It’s hard sometimes to reconstruct the world that a classic novel was published into; a book’s settled presence in the canon gives it a superficial respectability that can cloak the circumstances surrounding its birth.
Rarely has this been truer than in the case of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Re-reading it recently for an episode of the "Backlisted" podcast, it was the story of its publication that really captured my imagination.
The novel became an instant sensation and Sterne, then an obscure 46 year-old clergyman living in rural Yorkshire, was catapulted to a level of fame that most contemporary authors can only dream of. But Sterne had carefully prepared his passage to celebrity and how he did so is full of contemporary resonance.
He was strategic in his choice of publisher. Robert Dodsley was one of the most celebrated bookseller/publishers of the day: he had a shop in Pall Mall and had suggested and part-funded the idea of a dictionary to Samuel Johnson. Sterne offered him the rights to Tristram Shandy for a punchy £50 (roughly £8,000 in today’s money). Dodsley refused on grounds of risk but offered to sell the book and spread the word if Sterne could get it printed. This he did by borrowing money and finding a printer in nearby York, who allowed him to check the proofs himself and determine the quality of paper and typography. Fans will know that typographic tricks are central to the novel, so it’s fascinating to see Sterne asserting his authorial agency in a way that most contemporary publishers would struggle to accommodate.
Even more impressive were his plans to market the book. Rather than waiting for the critics to respond, he engaged the endorsement of one the most influential figures in Georgian England. He asked his friend (and probably mistress) the young singer Kitty Fourmantel if she would mind sending the actor David Garrick a letter. Sterne dictated the text in a way that was likely to pique Garrick’s interest: ‘the Graver people however say, tis not fit for young Ladies to read his Book, so perhaps you’ll think it is not fit for a young Lady to recommend it…’ It worked so well that Garrick not only became a patron and an enthusiastic fan – he gave Sterne the use of his private box at Drury Lane. By the time Sterne arrived in London, three months after publication, the book was sold out and its author the talk of the town.
Sterne quickly concluded a deal for a 5,000 copy reprint with Dodsley for £250 (about £40,000) and, using a similar ‘suggestive’ letter persuaded the most famous artist of the day, William Hogarth, to contribute two engravings to the second edition. Illustrations in books were rare then, illustrations by Hogarth, unheard of. In an equally audacious move, he dedicated the book to the Prime Minister, William Pitt, currently riding high in public opinion after a recent string of military victories over France. A sure sign of the book’s success were the many pirate editions and imitations that flooded the market (e.g., The Life and Opinions of Miss Suky Shandy of Bow Street), and that the name ‘Tristram Shandy’ soon found itself applied to card games, dances, a soup and a racehorse. In order to guarantee the authenticity of later volumes, Sterne hand-signed an estimated 12,750 books.
His other brilliant ruse was to include of one of his own sermons in the novel, attributed to Parson Yorick. The text mentions that there are more available – ‘enough to make a handsome volume’. Dodsley took the hint and in May 1760 published a two-volume spin-off edition of The Sermons of Parson Yorick, with a subscriber list that included a dozen earls and seven bishops as well as Garrick, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the radical, John Wilkes. It soon outsold Tristram Shandy.
What are we to draw from this? That originality of content needs to be matched by creative marketing? Undoubtedly, but Tristram Shandy also marked a turning point in the democratisation of literature. His books weren’t just patronised by the great and the good: they were bought in shops by a growing community of ‘unlearned readers’. When he forced Dodsley at huge expense and difficulty to include a double-sided marbled page in the middle of volume three, he created the first ‘personalised’ book. Every marbled page was subtly different; and every reader, whatever their education, was rendered equal in front of the whirling pattern, no one was more or less able to interpret the moral significance of what he called ‘the motly emblem’ of his work.
In a playful and memorable way, Sterne was telling readers he was on their side. Two hundred and sixty years later we’re all still catching up with him.