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Alias Poor Yorick

May 30, 2020

Who’d have thought a priest of all people would cause a moral sensation and write the 18th century’s most celebrated satirical novel?

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) liked to play the jester and regarded humour as a gift from God. His best-known book, Tristram Shandy, not only made him a Georgian celebrity but also went on to influence the story behind Broken Clock Vodka’s recipe.

Tristram Shandy is a wild and bawdy novel packed with sharply perceptive characters plucked from York society and crammed with sexual innuendos and double entendres galore.

Sterne trained as a parson and his first forays into writing were a series of sermons. Even then his playful nature and dry wit were apparent, writing as he did under the alias of Mr. Yorick; a name he derived from Shakespeare’s famous fool.

In 1759 he wrote his first novel ‘A Political Romance’, a Lilliputian satire about the petty squabbles of provincial church leaders. Outraged, the church ordered every copy to be burned.

Undeterred, Sterne realised his calling in life, temporarily hung up his vestments and started writing Tristram Shandy.

His old alias Yorick appears as a ‘nom de plume’ and key player in the story. This clergyman is descended from the same deceased jester in Hamlet and alas, Sterne proceeds to kills him off - marking his death with a solemn black page - only to resurrect him later in the narrative for comic effect.

It gave Sterne immense pleasure hearing folk praising or indeed panning his writing and one chapter got Britain’s streets talking by creating a risqué new cultural reference.

The narrative describes in great detail how the protagonist Tristram was conceived; his father has a steadfast habit of winding the family clock before his conjugal duties with Tristram’s mother.

It’s said that after the book’s release whenever a lady saw a man in the street catch her eye and check his watch it was taken as a sign he intended to make advances on her innocence!

Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy with ‘hopes of doing the world good by ridiculing what I thought deserving of it – or of disservice of sound learning’ and it certainly seems he had the last laugh.