In the final weeks of 1759, the first two volumes of a new fictional work were published in York, at the author’s own expense. Entitled The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the book was the first piece of extended prose fiction by Laurence Sterne, a middle-aged clergyman who, having tired of his involvement in local, political and ecclesiastical affairs, had cast his gaze towards the prospect of literary fame. From such humble beginnings emerged the cultural phenomenon of the 1760s. Given its origins in provincial obscurity, the hubbub that Sterne’s book managed to create among the fashionable literary culture of London was truly remarkable. As with Pamela during the 1740s, the publication of Tristram Shandy provoked a mini-industry of printed responses, both imitative and antagonistic, along with assorted other testaments to its permeation of contemporary culture: a Tristram Shandy card game; Tristram Shandy china ware; a Tristram Shandy race horse. As Boswell’s enraptured response above vividly conveys, to have failed to peruse Sterne’s book during the early months of 1760 could have made one appear unfashionably ‘ill bred’. And yet, from the very beginning, responses to Tristram Shandywere rarely untinged by concerns about the work’s moral moorings. Soon enough, in fact, both Sterne and his book would themselves come to seem ‘ill bred’.
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- The Sympathetic Strain: Sterne and Sentimental Fiction
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