This is an attempt to tell the love history of Laurence Sterne - merely an attempt To profess achievement would be vain presumption. Abnormal, fantastic, grotesque even as a man he baffles comprehension. As a lover he is utterly bewildering.
But surely it was he who coined the word
"sentimental." Then let it be used to describe him, for sentimental he was, a sentimental sentimentalist. And, of course, the author of "Tristram Shandy."
Indeed, it is as "Tristram Shandy" more than as Laurence Sterne that his memory has survived. Hence perhaps the statement, often heard, that he was forty-sis years when he was born, for it was then, in 1760, that the first two volumes of his memorable book appeared.
But his earlier years are not without their interest. Indeed, their story helps not a little to unravel the mystery of his mind and genius. Besides, during this period of his life were begun and ended two of the three strange love adventures recorded or these pages.
But by every law of reason, and of chance instead of becoming the author of "Tristram Shandy," and the father of impressionists Sterne should have grown into a wild and hair-brained, reckless adventurer, like his father, a luckless soldier of fortune who spent his whole life campaigning, and eventually married the daughter of a camp sutler on condition that she would pay off his debts.
But how and why he, the child of such parents, born and bred amid the sound of bugles, grew into a peace-loving eccentric - and a parson - is one of the strangest happenings a biographer can chronicle. But Nature plays curious tricks with men; and Sterne, it would seem, she made impervious to environment.
He was always a child of idle reverie.
What would have happened to him, then, had he been left for long to his parent's tender mercies, one is terrified even to conjecture. Fortunately he was spared this fate. An uncle befriended him, one of his father's brothers, and befriended him truly. Indeed, not only did he send the boy to a decent school, but afterwards enabled him to go to Cambridge. But then he made a mistake. He persuaded his nephew to take Orders. Yes, this was undoubtedly a mistake. Had Sterne remained a layman, even his most violent critics might have waived their censures.
But really one cannot blame him for entering the Church. Another uncle offered him a living if he did, a little village not far from York - Sutton-on-the-forest - and he took it. The stipend, it is true, was wretched. But there were promises attached to it - a chaplaincy and prebend at York Cathedral - promises which the following year fulfilled.
And in that same year he met his wife-to-be - a less certain blessing!
Now, this lank, weedy, consumptive parson exercised a curious fascination over women. They seemed to adore him for those very qualities which men detested - especially interesting women. Lucky Sterne! Nor is it hard to see the reason. His absurd eccentricities, his heedless antagonism to conventions, masked his utter lack of virility. A natural inborn tenderness of manner served as a fair substitute for the gift of sympathy, the capacity for deep affection - a capacity wholly alien to his nature. Sterne was never really manly; he had not strength to love. At heart he was a cold, selfish egotist - most horrible of all creatures, a trousered flirt! But attractive - oh, yes, this cannot be denied; too attractive. His wit, brilliant, sparkling, gloriously unexpected, was irresistible.
Elizabeth Lumley fell under its magic influence immediately. It made him so very different from the other men of her acquaintance, muscular sons of local landlords - so very much more interesting! And he was a parson too! This lent an additional spice to his racy wit. What a contrast to the pompous dean, to the monotonous curates in the cathedral!
Besides - and this is important - Elizabeth was older than Sterne; not much, it is true - and he was only twenty-five - but still old enough to realise that she was standing on the threshold of old-maidhood. If she wanted to get married, it was quite clear that she must marry soon. And she did want to get married. She decided, therefore, to cultivate the man's acquaintance.
Nor was he averse. In fact, superficially, he had much in common with her. Elizabeth liked music. So did he. He liked talking. Elizabeth listened - intelligently. And then she did what few other people did - she admired his paintings!
Again - it was this which delighted Sterne - he had no need to be conventional in her presence, for Elizabeth happened to be an independent young woman. Her only near relation was a married sister. And she herself, possessed of sufficient income, lodged in Little Alice Lane, hard by the Cathedral Close, with only a servant for duenna. And here, in her rooms, he used often to dine with her alone. Indiscreet, yes, but charmingly indiscreet; deliciously romantic! The idea appealed strongly to the sentimentalist - and to Elizabeth also. Thus to entertain a parson! It had all the attractiveness of the unusual.
But when Sterne began serious love-making, then even Elizabeth hesitated. As a wooer he was quite delightful. But as a husband - no, she was anything but sure. The fact is, close intimacy had brought her to suspect his insincerity. She began to see through the veneer of his sentimentalism. And so she dallied with him. Weeks passed into months, months into a year. Still she remained undecided, denying him an answer.
"She owned she liked me," Sterne wrote, "but she thought herself not rich enough, or me too poor, to be joined together."
Of course, this was merely an excuse, and apparent, too, but it sufficed for the blind eyes of a lover. Sterne still hoped, still pleaded. And meanwhile Elizabeth sought vainly to be convinced by his protestations, to believe that he loved her, loved her with his heart. But she could not.