He was a North Yorkshire priest, a serial adulterer, a political campaigner - and he still found time to write one of our greatest novels. CHRIS TITLEY finds out more about Laurence Sterne's life and opinions

MUCH has been said about Laurence Sterne's nine- volume work The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. "Extremely influential" says the Cambridge Guide to Literature in English; "the ancestor of psychological and stream-of-consciousness fiction" says the Encyclopedia Britannica.

For Prof Ian Campbell Ross, it's simpler than that. "I just think Tristram Shandy is one of the funniest novels ever to be written. It's a comic masterpiece," he said. "It makes me laugh out loud every time I read it."

Prof Ross, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, edited the Oxford Classics edition of Tristram Shandy. Afterwards, he found his thoughts returning regularly to Sterne, and eventually he decided to find out more about him. The result is his biography Laurence Sterne: A Life.

And what a life. Born the son of an Army officer in Ireland in 1713, Sterne spent most of his childhood in poverty. He was educated in Yorkshire and at Cambridge, before taking holy orders: his grandfather was Archbishop of York.

He first acquired the vicarage of Sutton-on-the-Forest, later gaining a second living at Stillington. Early on he had the support of his uncle Jacques Sterne, a powerful clergyman and politician. On his behalf, Sterne wrote articles supporting the Whig Party. When he withdrew from politics in disgust, he made a lifelong enemy of Uncle Jacques.

Much of Sterne's life was spent very much as a typical 18th century clergyman. It wasn't to his liking.

Prof Ross argues that he never had a real calling for the cloth: "the respectable tedium of life in a country parish soon led to restlessness," he writes.

Sterne also spent a lifetime seeking love. "His father dies when he's a very young man," Prof Ross said. "He's alienated from his mother and from his sisters.

"He tried all his life to find a relationship that was satisfying. Every time he thinks he has found it, some way or another, often through his own fault, it's disappointed him."

Sterne's marriage to Elizabeth started well, but soon deteriorated. It is not certain how many children they had, but only one survived, Lydia. One boy died at three weeks old, leaving his father inconsolable.

Perhaps it was these tragedies that pushed Elizabeth towards her nervous breakdown. At one point, she believed herself to be the Queen of Bohemia.

Sterne's reputation as a libertine cannot have helped. "Before he was married he was notorious for his sexual liaisons. That goes on throughout the time he was a priest.

"There are stories of him having mistresses and visiting prostitutes from York - stories of him travelling to York maybe to give a sermon, maybe to have a liaison with a prostitute.

"There's a story that Elizabeth found him in the marriage bed with a maid and pulls him from the bed. That gives some reason why she might have been pretty unhappy."

These affairs scandalised society, but Sterne retained the loyalty of many of his parishioners, Prof Ross says. He had "a gift for friendship" and there are many tales of his charity towards those who needed it most.

"It's very striking that almost all of these stories are about people who are in very poor circumstances: people who have gone down in the world, or who have never gone up in the world."

There was another reason for his popularity at home, Prof Ross notes. "One of the things they would have liked is that he was a good preacher. It's a very un-modern thing, but people walked quite long distances in the countryside to hear good preachers.

"To have someone in your village who's one of the best, that would have been a real bonus."

But Sterne was not satisfied with local celebrity. "I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous," he declared after the publication of Tristram Shandy had delivered that dream and more.

Its popularity catapulted him from obscure provincial cleric into "European star" and Prof Ross marvels at how this must have transformed his life. Before Tristram Shandy, he lived in a rural village where the roads were so poor he could be cut off from York for weeks.

"He obviously led a very restricted life. All of a sudden, he's being asked to dinner by leading writers and noblemen. The Prince of Wales invited him to a private dinner. It's such a phenomenal change for him. He must have thought, 'Yes, life can be like this!'"

But the biography also draws a telling comparison between Sterne's stardom and that of a modern-day celebrity.

"He was viciously attacked as well as lavishly praised," Prof Ross said.

Tristram Shandy was a pioneering novel because "it is the first real form of writing which all readers can identify with. It's not written in verse. It doesn't require you to know a great deal," said Prof Ross. The Irish academic spent much time in Yorkshire researching his biography of Sterne, visiting the Minster Library, the Borthwick Institute and the Reference Library in York. He was particularly grateful to Kenneth Monkman, owner of Shandy Hall, Sterne's home in his third parish of Coxwold. "He brought to light a whole range of different works by Sterne, even political works important for a fuller understanding of his life."

After devoting several years to uncovering the real Laurence Sterne, does Prof Ross like him? "Yes I do. I like him because he was an unhappy person, who was really looking for a lasting relationship. I think he recognised very early on in his pursuit that this kind of happiness was likely to be illusory, but he kept on trying."

Laurence Sterne: A Life is published by Oxford University Press tomorrow, price £25