Sterne, Laurence (1713–68), novelist and clergyman, was born 24 November 1713 in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, where his father, Roger (1683–1731), an ensign in the 34th Regiment of Foot, had been posted following the treaty of Utrecht, and where he had recently arrived from Flanders, along with his wife, Agnes (previously Hobert or Hobart). Though the fact of Sterne's Irish birth was fortuitous, Roger Sterne's family had important Irish connections: members of the collateral branch that settled in Ireland in the seventeenth century – claiming common descent from Richard Sterne (1596?–1683), archbishop of York 1664–83 – included John Stearne (qv) (1624–69), founder of the College of Physicians, and his son, also John Stearne (qv) (1660–1745), bishop of Dromore (1713–17) and Clogher (1717–45). More important in the youthful Sterne's experience was Brig.-gen. Robert Stearne, brother to the younger John, and a governor of the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, on whose estate at Tullynally Castle, near Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, the Sternes would pass twelve months in 1722–3. To be settled in one place for so long was as welcome as it was unusual. After Roger Sterne's recall to active service in Ireland during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, Agnes Sterne, accompanied by her young son and his older sister, followed her husband in repeated, arduous journeys through England, Wales, and back to Ireland. A year in the barracks in Wicklow town in 1720 was followed by a stay in the nearby village of Annamoe; it was there, Sterne would remember in his brief ‘Memoirs’, that ‘I had that wonderful Escape in falling thro a Mill Race whilst the Mill was going – and of being taken up unhurt – The Story is Incredible – But known for Truth in all that part of Ireland, where hundreds of the Common people flocked to see me’ (Memoirs, 9). Not all the Sternes' children were so fortunate: the young Laurence lost four siblings to illness during the family's continual travels, which now led from Annamoe to Dublin and a posting to Carrickfergus, happily interrupted when the Sternes ‘stumbled’ across their relative, Robert Stearne. The stay at Tullynally Castle provided respite for the impoverished ensign and his family and was, many years later, to bear literary fruit when Sterne recalled the brigadier-general's accounts of campaigning in Flanders during the 1690s in his portrayal of Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy. In 1723 or 1724, Roger Sterne accompanied his son to school near Halifax, in Yorkshire; Sterne would see neither his father nor Ireland again.
Taken in on sufferance by Roger's elder brother, Sterne enjoyed an education whose costs he was committed to defray when his circumstances allowed. In 1733 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1737. Ordained as a priest in the established church in 1738, Sterne served briefly in St Ives, Huntingdonshire, and at Catton before obtaining the living of Sutton-on-the-Forest, eight miles from York, in August 1738.
In this, Sterne was aided by another uncle, the powerful church lawyer, archdeacon of Cleveland and precentor of York Minister, Dr Jaques Sterne. The assistance was not unconditional: a zealous whig, Dr Jaques Sterne put his nephew to work as a political journalist, most notably on behalf of his party's candidate in the Yorkshire by-election campaign of 1741–2. While he complied with his uncle's demands, Sterne prospered, receiving in short succession two prebendal stalls in the minster. Finding himself attacked as scurrilously as he lampooned his tory opponents, Sterne publicly withdrew from political writing in 1742, incurring the undying hostility of his uncle, and ending hopes of further significant promotion in the church.
On 30 March 1741 Sterne married Elizabeth Lumley (1714–73), daughter of the Rev. Robert and Lydia Lumley, and through her acquired a second living, Stillington, adjacent to his first. For almost twenty years the couple lived principally in the country parish of Sutton, on an income rarely adequate to their needs. They did not live easily, for their marriage was troubled both by Sterne's notorious infidelities and by the death of an uncertain number of children born to Elizabeth, only one of whom, Lydia (1747–79), survived infancy .In this time, Sterne published little: only two sermons can certainly be attributed to him. He did, however, gain a reputation as an eloquent preacher and his published sermons included the subsequently celebrated ‘Abuses of conscience’ (1750). Attempts to increase the modest value of his livings by farming went unrewarded.
