The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 3. His life
The main facts of Laurence Sterne’s life (1713–1768) are sufficiently well known. After a struggling boyhood, he went to Cambridge, where he made the friendship of Hall-Stevenson, the Eugenius of his great novel. In 1738 he became vicar of Sutton, the first of his Yorkshire livings, and a few years later prebendary of York, of which his great-grandfather had been archbishop. In 1741 he married Eliza Lumley, for whom he soon ceased to feel any affection and from whom he was formally separated shortly before his death. By her he had one daughter, Lydia, subsequently Mme. Medalle, whom he seems to have genuinely loved. The greater part of his life was passed in a succession of love affairs, mainly of the sentimental kind, with various women of whom Mrs.Draper is the best known. The publication of Tristram Shandy was begun in 1760 (vols.
Few writers have thrown down so many challenges as Sterne; and, if to win disciples be the test of success, few have paid so heavily for their hardihood. He revolutionised the whole scope and purpose of the novel; but, in his own country, at any rate, years passed before advantage was taken of the liberty he asserted. He opened new and fruitful fields of humour; and one of the greatest of his successors has denied him the name of humourist. He created a style more subtle and flexible than any had found before him; and all that Goldsmith could see in it was a tissue of tricks and affectations. But, if the men of letters hesitated, the public had no doubt. The success of Tristram Shandy swept everything before it. And here, as is often the case, the popular verdict has worn better than the craftsman’s or the critic’s.