A Cat among the Literary Pigeons

U3A Todmorden’s recent speakers have been like high pressure weather systems: we have enjoyed the vivid freshness and sunshine of Maria Glot on Titus Salt, Tony Waltham on volcanoes and, on 16th May, Patrick Wildgust on Shandy Hall and Laurence Sterne – and, of course, Sterne’s phenomenal novel, ‘Tristram Shandy’.

 

Patrick Wildgust with Gill Radford, Chair of U3A Todmorden (and Dave Sutcliffe coiling cable)

To reflect the substance and nature of Patrick’s talk, this report should be (apparently) randomly organised, full of digression and only fleetingly touching on the advertised subject matter.

 

For why?

 

Well, ‘Tristram Shandy’, a novel – or perhaps anti-novel – written and published variously between 1759 and 1767, was the brainchild of Laurence Sterne, a clergyman educated in Yorkshire and at Cambridge whose first living was in Sutton-on-the-Forest, later supplemented by those of Stillington and then Coxwold.

 

It was in Coxwold that he established his writer’s retreat at Shandy Hall, now a memorial museum to its erstwhile genius occupant which is managed by Patrick.

 

And what does ‘Shandy’ mean? It’s a Yorkshire word for wild, crack-brained, half-crazy, which explains and justifies Sterne’s decision to ignore the conventions of storytelling that were current and to adopt a style that was that of everyday digressive speech and not structurally literarified.

 

Moreover, the novel, published in 9 volumes, terminates at the end of Volume 4 where the word ‘FINIS’ is used. Volume 9 concludes ‘End of Volume 9’.

 

And why not introduce a randomly included marbled page on page 169 of Volume 3 to represent ‘the motley of my work’? Or ‘black pages’? Or blank pages? Or asterisks, dashes, and wiggly lines?

 

And why should every copy be identical? Sterne personally supervised editions of his work to ensure that each copy was unique. 

 

Patrick highlighted Sterne’s brilliant marketing. For example, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Sterne’s portrait.  But who posed it – Reynolds or Sterne? A parson (a pillar of the establishment) with an ill-set wig, a challengingly mischievous smile, a finger pointing to his forehead indicating wit and intelligence, and – shock horror – a manuscript of ‘Tristram Shandy’.

 

Sterne even published his sermons under the name of one of his characters – Parson Yorick (named after the dead jester in ‘Hamlet’). These were unconventional in that they were non-didactic, though commonly promoting the notion of the goodness of human beings, in keeping with Sterne’s persona of a jester subverting expectations.

 

We also learned about hourglasses, myrioramas, moths and Sterne’s 3-decker pulpit.

 

We should thank our speaker whose talk was anything but wild – though possibly like chaos, well-ridden – and a gust of fresh air. This reporter is certainly up for a trip to Coxwold and a third attempt to read ‘Tristram Shandy’, if only because, as Patrick said, ‘All the people who’ve read it are nice’.

 

Our next meeting

U3A Todmorden’s next members’ meeting will be on Thursday, June 20th, 2019 in the Central Methodist Church Hall in Todmorden at 1.45. Our guest speaker will be Dave Weldrake talking about ‘The Lost Kingdom of Elmet’.

 

Our contact details are www.u3atod.org.uk (website), info@u3atod.org.uk (email), or 01422 886021 (phone).