Bust of Laurence Sterne by Nollekens
By Carole Green
Parson, author and 18th century 'celebrity', Laurence Sterne had an interesting life. He was vicar of Coxwold for eight years and whilst there he wrote his best-seller, 'Tristram Shandy' and 'A Sentimental Journey'.
Laurence Sterne was born in Clonmel in Ireland on 24th November 1713. But, despite his place of birth, his family was firmly rooted in Yorkshire.
His great-grandfather on his father’s side, Richard Sterne, was the 72nd Archbishop of York from 1664 to 1683. His grandfather was squire of Woodhouse near Halifax and his grandmother inherited Elvington Hall near York.
Despite his family being part of the Yorkshire gentry, his father, Roger, was the youngest son and therefore wouldn’t inherit and ran away to join the army at 16. He married a soldier’s widow and had three surviving children including Laurence.
At the age of ten, Laurence was sent to school in Halifax under the guardianship of his Uncle Richard. Towards the end of his schooldays, both his father and uncle died leaving Laurence penniless and abandoned by his mother, who was in Ireland.
However, his more affluent family came to his rescue. His cousin, the new squire of Elvington sent him to Jesus College, Cambridge where he received one of the scholarships founded by his great-grandfather, the archbishop.
When he completed his degree, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England and found a patron in another family member, his uncle, Dr Jacques Sterne who was Precentor of York Minster.
Laurence became vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest and a couple of years later was made a Canon of York Minster, and also vicar of Stillington.
Sterne's study at Shandy Hall
In 1741 he married Elizabeth Lumley and it would seem the marriage wasn’t a happy one. Elizabeth was described by her cousin as having “an unpleasing manner”. Their only surviving child, Lydia, was born in 1747 and Sterne described her as “the child and darling of my heart”.
It’s highly likely that Sterne was unfaithful as he enjoyed some very well documented ‘friendships’ with several women! Elizabeth and Lydia would later move to France, effectively ending the marriage.
Laurence became parson at Coxwold in 1760 and it was here he began his meteoric rise to fame. He was not a conventional vicar and on several occasions came in for some sharp criticism from the church.
He’d already written and self-financed the publication of the first two volumes of ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’.
Laurence Stern was a complicated man and it’s a complicated, but very funny book, which documents the rather hectic life of Tristram Shandy. It’s said to be one of the most experimental books written in English. It doesn’t conform, in that it doesn’t have a beginning, middle or an end.
Sterne very cleverly introduces characters he’s met in life, including himself into the book, and surprisingly for an 18th century parson, it’s very bawdy! The book soon became a bestseller.
Sterne found the peace and tranquillity he needed to write in Coxwold and it was here he finished the next seven volumes of Tristram Shandy. He also published ‘A Sentimental Journey’ and several volumes of his sermons; he was an accomplished and inspirational sermoniser.
During this time, he regularly visited London and was courted by society, and he himself courted fame, not unlike some today. He was painted by Joshua Reynolds, was friends with the theatre impresario David Garrick and Hogarth gave him a sketch for the book.
Around 1767 his health deteriorated. He’d suffered with tubercular lung haemorrhages for most of his adult life, and he died in London on 18th March 1768.
Even in death he courted controversy. A few days after his funeral at St George’s, Hanover Square in London his body was stolen and used by a surgeon for an anatomy lecture. Someone recognised Sterne and the body was returned to its London grave.
In 1969 the burial ground was sold for redevelopment and the newly formed Laurence Sterne Trust gained permission to exhume the remains. They now rest, along with the gravestone, in the church in Coxwold.
Laurence Sterne, finally at peace, overlooks the rolling Yorkshire countryside he loved.
last updated: 13/03/2009 at 11:16