Biography of Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne, best know for A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy, was born in Clonmel in Tipperary, Ireland in 1713. His father, Roger Sterne, was an army officer, and his mother, Agnes, was the daughter of a traveling army supplier. The family traveled a great deal, and when he was ten, Sterne was sent to Hipperholme, England. He entered Jesus College at Cambridge University and earned a B.A. in 1737, then was ordained in the Church of England. In 1740 he received an M.A. At this time he experienced a hemorrhage in his lungs and contracted incurable tuberculosis.

He married Elizabeth Lumley in 1741 and began his career as a writer not long after. Only one child survived to adulthood, and the marriage was generally unhappy. Sterne was known for multiple extramarital affairs.

He contributed to the York Gazetteer, a political paper started by his uncle, and published “The Unknown World” in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1743. About a decade or so later he published A Political Romance (1759), which satirized a corrupt local official named Francis Topham. The work was in the style of Jonathan Swift. That same year Sterne published Tristram Shandy in two volumes; the initial printing was small but it immediately garnered fame and attention. Within months Sterne was lionized, traveling to London and having Joshua Reynolds paint his portrait.

In 1760 Sterne published Sermons of Mr. Yorick. This book arose from a sermon Sterne included in Tristram Shandy that he’d written himself and attained approbation for.

Over the next several years Sterne issued more volumes of Tristram Shandy and spent time in Paris to seek improvement in his health. His time on the continent led to A Sentimental Journey (1768).

In 1767 Sterne modeled Journal to Eliza off of Swift’s Journal to Stella after he fell in love with the 23-year old Elizabeth Draper, the wife of an East India Company official. Seen as scandalous, it was not published in his lifetime.

Sterne underwent treatment for syphilis but died of tuberculosis in 1768.

Study Guides on Works by Laurence Sterne

Tristram Shandy is, almost beyond argument, the most unusual, outrageously experimental and subversive novel that most people who possess basic literacy skills could ever read. While James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake definitely outstrips this novel in...