Shandy Hall and Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy has always been something of an enigma to me. Like every other undergraduate in the 1980s, I read the novel in my late teens and it didn't do much for me! I loved the madness of the novel: the blank page, the clock chiming and the playing around with time and character. I loved the "hobby horsing" of Uncle Toby but I didn't really understand that this was an experimental novel, which would have more in common with Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, than it did with Fielding and Smollett. Sterne's unconventional time-scheme and its self-declared digressive-progressive style drove me mad. I didn't even enjoy the film of the novel "A Cock and Bull Story"!

So, I seized on the opportunity to visit Shandy Hall, hoping that seeing Sterne's home would help me understand the author and the novel. It certainly did! The Laurence Sterne Trust has done a wonderful job in bringing the author to life and helping visitors to gain an insight into the life of Sterne and his motivations in writing his great novel. During the visit, the scales fell from my eyes and I realised that The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy is FUN! Sterne wrote it to make himsef famous, he orchestrated its publication, composing letters from actresses to impress the publisher and the public. And, just like so many fame-hungry would-be celebrities today, it worked.

Once I understood this simple truth I was all set for appreciating this unconventional author; the vicar turned novelist, and finally, enjoying his novel! Now, I love that Sterne defiantly refuses to present events in their proper chronological order and that his characters move backward and forward in time as he chooses. I love the way in which Sterne wanders away from the plot and holds forth on something totally unconnected and calls our attention to the way in which his authorial project is being advanced at the very moments when he seems to have wandered farthest afield.

Now, I think Sterne would have been very happy in the celebrity dominated 21st Century, claiming his place alongside Love Island and Big Brother!