Sterne obsequies

If the author, clergyman and abolitionist Laurence Sterne had managed to crawl through a cosmic wormhole defying both time and space to attend the special concert held recently in his honour at St George’s Hanover Square, London W1, he would probably have annoyed the contemporary musicians and audience members with his persistent tubercular coughing. The solemn evening marked the 250 years which have passed since his death aged 54 on 18th March 1768 at nearby 41 Old Bond Street, in lodgings above a silk bag and wig maker’s, an event witnessed only by Sterne’s nurse and John Macdonald, a visiting footman sent by a friend to enquire after his health. Organised by the Laurence Sterne Trust based at Shandy Hall in Yorkshire, Now it is Come! (allegedly the dying man’s last words) was a programme of readings and baroque music to mark Mr Yorick’s burial service on March 22nd 1768 in the very same church, then regarded as the most fashionable place of worship in London.

Little is know about this event save that it was a modest affair costing 16/6d, and occurred less than a month after the publication of his second great work, the two volume A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, 1768. There is a plangent entry on the Laurence Sterne Trust website

27 February, A Sentimental Journey published by Becket and Dehondt in February, in an edition of 2500, with a list of 281 names, subscribing for 334 copies, of which 132 on ‘Imperial Paper’, some copies also contain an advertisement in which Sterne acknowledges that there should be a further two volumes, which the subscribers have paid for, and promises to deliver them within the year.

So not only was Sterne’s life cut short, but his death arrived at the moment the fame hungry writer was the very talk of the town. Arrivals and departures though had characterised his wandering existence, the latter part of which had been a grand tour of a different kind, namely one defined by a manic quest for clean air, and remedies for pulmonary tuberculosis; hobnobbing with European monarchs and aristocracy very much a bonus.

After Handel’s See, the Conquering Hero Comes played at the organ by David Owen Norris, and readings by Patrick Wildgust, and the former Bronski Beat, Communard musician Rev’d Richard Coles, a rare and exquisite performance by the disbanded Hilliard Ensemble of “Time wastes too fast” (TS Vol9 Ch viii), and also Maria’s Urn, with words supposedly set to music by Sterne which revealed him to be quite the proto-romantic: Eros folded within Thanatos and vice versa…

Alas, Maria, what remains
Of thee this mournful Urn contains
O lovely Tree, thy boughs extend,
And with thy leaves this Urn defend.

Today there is a cubby-hole at Shandy Hall affectionately known as Maria’s Room.

Allegedly born in Mary Street, Clonmel, Ireland on the 24th November, 1713, it is fair to say that the Clonmel Tourist Board have failed to capitalise on the figure of Laurence Sterne as their biggest heritage asset. Yes there is a brass plaque, a hotel bar (now closed) that was named after him, and a sculpture once installed on Grubb’s Island in the River Suir, which was swept unfortunately away by floods in 2001, only to re-emerge broken into pieces! But Sterne’s importance is as an innovative writer, and extends far beyond a few lapidary facts. According to the bibliographer J.C.C. Mays in Fredson Bowers and the Irish Wolfhound, 2002,

Irish books and the way they ask to be understood break the rules that have evolved from the study of surrounding traditions.

Poised between “anglo-american methodology” largely based around William Shakespeare and the concept of the final clean version or uber text, and continental, manuscript friendly “genetic” practices, Sterne’s use in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman of black and marbled pages, of squiggles and other paratextual devices mark him out as being a gleeful other, his knowingly imperfect digressive masterpiece sandwiched between these editorial traditions. Such irregular graphic features have made Tristram Shandy one of the greatest open source prepostmodern, texts of all time, while Sentimental Journey‘s unfinished, slightly smutty finale was an immediate red rag to the “demoniack” John Hall-Stevenson, who wrote a forgettable continuation.

Latterly Tristram Shandy has been used as a starting point for spin offs and “hobbyhorsical” treatments. These include John Baldessari’s set of photo collages Shandy, 1988, Michael Winterbottom’s charming film A Cock and Bull Story, 2005, through to Visual Editions elegant 2011 reprint with red finger posts etc, while Director Patrick Wildgust has re-energised the Laurence Sterne Trust through various imaginative projects such as the boxed Emblem of My Work, 2013, containing work by a glittering pleiades of contemporary writers/painters/ cartoonists/film-makers ranging from Norman Ackroyd to Laetitia de Chazal, Margot Ecke to Andrew Kotting, Javier Marias to Leanne Shapton, Graham Swift to Jacqueline Yallop. The museum and garden too has grown in popularity since it cropped up as a tourist destination in Patrick Keiller’s travelogue film Robinson in Space, 1997; firmly on the northern literary heritage trail besides Brontë Parsonage, and Dove Cottage.

Inevitably the shenanigans of Sterne’s corporeal afterlife hovered in the background, a shaggy dog story in itself. His fresh corpse was interred off the Bayswater Road, before being illegally exhumed by body snatchers, only to turn up on a Cambridge University dissecting table, where it was recognised and duly reburied. Here the author’s celebrity status came to his rescue, saving him from being reduced to dismembered body parts in a surgeon’s waste bin; an early modern dance of death, but with self-fashioned iconography as in the emblematic engraving by Thomas Patch. Two hundred years later Laurence Sterne’s battered bones were finally moved north to St Michael’s Coxwold, despite him being in his own time a wrong’un within the Erastian church, who though utterly haunted by death in life was never morbid.