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Home | 2016 | March

Tristram's bad start in life, 2 March 1718

Posted by Richard on UTC 2016-03-02 07:16.

I was begot in the night betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen. [1] I am positive I was.—But how I came to be so very particular in my account of a thing which happened before I was born, is owing to another small anecdote known only in our own family, but now made publick for the better clearing up this point.

My father, you must know, […] was, I believe, one of the most regular men in every thing he did, whether 'twas matter of business, or matter of amusement, that ever lived. As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,—to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,—he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.

It was attended but with one misfortune, which, in a great measure, fell upon myself, and the effects of which I fear I shall carry with me to my grave; namely, that from an unhappy association of ideas, which have no connection in nature, it so fell out at length, that my poor mother could never hear the said clock wound up,—but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head—& vice versâ[…].

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? Good G—! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?

Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.

—Then, positively, there is nothing in the question that I can see, either good or bad.—Then, let me tell you, Sir, it was a very unseasonable question at least,—because it scattered and dispersed the animal spirits, whose business it was to have escorted and gone hand in hand with the Homunculus, and conducted him safe to the place destined for his reception.

[My father] saw it verified […] from a thousand other observations he had made upon me, That I should neither think nor act like any other man's child:—But alas! continued he, shaking his head a second time, and wiping away a tear which was trickling down his cheeks, My Tristram's misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into the world.

—My mother, who was sitting by, look'd up, but she knew no more than her backside what my father meant,—but my uncle, Mr. Toby Shandy, who had been often informed of the affair,—understood him very well.

On the fifth day of November, 1718, which to the aera fixed on, was as near nine kalendar months as any husband could in reason have expected,—was I Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours. [2]

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) published his ground-breaking novel Tristram Shandy in 1759. In this portrait of Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds from 1760, Sterne's arm rests upon the manuscript of the novel, which was the talk of London at the time. National Portrait Gallery, London
In 1776, Dr Johnson famously said of the novel: 'Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.' (James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, I, 1776, p. 27.)

References

  1. ^ The night of 2 to 3 March, 1718.
  2. ^ The order of the text excerpts has been changed slightly for narrative consistency. The text is that of Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Everyman's Library 1991 / Golden Cockerell 1929, p. 2-7.