Friday, May 8, 2015

Raunchy Rev. Laurence Sterne, of 'Tristram Shandy' Fame, Dead at 54

An Anglican vicar who loved a bawdy joke as well as an occasional dalliance, Laurence Sterne died young, after writing only two novels—one of which is hailed as a raunchy comic masterpiece.  The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy begins with the hero’s haphazard conception when his mother distracts his father at the climactic moment to ask if he has remembered to wind the clock. This cockeyed novel, whose stream-of-consciousness technique influenced James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and dozens of other novelists, was written in installments to augment the income of an impecunious clergyman with a troubled wife.

Sterne was born November, 24, 1713, in County Tipperary, Ireland, to a low-ranking British infantry officer and his wife, and he spent most of his life in near-poverty moving from one army camp to another throughout Ireland. He won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, and after graduating, he took holy orders, winding up with a vicarage in Yorkshire. While he was an undergraduate, he suffered his first lung hemorrhage, the harbinger of his lifelong and ultimately fatal tuberculosis.

Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley is 1741 and she produced several children, all of them stillborn but one. Setbacks in his erratic clerical career made it difficult to support the family on his modest stipend; meanwhile Elizabeth wife grew mentally deranged, threatening suicide. Sterne chose to console himself by sampling the seamier pastimes offered in the nearby city of York, where he caroused with fellow debauchees in a louche men’s club called the Demoniacks.

Suffering all the while from tubercular attacks, he also began to write Tristram Shandy, which he published at his own expense. It became the talk of the town, and Sterne was suddenly a famous author.  He moved to France, hoping a warmer climate would help his lungs, but when his wife and child followed him there, he promptly returned to London, where he lived the life of a playboy bachelor.

He finished his second novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, and a few days after it was published in 1768, Sterne collapsed on the street. He was taken to his lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street, where he languished in bed. On March 18, he suddenly raised up his arms as if to fend off some unseen attacker, said, “Now it is come”—and died at the age of fifty-four. He was buried in the churchyard of St. George’s in Hanover Square.

Shortly after his burial, Sterne’s body was stolen by graverobbers and sold to a medical school at Cambridge. As a lecturer was dissecting the body, he was horrified to recognize Sterne, and he surreptitiously returned the body to the chuchyard, but not in the proper place. In 1969 the churchyard was redeveloped, and some 12,000 skulls were unearthed. One of them was thought to be Sterne’s, and, along with some nearby miscellaneous bones, the remains were reburied at the Coxwold churchyard in north Yorkshire, where Sterne had at one time been the vicar.

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