Laurence Sterne, novelist and author of Tristram Shandy (1713-1768)

Location of plaque: 35 Stonegate, York

You'll have heard of Laurence Sterne. He's that bloke who once lived in Coxwold and who wrote a book called Tristram Shandy. Some of you might even have read it. Chances are most of you won't have, dismissing it as just another boring, dusty book by a man who lived centuries ago.

Well, Sterne was many things: but boring and dusty weren't among them. He was a man with no off switch. Despite being the great-grandson of an Archbishop of York (Richard Sterne) he seemingly felt able to say (or write) whatever came into his head.

Tristram Shandy, his most famous book, is a bawdy, gleeful, hopelessly (and deliberately) disorganised romp in which the hero sets out to narrate the story of his life, but gets drawn into endless digressions, detours, diversions and asides, many of them wickedly funny.

Tristram begins by describing, with typical frankness, the moment of his conception. At the very moment of procreation, he says (and it really is as though you can hear him speaking to you), his mother asked his father if he had remembered to wind the clock. Tristram later blames this break in concentration for the fact that he didn't turn out as well in life as he might have done. "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them...had minded what they were about when they begot me," he confides. "Had they...proceeded accordingly, I am verily persuaded I should have made quite a different figure in the world."

Young Tristram suffers a number of other misfortunes which mentally scar him for life: including, at the age of three, suffering an accidental circumcision when the maid, Susannah, lets a window sash fall just as little Tristram is urinating out of it because his chamberpot is missing...

Gleeful is the best word to describe Sterne. "Keyholes are the occasions of more sin and wickedness, than all other holes in this world put together," he has his hero say in Tristram Shandy. You can almost see the knowing wink. But this is more than just innuendo. Sterne loves sin and impropriety, you can tell. You can picture him bending an eye to every keyhole he comes across just to see what he can learn that he shouldn't.

He can be sharp, too. He has Tristram imagining his father musing philosophically upon the separation of mind and body, and concluding that they must indeed be separate because 'it is true that people can walk about and do their business without brains'. Well, we've all met people who do that...

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Stern was that he combined all this glee, wit, wisdom and garrulity with a career as... a priest.

His father was an army ensign, so Sterne spent his childhood moving from barracks to barracks. But his uncle Dr Jacques Sterne was Precentor of York. After Stern graduated from Cambridge he helped him get a job first as curate at Catton and then as Vicar of Sutton-on-the-Forest. He was there for 20 years before becoming Vicar of St Michael's, Coxwold, where he named the parsonage Shandy Hall after the house in his novel.

He started writing Tristram Shandy while still at Sutton-on-the-Forest. He submitted the first two volumes (of nine) to a London publisher, who rejected them. Instead, in 1759, Sterne arranged for them to be printed in York at his own expense by Anne Ward. The first print run of just 200 copies went on sale at John Hinxman's shop in Stonegate in 1759.

By the time his next two volumes were ready, he was the talk of the London coffee houses. Joshua Reynolds painted Sterne (looking out at the viewer, his wig askew) and William Hogarth provided the frontispiece for the second edition of his book. The phrase 'clock-winding' even took on a new and bawdy meaning...

Fame can often be fleeting. Dr Johnson predicted in 1776 that the popularity of Tristram Shandy would not last. He was wrong. This book first printed and distributed in York in 1759 is still read all over the world. Steve Coogan even starred (as both Sterne and his most famous character, Tristram Shandy) in the 2005 comedy A Cock And Bull Story. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Dr Johnson.

Stephen Lewis

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