The Harbottle Review

Mr Justice Harbottle is an ageing gout-charged voluptuary and a judge at the Court of Common Pleas

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TRISTRAM SHANDY by Laurence Sterne

shandyLaurence Sterne’s inspiration for the Shandean spirit may have been his own father, a hare-brained but good-hearted army ensign, who married the daughter of a sutler he owed money to, and was run through the body at Gibraltar in a duel over a goose. All of this is truer and funnier than anything in Tristram Shandy, the outpourings of an obscure clergyman who appears to have been simmering twenty years in a stagnant Anglican bye-corner, where his only diversion consisted in a parochial dispute over the post of sexton & dog-whipper, worth three pounds a year, upon which head he wrote the satire, A Political Romance; which, to its credit, caused sufficient affront to have been burned wholesale by the Archbishop of York. It appears that this was encouragement enough for Sterne to embark on Tristram Shandy, the life and opinions of a gentleman, in nine volumes.

The word shandy, I am informed, is a north country provincialism for crack-brain; and the Shandean spirit, of which this novel serves as a declaration, is one of vain contrariness in the face of an inimical world. Thus, just as life has never wrought with his family in the accustomed way, so Tristram’s father Walter, as a point of principle, always sets his course straight across the grain of received wisdom. He insists that the possession of a long nose is a necessary requirement for greatness, as is having the right name; and is frustrated on both counts when his son gets his beak crushed flat by the obstetric forceps, and is then, due to an unhappy confusion, baptised not Trismegistus – meaning Thrice-Greatest – but TRISTRAM, which Walter holds to be the lowest and most contemptible name in the world.

tristramDespite being all but noseless, and losing his foreskin in an accident with a sash-window at the age of five, Tristram’s heart turns out to be Shandean to its bottom. Chief among his opinions is that, in writing, “one stroke of native humour” is worth more than the traditional process of selecting the proper elements and putting them into a right order. Thus he determines to tell his story in his own way, which is without any pretence at arrangement.

Tristram starts his life-story before it begins, claps his preface in the middle of Vol. III, and announces in Vol. IV that, “it is from this point properly, that the story of my LIFE and OPINIONS sets out.” But, the reader will find that it doesn’t. Instead, Tristram continues just as before, flying off from what he is about, ambling away on digressions, departures, apostrophes within diversions &c., so that the story gets told tardily, if at all. We are even denied some of the promised asides, chapters on pishes, button-holes, whiskers, and straight lines all being proposed, but never appearing; while the story of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles is begun and broken off five times by discourses on Montero caps, or giants, or England’s shameful withdrawal from the field of conflict in Europe in 1712, all which subjects are deemed by the author, in their turn, to take precedence, by virtue of them having occurred to him.


Shandean arrangements

It is hinted that Tristram is not simply dodging the point – if there is one – but is, in truth, expressing Locke’s theory of the association of ideas, whereby chains of thought are created when one notion triggers another, and so on; and which, as Tristram understands it, is a licence to write about anything that pops into his head. The resulting un-navigable lump is leavened with a dash of cloying sentiment and a good sprinkling of cock jokes, and it has brought in the jingling guinea for the space of nine volumes over the last seven years, whilst annoying the Anti-Shandeans and thrice-able criticks Sterne has pointedly set himself up against – notoriety being in no way incompatible with commercial success.


Laurence Sterne

My compeers over at the Critical Review have termed the work, “a humorous performance, of which we are unable to convey any distinct ideas to our readers,” and by “humorous”, they simply mean odd. But to this critic’s mind, while there is nothing so amusing as an authentic crack-brain, neither is there anything so tiresome as a calculated one, one that bawls its mad-cappery like a hawker, and weighs itself out in servings like turnips at the market. Though if it gets you reading Locke, fair enough; that may be more than Sterne has done.


spectatorbyjosep01addiuoftIn common with every clubman and coffee-house juror ‘twixt Horse-ferry and the Minories, I dropped a quiet tear at the recent demise of the old shire knight Sir Roger de Coverley, who although fictitious, has lately been our very genial companion. In this age of party strife, impeachings, and riot, all accompanyed by savage maulings in the press, the gentle raillery of the de Coverley Papers has been a welcome balm, for which we must thank their author, Joseph Addison.

Addison is the very embodiment of plump equability, as you will know if you have ever sat with him for his eight hours daily at Button’s in Russell-street; and his writings reflect this temperament. His prime creation, Mr Spectator, a sturdy mute who publishes his observations each morning, “to the diversion or improvement of the country,” shuns party rage and maintains a strict neutrality between the Whigs and the Tories. He is in no wise a participant in affairs, but a meer observer and reporter; and although his representations of his Tory friend, Sir Roger de Coverley, are certainly satiric, they are leavened with so much affection as to render them amiable to all but the rabid Sacheverells of the world.

sir roger and spec

Sir Roger and Mr Spectator

The old cavalier Sir Roger is a Tory of the Queen Anne sort, by which I mean, his first concern is the safety of the Church of England. He counts off his tenants every Sunday in church, where he has railed in the altar, and he enjoins his parson to recite off-the-peg sermons from the great divines rather than risk of any preaching that may want the High Church stamp of approval. His chief hobgoblins are neither the French, nor the Dutch, but atheists, dissenters, and hassock-shy tithe-dodgers; his praises being reserved for the fifty new churches and the Act of Occasional Conformity.

