Such was the Arcadia of his visions. Nor - for a while at any rate - was the actual much less delightful than the dream. Some strange accident enabled this ill-matched pair to live together truly happily, in spite of the forebodings of their friends. "What hope our relation may have of settling the affections of a light and fickle man I know not," wrote Matthew Robinson to Elizabeth's cousin, Mrs. Montagu, "but I imagine she will set about it, not by means of the beauty, but of the arm of flesh." And it must have been this "arm of flesh" which caused Nathaniel Hawthorne to be surprised that "Sterne ever continued to live a week with such an awful woman."
But he did, and for many weeks - happy weeks, too. But, of course, this happiness did not last long. Married bliss - to be permanent - must be built on a surer basis than mere sentiment. And Sterne was a very silly man. Elizabeth soon grew weary of him. Even his wit began to pall, for he seemed incapable of doing anything save make calf eyes at every pretty girl he met. And, knowing him as she did, Mrs. Sterne before long found it difficult to muster enough energy to be jealous. And this, of course, robbed his flirtations of half their charm.
For eighteen years, therefore, husband and wife drifted aimlessly along, and, at the same time, gradually apart. Life became very dull, a monotonous jog-trot parish round, and probably would have continued as such to the very end had it not been for the curious fact that Sterne suddenly aspired to be a farmer.
Now, the gentle art of farming in a very short time deprived this gullible parson of every shilling he possessed. In despair, hoping to recover some of his losses, he set about to write a book. The book, of course, was "Tristram Shandy."
And then Mrs. Sterne suddenly became subject to hallucinations; and when in this condition, firmly believing herself to be Queen of Bohemia, her husband, to keep her quiet, was forced to play the role of King, a duty which he found very irksome.
This, perhaps, will serve partly to excuse him for allowing his friendship with Kitty de Fourmentelle, which, incidentally, began also at this time, to exceed the bounds of his former flirtations. He met Kitty in March, 1759, quite by accident, in a draper's shop. She was trying to buy silk. But, being unable to obtain what she wanted, she was about to purchase something else, when she heard a voice behind her commenting on the folly of buying a thing one didn't want just because one couldn't buy the thing one did want.
She turned round. And there, facing her, stood Sterne. What he was doing in a draper's shop we are not told. However, he was there. And there he met Kitty. And the friendship thus begun ripened extraordinarily quickly.
One has every reason to believe that the nature of the tie between them was no stronger than that of a flirtation. But, still, he would be a very clever counsel who, on the strength of the evidence, could convince a modern British jury of this fact. Besides, a married man has no right to flirt. And in his letters to Kitty, Sterne was more extravagant with sentiment than ever he had been in his letters to his wife. And, as a result, deplorable but inevitable, he turned completely her impressionable little head. So much so, in fact, that when he went to London to see to the publishing of his book she followed him.
What a scandal! And, one may rest quite assured, it did not fail to call for comment even in the eighteenth century. Indeed, even Sterne began to realise that he had "gone too far." Besides, now he had no use for sentiment. In London he found fame, and to him the novelty of fame proved far more interesting. Why, he, an obscure little parson, suddenly had become the darling of society - thanks to his wit, thanks to his book. Success intoxicated him. "I have fourteen engagements to dine now in my books," he declared in one of his letters, "with the highest nobility."
Under such circumstances obviously he found it highly inconvenient to be pursued by a romantic girl. He tried, therefore, to bring the "affair" tactfully to an end. How, extracts from his letters may serve to illustrate: "As I cannot propose the pleasure of your company longer than four o'clock this afternoon, I have sent you a ticket for the Play, and hope you will go there, that I may have the satisfaction of hoping you are entertained when I am not." Again: "If I am prevented from calling at four, I will call at seven." And yet again: "If it would have saved my life, I have not one hour or half-hour in my power since I saw you on Sunday; else my dear Kitty may be sure I should not have been thus absent."
In fact, to cut a long story short, gradually his foolish little flirtings fizzled out. Then he returned to Yorkshire, and was somewhat pained to observe that his wife received him coldly. Indeed, she gave him quite clearly to understand - but also quite politely; they didn't quarrel - that she was tired of him; that he could go his way, and she would go hers. And she did. Henceforth, although always solicitous for her welfare, Sterne saw very little of her, and his parishioners saw still less of him. He was always travelling.
