Who the hell wants to dwell on their own conception?


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is a long old book (784 pages), and being first published in 1759, I thought I was in for a lengthy, dry, boring haul. Anything written in the time of powdered wigs immediately has me on guard. However, from the first line, we are onto the subject of sex. And alarmingly, Tristram is talking about his own conception.

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me;

Ew. There’s a subject I do my best not to think about. He then goes on to explain how he pinpointed the night of his conception.

I was begot in the night betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen. I am positive I was.—But how I came to be so very particular in my account of a thing which happened before I was born, is owing to another small anecdote known only in our own family, but now made publick for the better clearing up this point.

My father, you must know, who was originally a Turkey merchant, but had left off business for some years, in order to retire to, and die upon, his paternal estate in the county of ——, was, I believe, one of the most regular men in every thing he did, whether ’twas matter of business, or matter of amusement, that ever lived. As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,—to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,—he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.

Double ew. However, this is making for entertaining reading, and the character in general seems like someone who may annoy me over the 784 pages, but won’t send me to sleep. For example, he jokingly refers to the revered physician Dr Richard Mead under the pseudonym of ‘Dr Kunastrokius’ which is said out loud, sounds rude. People were generally shocked, the novel was classed as obscene, and so sold very well and Laurence Stern was a celebrity that made lots of money, which suited him as he once said “I wrote, not to be fed but to be famous,”

People said Laurence Sterne was a flaky, flash in the pan, even Dr Johnson said “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.” However, I’m reading it, so it did last. But under no circumstances can I equate a shocking book that sells well and lasts in spite of what the literary critics say, as later applying to Fifty Shades. This is totally different. I highly doubt if in 250 years Fifty Shades will be on a 100 Greatest Novels list. If it is, I’ll come back for some serious haunting.