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The lady of the
human interest of which Tristram Shandy is so full. The central figure, so brilliantly described by Sam Weller as "the gentleman in the black silk smalls as knowed the young 'ooman as kept a goat," does not appeal to us at all in the same way as Walter or Tobias Shandy, as the Corporal, or even as the Widow. He is no creation; he is only a chorus commenting on himself. As for "the young 'ooman" herself, English nineteenth-century humanity has been falling more and more away from her, till at the present moment it requires a positive operation of deliberate literary effort to feel any interest in her at all. The same remark is not much less true of the monk. remise is a little different: she is at least flesh and blood of all time, not a mere cloud for the Ixions of a very little day to wreak their mock-passions on; and La Fleur, who was a real man, retains some of his reality. With these rank the grisette and the fille-de-chambre, and the two actresses in the above-mentioned trio-finale. But they are still types rather than persons, which no doubt is French enough, and a reason why the French like them. The prisoner is not much better than the dead donkey-the starling is a much superior creature to either-and the episode of the notary looks like a return (it is true it is the only one) to the pure coq-à-l'âne divagations of Tristram. Still, all these scenes and characters—good, indifferent, and, as it now seems to us, almost bad-have something of a phantasmagoric character, as they pass before the sighing, smiling, sneering figure in the black silk smalls, who seems at once to act as showman to us, and as soliloquising reminiscent to himself. They never have the
full-flowing life of their forerunners, but they move with a sort of ghostly unity, a similarity of mood and decoration, in which those forerunners are usually lacking.
It may be added, that the Sentimental Journey is very far indeed from being without touches of nature, though Sterne has chosen to give them in this odd second-hand way. Nowhere is he shrewder in this respect; nowhere are his criticisms of mankind, whether in general or as Frenchmen or Englishmen, more acute. It must be added, that there is no improvement, if there is not even a further fall, in respect of his most notorious and most offensive failing. The Sentimental Journey has indeed nothing in it quite so "gross as many passages of Tristram; but the air of double-meaning is almost more universal; and indeed the practice had evidently by this time become what the French call a tic with the author. In Tristram, the innuendoes of this kind are always pretty obvious, unless they are sly allusions to some older writer, which may escape those who have read him not, though they will strike those who have read him full in the face. In the Sentimental Journey the hints are so quintessenced and alembicated, that sometimes the reader wonders whether he has got them on the brain himself, and is, as the Swedes say, "seeing ghosts by daylight." But there is very little fear, or rather hope, of this in Sterne's case; and it may be taken as much more likely that a passage which seems innocent has a snigger in it somewhere, than that one capable of being twisted was not intended to undergo the twist.
There is small need, however, to dwell on "the worst parts of Tristram "-words which Shandeans will recognise and take in good part. In this, his most
generally acceptable, if not exactly most famous book, the essence of him is at least fully recognisable.
I do not know whether it be a faulty style of criticism— at any rate, it is a style to which I find myself more and more attached the longer that I practise the critical profession-but it seems to me much more to the point to hold to the best things in a man, than to explore the worst. In Sterne's case especially, there are so many excuses and alleviations! He had passed those years— the earlier years of manhood—which far more than the years of youth determine and harden the plies of the soul, in a second-class, though not a wholly undistinguished society, without practice, without criticism. The space of time in which it was given him to produce work for the public eye was not very long, was huddled (as his own day would have said) with infinite distractions, and was not abundantly provided with those opportunities of clearing the judgment by aid of unfavourable and, perhaps, even unfair comment which most men of letters enjoy, or at least undergo. I am of course aware that Sterne met with unfavourable criticism enough-in some cases from men as distinguished as Goldsmith and Smollett. But these criticisms, which in his time had little weight as coming from periodical writers, were overborne by fashionable applause. Nor was he long enough exposed to them to derive much benefit in any case. Moreover,
Goldsmith, at the time that he criticised Sterne, was an unknown bookseller's hack; Smollett's unvarying savagery and partisanship diminished the value, though they may not have softened the sting, of his criticism; and it is fair to say that neither had any really consider
able critical powers, great men as both were in other respects. I do not think that much longer practice would have done Sterne much good. The gods are just always, and perhaps they are not very often chargeable even with unkindness. In different circumstances, it is quite possible-it is almost certain-that he would not have written at all. Very few people would have heard of him; he would have died a tolerably easy-going prebendary and vicar, with no extraordinarily good reputation among those who knew him, and with nothing to give him any reputation at all among those who did not know. As it was, his fate was different. There was found for him the work that his hand was fitted to do, and he did it; did it so thoroughly, that I can hardly conceive his having improved the doing, whatever span had been granted him. Rather would he-for his reading was not very wide, and his genius, though intensely individual, was rather narrow-have continued to do worse, and worse, and worse what he had once done, with all his shortcomings, well, and almost supremely well. For we could not, at any price that could be easily formulated or paid, sp re Sterne from English literature. He was not wanted to found a school; and his scholars, so far as he has had any, have not been very happy. His humour, even at its very best, lacks distinction and greatness. His pathos, even at its very best, is far below the highest. His sensibility, as distinguished from his pathos, is precious, like Henri-Deux ware (which they have left off calling Henri-Deux), because of its rarity and its peculiarity, not of its beauty. His learning is not deep; his wit, apart from tricks, not
perfect; his deliberate indecency, incomparably un
But in his combination of these things he stood alone, and supplies a product of the British genius which, without him, would have been wanting. If Sterne had been a Frenchman, he would have been a kind of second-class Voltaire, a person to be gladly done without when we had the first-class one. If he had been an ordinary Englishman, with the ordinary Englishman's sense of restraint and propriety, or even an extraordinary Englishman, with the extraordinary Englishman's contempt for meaner things, he would only have been an inferior Shakespeare or an inferior Swift, or a Fielding with less experience and a thinner genius. But as it was, he showed us what the English race can do when it discards its prudery, is not actuated by any great passions, and approximates nearer to the Continental type than in almost any other author of whom we have intelligence, except Horace Walpole and Francis Jeffrey. The result may not be such as to encourage us to welcome those well-intentioned young persons who think to become distinguished men of letters by disregarding le cant britannique. But it is such as to make us thank Apollo and the Muses that we had Laurence Sterne.
For his work stands by itself; it is delightful in its weaknesses as in its strength. The illegitimate way of reckoning such things goes on the principle of asking, "Would you give for Sterne's work a play of Shakespeare, a book of the Faerie Queene, a novel of Fielding's or of Thackeray's?" This is wrong and illogical. The just criterion is, "Would you, for an