Tristram Shandy: frontispiece and title-page of volume 1

frontispiece and title-page of vol. 1 (Hepburn 7)

Laurence Sterne's great comic novel, Tristram Shandy, was originally published between 1759 and 1767 in nine small separate volumes,  the last appearing shortly before Sterne's death.

Our set constitutes  a copy made-up from several of the early editions: volumes 1 and 2 are of the seventh edition, printed for J. Dodsley and dated 1768 and 1769 respectively;  volumes 3 and 4 are 'a new edition', printed in 1769 by Dodsley; volume 5 is of the second edition, printed by T. Becket and P.A. Dehondt in 1767; volume 6 is again from the 'new edition' , although printed by T. Becket and P.A. Dehondt in 1769;  volumes 7, 8 and 9, lastly, are of the first edition, printed for T. Becket and P.A. Dehondt, dated 1765 and 1767. 

To protect his book from piracy, Sterne autographed the beginning of the first and second editions of volume 5 and the first editions of volumes 7 and 9: hence we find the author's signature in our copies of volumes  7 and 9. It has been estimated that Sterne had to sign his name an incredible 12,750 times to achieve this. 

Sterne (1713-1768) was born in Tipperary, Ireland. After attending Cambridge University, he was ordained and settled in Yorkshire where he spent some twenty years as an Anglican priest. He married in 1741, but the union was not a happy one. In fact, he began writing Tristram Shandy in his 47th year during a period of great personal unhappiness while his wife was suffering a nervous breakdown. Until producing his masterpiece, Sterne had only dabbled in writing, publishing a few sermons and a satire entitled A Political Romance.  

Tristram Shandy: beginning of Vol 7, with Laurence Sterne's signature

beginning of chapter 1, vol. 7 (Hepburn 13)


Trustram Shandy: frontispiece of vol 9 by Hogarth

frontispiece of vol. 3 (Hepburn 9)

As the title suggests, the novel sets out to tell the life story of Tristram Shandy, its narrator, beginning with his conception. However, he has so much to relate  about his eccentric family that he does not manage to get born until the 4th volume. Realizing, finally, that his task is hopeless - it taking  him more time to tell the story than to live his life - the novel ends by concluding that its readers have been taken in by a cock and bull story. While a hilarious and often bawdy read which delights in parody and satire, repeated images of disconnection and human isolation give the work a serious underlying theme: the hero ultimately doubts how much he can know, even about himself. As the first novel about writing a novel, in which the author frequently breaks into imaginary dialogues with the reader, it has been lauded as the ancestor of stream of consciousness fiction. 

The first two volumes of the novel were a great success and  made Sterne famous throughout Europe. As well as producing the further volumes of the tale, Sterne cashed in on his success by publishing 2 volumes of sermons attributed to Parson Yorick, the minister mentioned in the opening volume of Tristram; drawing on his experiences as a  priest, Yorick is said to be a veiled self portrait of the author. 

William Hogarth (1697-1764), the artist now chiefly remembered for his satiric engravings, was commissioned to design two plates to be used as frontispieces in two of the volumes. One depicts Corporal Trim reading a sermon on conscience to the sleeping Dr Slop, Uncle Toby, and Walter Shandy, and the other (shown to the left), the baptism of Tristram. Based on a vivid appreciation of contemporary life, these engravings capture the elusive humour of Sterne perfectly.

One of the great advantages of examining the early editions of Tristram Shandy is the resulting satisfaction in actually seeing and appreciating the volumes as designed by Sterne. The peculiarities of the book are such that examining the originals are crucial to a real understanding of the startling originality of  the text, with its intimate  interweaving of  verbal and visual elements. 
Sterne saw each volume through the press himself, despite having to travel to London from Yorkshire. His letters to the publishers are evidence of the painstaking care with which he chose the format, paper, type and layout of the novel.  As a result, the book is a physical pleasure to read and turning the page is often full of surprises.

Each text page is characterised by an intricate system of hyphens, dashes, asterisks, and occasional crosses;  remarkable use is particularly made of the dash - varying in length, these are often treated as though they were words, while the small type area and generous spacing and margins of the original volumes emphasise their visibility.  But more unusual than a playfulness with fonts is Sterne's frequent manipulation of the page: typical is the blank page shown here where the reader is invited to interact with the book and draw his own portrait of the Widow Wadman.

Tristram Shandy: pages 146 and 147 of vol. 6 with a blank page where the reader is encouraged to draw own picture

pages 146 and 147 of vol. 6 (Hepburn 12)

Tristram Shandy: pages 70-71 of vol. 1 with black page

pages 70-71 of vol. 1 (Hepburn 7)

Tristram Shandy: p169 of vol 3, with marbled paper

page 169 of vol. 3 (Hepburn 9)

Tristram Shandy: p118 of vol 9, one sentence chapter

page 118 of vol. 9 (Hepburn 9)

Other oddities scattered throughout the volumes include the black page when Yorick dies, the hand marbled page where each side is uniquely different, parallel texts in Latin and English, one sentence chapters, misplaced chapters and missing chapters - as in volume 4, where the pagination jumps from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24, thereby misnumbering all the subsequent right hand pages as even (when, as everyone knows, they are always odd). Such peculiarities draw attention to the appearance of the page and highlight the novel's lack of conventional form; indeed, although written in a conversational style, the enjoyment of the book very much depends upon the reader experiencing it as a physical object.

Tristram Shandy: p152-153 of vol 6, showing graphs of the narrative

pages 152-153 of vol. 6 (Hepburn 12)

Although Tristram Shandy was a great success and frequently republished, it was not universally liked and was disparaged by some critics as being pointless. Regarded as a complex masterpiece today, Dr Johnson famously asserted that its popularity had not lasted because 'Nothing odd will do long'.
Having been dogged with ill health throughout his adulthood, Sterne died from consumption a year after the publication of the ninth volume; although it is widely believed that this was intended to be the last volume, it is not known for sure.  Bizarrely, soon after  Sterne died, his body was stolen by grave robbers, taken to Cambridge and used in an anatomy lecture.  His body, however, was recognized by a fan and quietly returned to its grave.

Other early editions of Sterne: The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy. [Anon.]Vol.1 of the Third edition London, 1760: Sp Coll Hunterian Db.3.40; A sentimental journey through France and Italy. By Mr. Yorick New edition London, 1770: Sp Coll BC13-b.5-6; A sentimental journey through France and Italy. By Mr. Yorick London, 1784: Sp Coll NO.9.25 and Sp Coll Bo10-g.24; A sentimental journey through France and Italy. By Mr. Yorick with 6 plates London, 1792: Sp Coll BG46-l.4; Sermons Vols 5-7 London, 1769: Sp Coll Bo4-k.19-21; The works of Laurence Sterne ... (Vol.7 wanting) Dublin, 1774: Sp Coll 127-132; The works of Laurence Sterne, A.M. ... To which is prefixed, an account of the life and writings of the author with portrait and 2 plates London, 1775 Sp Coll Bo2-m.23-29; The beauties of Sterne; including many of his letters and sermons, all his pathetic tales, humorous descriptions, and most distinguished observations on life ... London, 1793: Sp Coll 937; Letters of the late Rev. Mr Laurence Sterne, to his most intimate friends. With a fragment in the manner of Rabelais. To which are prefixed, memoirs of his life and family. Written by himself. And published by his daughter, Mrs. Medalle London, 1775:  Sp Coll Bk10-l.2-4; Letters supposed to have been written by Yorick and Eliza London, 1779 Sp Coll Bk10-l.7-8

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 Julie Coleman October 2000