Shandy doctors

The exhibition ‘Shandy’s Physicians’ curated by Robert Greenwood in the library of the The Royal Society of Medicine, placed Laurence Sterne’s ultra-digressive novel The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-1767, in a medical context, revealing the extent to which the author was informed both by classical physic and contemporary scientific literature, some of the latter distinctly quackish.

The selection of books on display ranged from an 18th century sex manual The Secrets of Generation by False Aristotle (“à lire d’une seule main” according to Rousseau) to James Drake’s New System of Anatomy, 1707, here opened at a fold-out engraving of a flaccid penis. Drake’s text was consulted by the Widow Wadman in TS regarding Uncle Toby’s suitability as a “new husband”. She also “peeped into Wharton upon the brain”, this being Thomas Wharton’s Adenographia of 1656.

Other bibliographic material included in ‘Shandy’s Physicians’ were Tobias Smollett’s (the real life model incidentally for the grumbling Smelfungus in A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768,) jaundiced observations on taking the mineral waters at Bath, and significantly a copy of John Floyer’s The Physician’s Pulse Watch, 1710, (Floyer commissioned the very first watch with a second hand from the royal watchmaker Samuel Watson) alongside a very fine 7th edition of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a book from which Sterne borrowed even as he railed against plagiarism!

Burton’s namesake, John, was another of Sterne’s butts, who in the fictional Dr Slop received an unflattering portrait in TS, being the celebrated nose crusher of Tristram himself. An illustrated page of grim looking forceps from Burton’s An Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery, 1751, brought home to a visitor the chronic uncertainties of childbirth not to mention the womb as a site of theological disquisition in the Georgian age.

As for Sterne, the prebendary of York, ‘Shandy’s Physicians’ (with its excellent back-to-front catalogue whose text drew out important Shandean connections to modern writers such as Flann O’Brien and B. S. Johnson) made it clear that writing for him was a prophylactic against what he called this “scurvy and disastrous world”, although it is little wonder that TS ended up on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, as Sterne’s interest in medical truth, as opposed to superstition, situated him philosophically in a proto-Nietzschean realm, a wrong’un at odds with organised religion.

Tristram Shandy continues to exert a fascination on the modern mind, its narrative meanderings seen as self-sabotage or “retardation” by the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky. John Baldessari’s Shandy, 1988, was a set of 39 photo-collages featuring B-movie icons, whilst contemporary artist Philippa Troutman has applied cut-up techniques, to the text using the novel for divination, ie Sortes Shandeanae; and in a 2011 edition by Visual Editions the reader is treated to innovative lay outs, red fingerposts and erasure.

The library installation was decorated with pages of marbled paper hand made by Andrea Merciar.

‘Shandy’s Physicians’ was at The Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole St, London W1, from 4 November 2013-25 January 2014.