But for all this Anglican bigotry, he is well loved by his dependents (at least on the face of it) for his policy of exercising not only the authority of a father upon them, but also the solicitude. He rewards his servants with tenancies, sends their boys off to prentice, and inclines rather to helping them to help themselves than dropping them scraps from his table. The impartial Mr Spectator avers that, “his orders are received as favours rather than duties,” and that upon returning to his estates from any absence, he is greeted with tears.


Joseph Addison

Sir Roger’s usual manner of speech is to ramble aimlessly, without preface or purpose, and he makes a booby of himself talking out loud at the county assizes, and in London, where he offers up his opinions very volubly in the middle of The Distrest Mother at Drury Lane. Later, his custom of greeting all and sundry with a neighbourly halloo causes him to be smoked by wags on the Thames, yet he takes it little to heart.

The old knight ascribes his mild nature to a certain widow that neighbours him, whom he has loved since his youth, but who, being a reading lady, and having done with men, has only ever returned his rustic attentions with mockery. In breaking this spaniel heart she has rendered it not bitter, but softer than it would otherwise be; so we see in consequence a relenting sort of man, who goes about un-armed and un-armoured.

And this, along with the fact that he kicked Bully Dawson in a publick coffee-house, is why we forgive Sir Roger his faults, and wish there could be more like him, and why we mourn his loss now that Addison has sent him to his rest.


singletonDaniel Foe, whose parents raised him up to the Puritan ministry, and who was out with Monmouth in the last English army ever likely to proclaim itself ‘Godly’, subsequently declined the pulpit, adorned his name with a prefix, and set out to make a fortune. And though he has lived since as a man of affairs, he yet remains devout; thus his new work, Captain Singleton, may be seen as an expression of his life, in its attempt to reconcile the spiritual with the worldly; or the securement of salvation with the getting of money.

Bob Singleton, of uncertain parentage, and scant education, goes to sea in his thirteenth year, and after several voyages falls in with a group of Portuguese mutineers. Although Bob deems these men “perfidious and debauched, insolent and cruel,” he sees that they are biddable, and wanting a leader; which part Bob takes up, and very soon suborns them into piracy. Events, however, dictate another course, as the crew find themselves cast on the hostile shores of east Africa, upon which they take the wild africaresolution to traverse the continent on foot. After seasons of hardship and horror, in uncharted lands and among savages who know not whether Singleton’s crew are devils or gods, (and neither does the crew care which they appear to be), they emerge upon the safety of the Dutch Gold Coast as rich men, having amassed a fortune in gold and elephants’ teeth in their way.

Bob’s boldness throughout these adventures is untempered by either religion or reflection; he has no notion of home, since all the world is alike to him; and he cares nothing for riches, since he can not conceive of how they might be used. His only thought for God arises in the presence of savages, and consists in an aversion to their superstitions rather than an inclination to religion. He seems, as yet, hardly born.

After quickly running through his money, Singleton goes back upon the cruise, or upon the account, as pirates term their business, in full earnest, and with his own command, as Captain Bob. Plying the waters from Cuba to the Spice Islands, he steadily acquires another fortune and an infamous name. His unlikely lieutenant is the Quaker, William, a man of enterprise and courage, who yet refuses to raise his hand in violence, in accordance to the injunctions of his Society. He begins to lead Bob out of his ignorance, showing him that there is more to the world than sensation and the moment at hand. As might be supposed, given his collusion in rapine and robbery, William’s morals are trickily contorted, yet they constitute some manner of a code; enough at least to institute him as Bob’s spiritual counsellor, or ghostly father.

frigate_skirmish_by_janborutaBob thinks on God once more when his ship is struck by such a force of lightning as terrifies him to the last degree and sends his men deaf; but it is his limitless regard for William, who is never wrong in any matter, that finally draws Bob into the Christian fold. William calls upon him to consider death, and what follows it, which Bob is first very loth to do; and he maintains that now they have made their fortune, they must break off their wicked course and repent; though in the manner of St. Augustine, he does not think they should do it yet. The prudent Quaker notes that certain transactions are pending which will top up their accounts; and that they must then arrange how to give their crew-mates the slip and make off with the money; but this done, they may, and certainly will, repent with all their hearts.

All is accomplished in due course, upon which Bob settles snug into domesticity, in household with William, whose sister he has married. For a time, he is troubled by his conscience in living on the lucre of crime; but William, who is wise enough for both of them, assures him that since they have thrown themselves on God’s mercy, and professed their willingness to atone, the rest is in His hands; and in the interim, they may give to charities.

Captain Singleton is printed by J. Brotherton, at the Black Bull in Cornhill, and costs a measure of idle scruple and superfluous guilt.

Mr Justice Harbottle Reviews Notable Works of Literature

The bizarre events leading to the demise of Mr Justice Harbottle have been fitly recounted in a short piece by Mr J. Sheridan Le Fanu of Dublin, which may be familiar to readers. Mr Le Fanu, drawing upon irreproachable sources, variously describes the late Judge Harbottle as, ‘dangerous and unscrupulous,’  ‘a savage old epicurean,’ and, ‘the wickedest man in England’. Death by hanging did not however prove itself a fatal setback for a man of such parts and mettle as the judge. He continues to keep late nights and to consort with whores and rake-hells, though he is reported to be laid up with the gout somewhat worse and more frequently than before. In his bedridden hours he has taken to reviewing literature and offers his assessments here for the benefit of scholars and laypersons.

The judge tweets irascibly @mr_harbottle.