The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 5. Sterne as the Liberator of the Novel; His Humour the groundwork of his Characters
It is, then, as liberator that Sterne comes before us in the first instance. And it is as liberator that he has left his chief, perhaps his only enduring, mark upon the subsequent history of the novel. His other great qualities are almost purely personal to himself. His very originality has caused him to count for less, as a moulding influence, than many a writer not to be compared with him in genius.
And, first, his humour. The elements which go to make up this are strangely various and, for the most part, as strangely baffling and elusive. His handling of character is humorous to the very core. It is so with the figures that merely flit across the stage: Susannah and the scullion, Obadiah and Dr. Slop, Eugenius and Yorick. It is so a hundred times more with those constantly before the footlights: above all, the undying trio, Walter Shandy, my uncle Toby and corporal Trim.
The last three are humorous in a whole sheaf of senses, each of which fades insensibly into the others. In the first place, to employ a term sanctioned by long usage, they are themselves humourists of the first water. Each of them is fast astride on his own hobby-horse, galloping as hard as may be in pursuit of his own fad. In this sense, though in no other, they are akin to Puntarvolo and Fastidious Brisk, to Morose and Volpone. They are akin, also, to Tom Bowling and commodore Trunnion. Sterne, however, had far too subtle a spirit to content himself with the mere oddities in which Smollett and, in his own masterful way, Jonson also, had delighted. His characters may be born humourists, in the Jonsonian sense. But they have been born anew, and have taken on an entirely new nature, in the soul of a writer who was a humourist in another, and a far higher, sense: the sense in which we apply the term to Fielding and Walter Scott, to Cervantes and Shakespeare. And the second birth counts for infinitely more than the first. All that in the original draft of the character may have been overcharged, distorted and ungenial is now interwoven with so many softer strands, crossed by so many subtler strokes, touched to so many finer issues that the primitive harshness has altogether vanished, and the caricature become a living creature, of like nature with ourselves. The “humour,” in the sense of Jonson and Smollett, is still the groundwork of the character. But it is so transformed and humanised by the subsequent touches as to have passed without effort into a nobler plane of being. It is soon recognised as something scarcely differing from that leaven of idealisation which is the indispensable condition of the highest creative work and which, much as we may desire to fix it, is, in this, as in many other instances, lost in the general effect of the whole. Compare “my Uncle Toby,” the supreme instance of this subtle transformation, with Tom Bowling or commodore Trunnion, and the difference proclaims itself at once.