The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 4. Tristram Shandy and its success; Fiction as the vehicle of the Novelists idiosyncrasy
Sterne was nothing if not an innovator. And in no innovation was he more daring than in that which widened the scope and loosened the structure of the novel. This was the first of his services to his brethren of the craft. It is, perhaps, the only one which has left a deep mark upon the subsequent history of a form which, when he wrote, was still in the early stages of its growth.
When Tristram Shandy began to appear (1760), there was real danger that the English novel would remain little more than a mirror of contemporary life: a reproduction, often photographically accurate, of the social conditions of the time. Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, each in his own way and according to the measure of his genius, had yielded to the impulse; Richardson alone, by striking into tragedy, had partially escaped. Sterne defiantly throws himself athwart the tradition of the elders. He delivers one blow after another at the fashion they had set. Tale of manners, picaresque adventure, types of contemporary humanity, plot itself, all go by the board. His very title is a resounding challenge to all accepted notions of what the novelist should attempt. And even the title falls very far short of what the novel actually provides. The Life and Opinions of the hero is the subject we are bidden to expect. The opinions, the character, the caprices of his father, his uncle, his uncle’s servant—above all, of the author himself—is what we actually find. In other words, the novel has ceased to be a mirror of life and manners. It has ceased to be what Johnson, himself a heretic against his own theory, thought it must naturally be, “a smooth tale, mostly of love.” It has become a channel for the outpouring of the author’s own personality and idiosyncrasy; a stage from which, under the thinnest of disguises or with no disguise at all, he lays bare the workings of his heart, his intellect, his most fleeting imaginations, before any audience he can gather round him. If we compare Tristram with Tom Jones, with Roderick Random, with Moll Flanders—if we compare it even with Pamela or Clarissa—we shall see that the wheel has come full circle. Every known landmark has been torn up. And, in asserting his own liberty, Sterne, little as he may have cared about it, has won unbounded liberty for all novelists who might follow. Whatever innovations the future might have in store, it was hardly possible that they should go beyond the freedom triumphantly vindicated by Sterne. For whatever purposes future writers might wish to use the novel, it was hardly conceivable that they would not be covered by the principle which he had victoriously, though, it may be, unconsciously, laid down. The purpose for which Sterne used the novel was to give free utterance to his own way of looking at life, his own moral and intellectual individuality. So much granted, it was impossible to quarrel with those who used it for a more limited purpose; for embodying in a narrative form the passions stirred by any burning problem of the day; for giving utterance to their own views on any specific question, political, social or religious. The perils of such a task might be great. They could hardly, however, be greater, they would almost certainly be less great, than those which Sterne had already faced and conquered. And, with the success of Tristram before him, no critic could maintain that, given sufficient genius, the venture was impossible. The challenge of Sterne was wide enough to include all the other challenges that have followed. The Fool of Quality, Nature and Art, Oliver Twist, Wilhelm Meister, Les Misérables—all are covered by the unformulated formula of Tristram.
Not, of course, that the whole credit of the widening process should be given to Sterne. Rasselas in England, if Rasselas is, indeed, to be counted as a novel, much more Candide in France, had already pointed the way in the same direction. Both appeared in the year 1759, before the publication of the first volume of Tristram. Neither of them, however, attempts more than a fragment of the task which Sterne attempted and performed. In neither case does the author stake his whole personality upon the throw; he lets his mind work, or play, round a single question, or group of questions, and that is all. It was an easier venture, a smaller venture and one far less rich in promise, than that which, a few weeks later, launched the Shandy family upon their voyage round the world.