The frustrating ecclesiastical politicking centred on York minster, which occupied much of Sterne's time during the 1740s and 50s, eventually pointed the way to literary success. A political romance; or, The story of a good warm watch-coat (1759), enjoyed local renown for its wittily satirical depiction of ecclesiastical dignitaries. At the direction of the archbishop, the work was ordered to be burned (only half a dozen copies survived), but Sterne was soon engaged on a new fiction which he offered to the leading London bookseller, Robert Dodsley. Dodsley declined but proffered suggestions that Sterne took seriously enough to complete the first two volumes of a significantly revised work, The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman (1759–67), published anonymously in a small edition of around 500 copies, at York in December 1759.
Despite the obscurity of its publication, Sterne's comic novel was an immediate triumph, bringing its author celebrity in London (and later Paris) as well as York. “I wrote not to be fed, but to be famous”, Sterne declared, but the critical praise accorded Tristram Shandy was matched by commercial success, to the author's undisguised delight. A Dublin edition of volumes I and II, which Sterne had some part in negotiating, was followed in April 1760 by Dodsley's publication of the first London edition, graced by a frontispiece Sterne solicited from William Hogarth, and a hugely impressive list of subscribers of rank and achievement. The famous portrait of Sterne by Joshua Reynolds was painted at this time (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London). Sterne's success was not unalloyed. The revelation that the facetious author of this bawdy novel was a clergyman led severer moralists to denounce Sterne as quite unsuited to the cloth. Paradoxically, the publication in May 1760 of two volumes of otherwise much admired sermons increased their indignation, for they appeared under a provocative title, The sermons of Mr Yorick, designed to profit from readers' delight in the partly autobiographical portrait of Parson Yorick in Tristram Shandy. Initially shaken by the moral censure, Sterne stood firm, relishing the social esteem and material rewards his work brought him, including preferment to the Yorkshire living of Coxwold. Further two-volume instalments of Tristram Shandy followed in 1760 and 1761. An extended visit to France in 1762–4 led to an account of Tristram's own travels in the seventh volume of the novel, which was published, along with the eighth, in 1765; a final, ninth, volume appeared in 1767. To these, Sterne added a further two volumes of sermons in 1766 (three more volumes were published posthumously in 1769 by his daughter who, as Mrs Medalle, edited Sterne's letters in 1775).
From his student days, Sterne suffered from consumption or pulmonary tuberculosis, whose frightening progress marks his fiction as it marked his life. In the years of his success, he fought against the disease by two extended stays in milder climes, the second of which – to France and Italy in 1765–6 – provided material for his final novel, A sentimental journey (1768). The terminal stages of the illness were mapped by Sterne in some extravagantly sentimental letters written to a young married woman, Elizabeth Draper – the so-called ‘Journal to Eliza’ (published 1904). The journal is by no means an unliterary work but the often raw sentiment of the dying Sterne finds a more polished and ambivalent counterpart in A sentimental journey through France and Italy. By Mr Yorick, whose single, slim volume (two had been projected) was published in the month before Sterne's death on 13 March 1768. The impact of Sterne's sentimentalism on the eighteenth-century cult of literary sensibility, in Britain and Ireland, in Europe and North America, can scarcely be overestimated. The implications of his anatomising of the novel form are felt as surely in the twenty-first century as they have been since he wrote. The best modern editions of his writings are Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New and Peter de Voogd (2 vols, 2009); A sentimental journey through France and Italy, ed. Gardner D. Stout, Jr (1967); The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman, ed. Ian Campbell Ross (1983, rev. ed. with new introduction, 2009); Sterne's memoirs: an hitherto unrecorded holograph now brought to light in facsimile, ed. Kenneth Monkman (1985); and The sermons of Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New (2 vols, 1996).
Though Sterne died in England, time and chance almost conspired to bring about a final return to Ireland, for his friend Dr Jemmett Browne (1702?–1782), bishop of Cork and Ross (1745–72), purportedly offered him an Irish living. Several close acquaintances in his last years were Irish, and so too were the most significant of his eighteenth- and twentieth-century imitators in English. Among the former, his friend Richard Griffith (qv) and Henry Brooke (qv) stand out; among the latter, James Joyce (qv), Flann O'Brien (qv), and Samuel Beckett (qv). Joyce, who considered Sterne his ‘fellow-countrym[a]n’, declared the elements of Work in progress to be ‘exactly what every novelist might use: man and woman, birth and childhood, night, sleep, marriage, prayer, death . . . Only I am trying to bring many planes of narrative within a single aesthetic purpose. Did you ever read Laurence Sterne?’ (Ellmann, 554).