Haunting of Laurence Sterne

Wednesday, December 12th 2018

Enlightenment & Amusement with Regard to York, its Surrounding Areas & the British Isles
York History Regular Feature
The curious tale of York’s distinguished local author and his encounter with the supernatural!
aurence Sterne was the renowned author of the humorous semi-biographical narrative ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Sterne himself departed this mortal plane in London on the eighth day of March 1768 (although no reports of his anxiously scribbling phantom have thus far been reported) However, his early years were spent in the local area and following his ordination as deacon he acted as vicar of the nearby village of Sutton-on-the-Forest and was also a prebendary of York Minster.
    For a while (it seems unclear as to exactly how long) he lived within what is now the bustling hive of retail iniquity that is Stonegate, but in those halcyon pre-leisure-retail days of old it was the centre of York’s printing press trade, the first pioneering business having arrived in 1480.
    The perceptive reader that I am confident you are will be pondering on the efficacy of this location for a future author, and as such will forgive a small digression from our tale of the supernatural to honour the achievement of one of York’s more notable sons.
    Sterne duly took advantage of his locale in 1759 when deciding to self publish the first two parts of his now famous novel. Having been, as it would appear is the case with all aspiring novel writers, rejected by all the London publishers, Sterne dug into his own pockets and commissioned Anne Ward’s printing business (publisher of York’s principle daily newspaper the York Courant [1]) to produce the first two volumes. This would ultimately engender a nine part series published by Robert Dodsley in London, the resultant success propelling its author to fame throughout Europe.
    An element of the book’s writing style has the narrator frequently breaking from the primary narrative to engage in a variety of musings with the reader, and that critical retrospective has lauded our celebrated man of the cloth as the ancestor of ‘stream of consciousness fiction’. It is, in my humble opinion, amusing to note that the success of the novel resulted in two additional volumes of fictional sermons written by one of the book’s early characters, a certain Parson Yorick, whose origin is a further manifestation of the author’s desire for the book to be based upon his own life experiences. Surely then our most innovative of scribes is also responsible for the origination of the ‘spin off’ series.
    My digression over, let us return to Sterne’s abode, wherein he was repeatedly and regularly disturbed by a loud banging noise emanating from his immediate neighbour’s dwelling. Finding no source for this irksome commotion he enquired of the local residents and was told that the previous owner of the property had been an old man living in fear of a late night intrusion by various brigands. At the moment the Minster bells had ceased their midnight tolling he had taken to deterring these imagined characters by repeatedly banging his walking stick on the wall next to his bed, the resultant combination of excessive fear and the incessant repetitiveness of the act culminating in the noise continuing even after the poor wretch had died.
    It must be stated, however, that this was not by the hand of any dastardly intruder but the impassive progress of time, a mistress to which none are afforded protection, no matter the lofty position of their eminence.

  1. A four page folio published in partnership with George Peacock. Anne Ward had taken over the print business earlier that year as a result of her husband Caesar’s demise.

One of a series of illustrations to Laurence Sterne’s The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Engraved by Henry William Bunbury | 1773
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