Jane Austen and Laurence Sterne

For some time I have wondered whether Jane Austen had read Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy". Both authors display great wit and honesty in their depiction of characters. "Tristram Shandy" slightly addresses the duties of clergy, a subject which interested Jane Austen. She certainly read "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy". She might also have read Sterne's "Sermons of Mr. Yorick". "Tristram Shandy" was such a notorious book that I thought perhaps Jane Austen had avoided it. She was not one to honour the merely notorious. Tristram Shandy is not "merely notorious" of course, but -- did Jane Austen think so?

I recently ran across a reference to "Tristram Shandy" in one of Jane Austen's letters.

In her letter of September 14, 1804 to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen is describing the household arrangements during the family's visit to Lyme. She says:

"James is the delight of our lives, he is quite an uncle Toby's annuity to us. My mother's shoes were never so well blacked before, & our plate never looked so clean. He waits extremely well, is attentive, handy, quick and quiet, & in short has a great many more than all the cardinal virtues (for the cardinal virtues in themselves have been so long possessed that they are no longer worth having) & amongst the rest, that of wishing to go to Bath, as I understand from Jenny. He has the laudable thirst I fancy for travelling, which in poor James Selby [character in "Sir Charles Grandison"] was so much reprobated, & part of his disappointment in not going with his master, arose from his wish of seeing London."
[This letter is unfortunately not one of those available online.]

"Uncle Toby's annuity" is a reference to Corporal Trim in "Tristram Shandy". Trim's real name was James Butler -- see T.S. Vol.II Ch.V. That volume of "Tristram Shandy" was published in 1760.

It is possible that "uncle Toby's annuity" was a common usage in 1804, derived from "Tristram Shandy" of course but not direct evidence that one had read the book. 

Another indication that Jane Austen was familiar with Sterne's work comes from a congratulatory note sent to Jane Austen by her brother James Austen, after the publication of "Sense and Sensibility":

On such subjects no wonder that she shou'd write well,
in whom so united those Qualities dwell;
Where 'dear Sensibility', Stern's darling Maid,
With Sense so attemper'd is finely pourtray'd.
Fair Elinor's self in that Mind is exprest
And the Feelings of Marianne live in that Breast,
Oh then, gentle Lady! continue to write,
And the sense of your Readers t'amuse & delight.

Sterne's darling Maid, "dear Sensibility", refers to his book "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Mr. Yorick"

Sterne's "Sentimental Journey" also shows up in Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park", chapter 10. Fanny and the other visitors to Sotherton have walked out into the grounds, and Maria wishes to explore beyond the iron gate. She says, to Henry Crawford,

"Naturally, I believe, I am as lively as Julia, but I have more to think of now."

"You have, undoubtedly; and there are situations in which very high spirits would denote insensibility. Your prospects, however, are too fair to justify want of spirits. You have a very smiling scene before you."

"Do you mean literally or figuratively? Literally, I conclude. Yes, certainly the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha-ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. 'I cannot get out,' as the starling said." As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate; he followed her. "Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!"

Sterne's starling which says "I cannot get out" appears in his chapter "The Passport". I will leave it to you to read this evocative passage of the "Sentimental Journey".

A "ha-ha" is a ditch used as a fence to partition the grounds, so-called because it is sunk below the level of the landscaping and one comes upon it suddenly. Elizabeth's Jenkins' biography of Jane Austen has some excellent comments upon landscaping and upon the "starling affair" -- see chapters 6 and 4 respectively. 

Can anyone suggest other material from Jane Austen's writings which might indicate if she had herself read "Tristram Shandy" or the "Sermons of Mr. Yorick"?

Please reply via electronic mail to Ken Roberts at ken@mirror.org

URL: http://www.mirror.org/ken.roberts/austen.sterne.html
Last revised January 13, 1998 by Ken Roberts E-mail ken@mirror.org
Copyright 1997 by Ken Roberts. All rights reserved.

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