Biography of a popular and prosperous 18th-century novelist

Laurence Sterne, the Later Years, by Arthur H. Cash. London & New York: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 390 pp. $49. Laurence Sterne, the Early & Middle Years, by Arthur H. Cash. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd. 330 pp. $65. 1975.

These two books - a decade apart - comprise the life story of an author who wrote an 18th-century best seller. Arthur Cash explains in a preface to the 1986 volume:

``A biographer can never know that his story is true, for biographical truth, if it exists at all, can only do so in the mind of God. A friend once asked me, `what would you do if by a miracle Laurence Sterne should walk through that door?' I replied, `Ask him to forgive me.'''

Cash says he developed the story of the life of Sterne from his own examination of the primary evidence but is in the debt of Percy Fitzgerald and Wilbur Cross (earlier biographers of Sterne) for pointing the way. ``My story of Sterne may resemble theirs ... but it differs in almost every detail. The first volume of this study (published in 1975) covered 46 years. This volume (the second) covers eight. It has taken me longer to write a book about his later years than it took him to live them.''

Sterne's novel, ``Tristram Shandy,'' became a classic, a book of nine volumes published between 1759 and 1767. He wrote in the throes ``of melancholy and illness.'' ``I wrote,'' he said, ``not to be fed but to be famous.''

As an anodyne to pain he sought laughter. Soon after publication, in 1759, of the first two volumes of ``Tristram Shandy,'' Sterne conferred in London with his book sellers, Robert and James Dodsley. They gave him a cordial reception. This was readily translated into money.

Cash calls the contract signed that day ``a triumph'' for Sterne - 250 in advance, 200 to be paid within six months, and (in a separate contract) 380 for volumes 3 and 4. Although monetary equivalents were difficult to work out, Cash computes these sums to be approximately 30,000 ($47,700) today.

Hand in hand with his new wealth came Stern's rapid social rise. He was courted by ``numerous nobles and people of wealth.''

Sterne was entertained in the magnificent Chesterfield House overlooking Hyde Park. He asked his host for a subscription to his forthcoming book of sermons, a request ``graciously given.'' And amidst these scenes of triumph, Sterne found ``an unexpected source of joy'' - a concert-hall singer, Catherine Fourmantle. Though long married, Sterne gradually came to find his sense of harmony outside the home than otherwise.

If Sterne climbed quickly in London society, ``caressed by all ranks of people with ridiculous assiduity,'' as Mrs. Thrale put it, he established little rapport with other writers. Samuel Johnson, for example, never took him up at all. Sterne went off one evening to Sir Joshua Reynolds's. Among assembled guests he met Dr. Johnson, who reported: ``I was but once in Sterne's company. His only attempt at merriment consisted in his display of a drawing too indecently gross to have delighted, even in a brothel.'' Afterward, Philippina Lady Knight remarked: ``Doctor Johnson was so much hurt by the indelicate conversation of Laurence Sterne that he quitted his company one evening at Sir J. Reynolds.''

Sterne's writings fall into three categories. First, of course, is the novel ``Tristram Shandy,'' a book that grew and grew from its first volume in 1759 to its ninth and final one of 1767. Roughly in this same time zone, the first volumes of Sterne's sermons began to appear. Finally came a third classification - the book ``A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy,'' a work that Sterne hoped would raise his literary reputation still higher. Sterne said that his purpose in writing this, his final book, was ``to teach us to love the world and our fellow creatures better than we do.''

Sterne became one of the leading writers of his time in that single novel. It remains as it began, a classic. The same can be said also for Cash's biographical achievement on which he has been long engaged. This also can be so appraised.

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