Taking Liberties with the Formula

Sterne and Goldsmith

This might well have been the motto of Laurence Sterne, Smollett’s nemesis, whose brilliant novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1757-67) rocked the novel’s boat when it had only just set sail. Just as the novel began to establish a format Sterne took all of the elements established by Richardson and all, and poked fun at it with constant and unnerving changes in pace, theme and material. The intensely self-conscious narrator, Tristram, refers repeatedly to the impossibility of charting a life accurately: it takes him days to account for an hour of his early life. In taking liberties with the form of the novel, Sterne made many enemies (including Dr. Johnson who predicted that this novel would prove to be ephemeral) but nevertheless broke new boundaries. We find a page printed entirely black after a character’s death, punctuation marks such as dashes littered around certain pages, and a curly squiggle of a line between paragraphs to show the flourish of Corporal Trim’s stick. Wilful innovation of this kind would subsequently be rare in the novel until the Modernist movement of the early 20th century.

The deaths of Richardson (1761), Fielding (1754), Smollett (1771) and Sterne (1768) brought the first great period of the novel to an abrupt close. Inevitably reviewers were blamed by some for not taking the form seriously, and not understanding its inherent literary merits. It was to be another quarter of a century until Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1762), that the novel began its resurgence. Goldsmith wrote likeable novels, but even The Vicar of Wakefield can be criticized for its improbable plot and bland niceness of approach. It is notable that the great critic and writer Dr. Johnson wrote only one substantial piece of prose fiction - Rasselas (1759) - and this was a moral story harking back to More and Bunyan rather than the novelists of the earlier 18th century. Like many others he considered poems and non-fiction to be better media for his thoughts.

  By PanEris using Melati.

Previous chapter Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Bibliomania.com Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.