I went to Shandy Hall last week, the beautiful house in Coxwold where Laurence Sterne wrote Vols. 3-9 of Tristram Shandy.
Richard Hurd was Rector of Thurcaston when the book began publication in 1760. He always kept up with new books but did not think much of this one. Writing to William Warburton on 18 March 1761 he commented approvingly of Rousseau’s La nouvelle Heloise but added: “I wish I could say half so much of our Yorkshire Novelist. Not but that the humour of his fourth vol. makes up for the dulness of the third. The worst is, one sees by both, that he has not the discretion, or perhaps the courage, to follow the excellent advice that was given him, of laughing in such a manner, as that priests and virgins might laugh with him “. To William Mason on 30 March he wrote in the same vein: “The 3d Vol. is insufferably dull & even stupid. The 4th is full as humorous as either of the other two. But this broad humour, even at its best, can never be endured in a work of length”. He was going back to Rousseau. On 26 April the following year he wrote to Thomas Balguy about Robert Lowth’s Short introduction to English grammar which had just been published and continued to sell well for the next 140 years. “They say” wrote Hurd, with obvious delight, “it outsells Tristram Shandy”.
The novel was perhaps a bit too strong for an unmarried country rector, who would not have approved of the kind of life led by his fellow parson. His friend Joseph Cradock recalled in the memoirs he published in 1826 that Hurd “once strongly reproved me from seeing Tristram Shandy in my classical library, and urged its instant removal”.
Hurd could not always appreciate a masterpiece. I couldn’t either when I read it at school. But if Hurd had been able to hear the masterly exposition given by Patrick Wildgust, the curator of Shandy Hall, he might have been tempted to give it another go. I certainly shall.
Chris Penney, Hurd Librarian