The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759)

by Rachel Baker on October 29, 2013

The Guardian’s sixth book in the 100-week series on the 100 best novels written in English is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, published in 1759. Originally when it first came out it caused both delight and consternation – it appears as if for most readers of this novel, the reaction is still the same.

Tristram Shandy and its author, Laurence Sterne, are so intensely modern in mood and attitude, so profanely alert to the nuances of the human comedy, and so engaged with the narrative potentiality of the genre that it comes as something of a shock to discover that the novel was published during the seven years war. In other words, it appeared during the annus mirabilis of that prototype of international warfare that saw stunning British military victories in India, Canada and the Caribbean, and established the first British empire that would send the English language around the world. Some of the raw ebullience of the national mood is mirrored in the slightly mad pages of this uniquely entertaining novel.

“Shandy” is a word of obscure origin meaning “crack-brained, half-crazy”. Tristram himself says he is writing a “civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book”. As such, it became a huge bestseller in the 1760s. Sterne became a celebrity, and made a fortune, fulfilling a deep ambition. “I wrote, not to be fed but to be famous,” he once said. Success had come late. Born in Ireland in 1713, Sterne spent much of his life as a country vicar near York. (In the novel, Parson Yorick is an ironical self-portrait.) His work had the difficulties often associated with original work. The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were rejected by the London publisher, Robert Dodsley, but, when privately printed, quickly sold out.

Book 5 of the series: Tom Jones

Book 4 of the series: Clarissa

Book 3 of the series: Gullivers Travels

Book 2 of the series: Robinson Crusoe

Book 1 of the series: The Pilgrims Progress

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