But for some reason he found in his heart a horrid emptiness - yes, in spite of sentimental journeyings. Old age - and Sterne was growing old rapidly, older than his years - is the shallow mind's most bitter enemy. He began to feel the need for that which he had never found - for sympathy, for love. Friends, countless friends, he had, 'tis true, but they were his friends more because he amused them than because they liked him. Admirers he had, too, but it was his wit they admired, not his person. Then he had fame. But what is fame when there is no one with whom to enjoy it, no one to share it with?
In fact, he was lonely. He had made a mistake in refusing to be born till he was forty-six years old. He had trifled with his life. He had made an error. He realised it now.
And Eliza Draper also had made a big mistake, or, rather, one had been made on her behalf, for really she cannot be held to blame for marrying her husband. At the time she had been only fourteen years of age; Daniel Draper forty-something. She had married him in India.
No wonder, then, when she came to England, in 1765, after seven years of marriage to a phlegmatic Indian official old enough to be her father, she felt dissatisfied. Why, she was then only on the verge of womanhood. She longed for the support of some caressing hand, for a friend, a mentor.
Now, the friend she chose was Laurence Sterne. She met him one day at the house of some mutual friends, named James, who lived in Gerrard Street. And he appealed to her immediately, this brilliant, tender man who begged her to "lean her whole weight" upon him, assuring her that the motives of his friendship could not be misread, even by her husband.
And - one may justly credit him with this - it was his intention, without a doubt, merely to befriend this loveless girl. He felt sorry for her. In her unhappiness he saw a parallel to his own. The common bond of sympathy attracted him to her magnetically, for it provided him with that for which he had long sought - an interest in life.
But such bonds are apt to play havoc with the best intentions. With Sterne's most certainly they did. In short, Eliza Draper rejuvenated, humanised him, lifted him out of his self, until, as time went on, there awoke within him something not far akin from a grande passion.
Both in his actions and his letters, extravagant though they be in sentiment, there is a sincerity, a realness, a beauty which he had never before made manifest. He learned to love Eliza Draper. Somehow she found her way to his heart, not merely to his senses.
She was not beautiful. He told her so quite candidly. "When first I saw you," he wrote, "I beheld you as an object of compassion, and a very plain woman." But, he added, "A something in your eyes and D 23 voice you possess in a degree more persuasive than any woman I ever saw, read, or heard of. But it is that bewitching sort of nameless excellence which men of nice sensibility alone can be touched with."
Yes; they soon passed the narrow bounds of friendship. Indeed, Sterne even had the bad taste to wish his own wife dead, that he might marry the woman of his heart.
"My wife cannot live long," he wrote, "and I know not the woman I should like so well for her substitute as yourself. ' Tis true I am ninety-five in constitution, and you but twenty-five - rather too great a disparity, this! But what I want in youth I will make up in wit and humour. Not Swift so loved his Stella, Scarron his Maintenon, or Walter his Sacharissa, as I will love and honour thee, my wife-elect."
But at this, the critical stage of the romance, Fate in the shape of Mr. Draper intervened. Eliza was ordered to return with him to India. And she went.
Poor Sterne! On the day of her departure he "broke a vessel in his breast," and could not stop the flow of blood till four o'clock the following morning. Some Indian handkerchiefs which she had given him alone could staunch it. The blood, of course, came from his heart. And then he sent for "a chart of the Atlantic Ocean," to follow the course of her ocean voyage. He bought a copy of Orme's "History of British India," in order that he might learn about the land graced by her presence. For hours he would sit, gazing wistfully at her portrait.
Really, were it less tinged with melodrama, there would be something quite pathetic about his devotion, his lonely misery. And, indeed, there is. Sterne loved Eliza. And now that she had been taken away, there was nothing left to him. An ineffable loneliness seized hold of him. To alleviate his misery, he even sought a reconciliation with his wife. Lydia, his daughter, lived with her, and he was really fond of Lydia. She might, perhaps, console him.
But Mrs. Sterne refused to reinstate him. Surely one cannot blame her. But to Sterne this denial came as a sorry blow. He who had always lived in dreams now found himself face to face with stern realities. The mirage of his happiness had faded. Death loomed large before him. He had played with Life. He realised his folly now. And, lung-sick, heart-sick, he sank slowly to the grave. In the end it was Mrs. James who proved herself his truest friend.
"Should my child, my Lydia, want a mother," he wrote just before the end, "may I hope you will (if she is left parentless) take her to your bosom? You are the only woman I can depend upon for such a benevolent action."
And then, in March, 1768, in the hey-day of his fame and splendour, he passed away. He was only fifty-five years old.