The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 7. Sternes artificiality and pruriency
On the other head, Sterne is more open to attack. It is useless to deny that the instincts round which he best loves to let his humour play are just those which lend themselves most readily to abuse, and that, in his handling of them, there is a pruriency which justly gives offence. There is none of the frankness which takes the sting out of the obscenity of Aristophanes or the riotous coarseness of Rabelais. On the contrary, there is a prying suggestiveness which is nothing but an aggravation of the misdeed. Yet, so much being granted, it is right to guard ourselves against two possible misconstructions. It is an injustice if we read what we know of the author’s life and conduct into his writings. It is an injustice if we fail to take into account what may fairly be said in mitigation of the charge, on this score, against the writings themselves.
With Sterne, as a man, it is hard to have much patience. He was unkind to his wife, and he philandered persistently with other women. His pruriency, moreover, is a blot upon his character; and, in a man of his cloth, it is doubly distasteful. The two former defects, however, have nothing to do with his genius as a writer. And the last, as a trait of character, would concern us much more than it does if he made any attempt to conceal it in his writings. Exactly the contrary is the case. The charge, and the just charge, against him is that he parades it at every turn. There is no need to go to the records of his life for the knowledge of it. It is proclaimed upon the housetops in his books. If a man makes great professions of nobility of soul in his writings, it is, no doubt, a disenchantment to discover that they are contradicted by his life. The very suspicion of hypocrisy may and does interfere with the pleasure we take in a work even of imaginative creation. But hypocrisy, at least in this connection, is the very last thing that can be charged upon the work of Sterne. His sins go before him to the judgment; and it is by his writings that they are made known.
Again, offensive as his pruriency is, the specific, and very peculiar, appeal it makes to the intellect and imagination, may be urged as a mitigating plea. The two things are closely connected; the former, in fact, is a consequence of the latter. The indecency of Sterne is of a peculiarly intellectual kind. He holds it jealously aloof from all that can touch the passions or emotions. It works, as it were, in a void which he has created specially for the purpose and of which he alone, of all writers, holds the secret. In this dry handling of the matter, the affections of the reader are left unenlisted and unmoved. He is too much engrossed in following the intellectual ingenuity of the writer, the rapid quips and turns of his fancy, to have much attention left for the gross insinuations which too often form the primitive groundwork of the arabesque cunningly stencilled on the surface. Certainly, he is not carried off his feet, as he might easily be by warmer, if far more innocent, descriptions.