The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

I find myself often turning to books, when Elizabeth and Darcy are required to converse on something. With such references to books and reading as are already in Pride and Prejudice, I like it as a topic for conversation, and truly, there aren’t that many topics for conversation, when you compare their world to today’s 24/7 media landscape. In part, that’s what I admire about the Regency era – they were largely left to their own devices in terms of entertainment. If you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself, get someone else to play it, or go to a concert. When I want to hear music, I can just ask Alexa to play it!

And so I fairly often find myself writing scenes like this one in [easyazon_link identifier=”B019BK3RJU” locale=”US” tag=”austauth0d-20″]Less Proud and More Persuasive[/easyazon_link]:

“Good morning,” Miss Bennet says, startling him, for he has become wholly absorbed. “What are you reading?”

“Swift,” he says, looking up to see that she once again looks utterly fetching. “Good morning, Miss Bennet. You are looking very well this morning.”

“I had not figured you for a novel reader,” she says, sitting beside him and looking down at the book, to try to make out the title. “Gulliver’s Travels?”

A Tale of a Tub,” he replies. “Although if you have read Gulliver’s Travels, you will know it to be far more than your standard novel.”

“I have read it, and I will agree with you. I adore satire.”

“I would have thought you did. Have you read Sterne?”

“I cannot say that I have.”

“Allow me to see if Lady Catherine has a copy of Tristram Shandy in her library. Someone who delights in the absurd so much as you do should not go without reading it.”

“I am intrigued, but will she not mind that it is loaned outside of her family?”

“She will never notice its going missing, just as she has likely never noticed its being there in the first place. For all her blustering about reading the other night, she cares not at all for books. The Rosings library has gone to dust since Sir Lewis passed. I never venture into that room without a handkerchief at the ready.”

She gives a little chuckle, and he realizes that, although he may not actually be achieving a flirtation, he is at least carrying on a reasonable conversation with her, one with mutual interest on each side.

Having conversations about books has required me to become far more well-versed in 18th and 19th century literature; anything that gets more than a passing mention I try to actually read, to ensure it fits with the characters as I thought it would. One thing that has surprised me is how very little there truly is that has stood the test of time, and how very few new releases there were per year, compared to today. And so what I thought I would do is start an occasional series here, highlighting books that Austen and her characters might have read.

The first is one of the books mentioned in Less Proud and More Persuasive. Sometimes, books I’ve already read I find fit the bill for what I need in a story, and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was one such story. It had first come to my attention as a particular favorite of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, who used to have inside jokes about noses. Yes, noses, which is strangely enough a theme in the book.

Strange for any other book, I should say. Tristram Shandy is by far the most insane book I have ever read. Brimming with satire, peopled with ridiculous characters and ridiculous happenings. Supposedly a biography of the title character, it is better than 150 pages in (in our modern typesetting) before he’s actually born. The story flits and darts around and goes off into any number of side stories (and sermons, plus one excommunication) before returning to the supposed primary narrative, but never for long.

And then there are the typographically and structurally wild things Sterne does, things I would not have otherwise thought they would attempt in 18th century typesetting. Is it just me, or is your first reaction to this: He used a WEBDING!!!

Icon within text

There is one chapter that has been “removed,” and its removal is discussed in the following chapter. There are oddities like this Alas, POOR YORICK! followed by two pages of what I believe is straight-up INK:

Alas, poor Yorick!


There are these quite accurate squiggly lines the author uses to describe the prior narrative:

squiggly lines

Less visual but equally noteworthy is the tone Sterne uses, as though his narrator is on terms of intimacy with the reader, such terms as make it acceptable to run off into tangents, and, on occasion, berate her:

How could you, madam: berating the reader

One theme we will return to often in this series is that this was, as Victoria Kincaid wrote in her recent post, the era of the rise of the novel. It was also the era of the rise of reading for pleasure, as this New Yorker article details (read it if just for the quote of “all six, every year;” you may guess what the six were!). I think these two things went hand in hand. The thing about Tristram Shandy, though, was that it broke the rules for a genre that hardly existed at the time it was written. I am not sure that there has ever been anything like it since; perhaps Sterne was able to defy expectations because they had not yet been firmly set, and perhaps there’s something for all of us to learn from that.

Did Jane Austen read Tristram Shandy? It’s not clear: one or two passing references in her letters seem to be references to it, but it could just be that aspects of the novel were just part of the cultural lexicon at the time. Interestingly, though, there is a lot of consistency in the way they handle punctuation, one we would consider antiquated today, with commas, semicolons and colons often preceding an mdash. Punctuation will be a topic I return to in some detail in a future post, but for now here’s a sample.

Hobby horses paragraph (to show punctuation)

There’s more evidence that Austen read Sterne’s [easyazon_link identifier=”B0082ZBXS8″ locale=”US” tag=”austauth0d-20″]A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy[/easyazon_link], which is a less nuts place to start, if you want to give Sterne a try but aren’t quite ready for Tristram Shandy. If she did read either or both, I cannot see a huge influence on her work: while both Austen and Sterne had tremendous wit, Sterne’s comes out in an outrageous fashion in his work, while Austen’s is subtle.

If you do want to give it a try, there are [easyazon_link identifier=”B0082RZPWG” locale=”US” tag=”austauth0d-20″]free versions on Amazon[/easyazon_link], but (and I am a big fan of ebooks) this is one book that I would recommend getting in a physical copy, just to fully appreciate everything that’s going on with the typesetting. Or start up with it on Google Play books. Do be aware that it contains a lot of mdashed out words that are presumably swear words, as well as a goodly amount of 18th century innuendo.




13 Responses to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

  1. I took a course in experimental fiction years ago. Most of it was modern. Writers trying to do everything new under the sun. Instructor had “Tristram Shandy” near the end of the course to make the point that Sterne, in one of the earliest novels written, had already done more experimental stuff than people 200 years later. “Shandy” caused me to read everything else Sterne had written. None of it was nearly as wild.

  2. What is a mdash? I thought of Bingley is attempting to read parts of Tristan Shandy. Substituting “f” for “s”, etc. Trying to decipher it all takes away from the flow and thus the pleasure of reading for me. I do wonder when authors quote books and recite poetry if they have it all in their head, as experienced first hand or if it is added through research. Thanks for sharing.

    • It’s a long dash as opposed to a shorter one: —

      I hadn’t thought of Bingley but now that you mention him, it totally fits! I have a hard time with the f/s thing, too. I read a whole book on midwifery from that age and they were all like that, and it was so hard to do the mental translation in my head. Also to understand 18th century medical terms, haha.

      Thank you for your comment, Sheila!

  3. I am so glad that you going to make this into a series. I have heard of this book but have never read. I can imagine that this book would have been a favorite of Mr. Bennet.

  4. Lol, when I was reading your story Sophie, you got me so interested, that I downloaded Tristram on my Kindle TBR. But after reading your post, I have to get to it soon. 😉 Thanks

  5. How interesting to read.
    I actually read a lot of the books that I find in P&P variations just to understand the books and the era better.
    Have not read Shandy but Tom Jones, The Mystery of Udolfo and (blush) The Perfumed Garden are examples of books I have discovered because of my obsession with JAFF. Though the latter was not yet translated to English nor even french in the regency era.
    This will be next on my reading list, I think it sounds very much like something I imagine Austen would read…

    • Thank you for your comment, Elin! I think at least Udolfo is going to be on my list for this series. And yeah, I think Austen would have read a fair amount of satire in order to develop that wit of hers!

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