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The authentic life

Among the many appealing books bequeathed to the College by the late George Watson (1927-2013) is a nine-volume set of Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Title page to the second edition (1760), with a frontispiece engraving by Willia

First published between 1759 and 1767, Tristram Shandy is an experiment in fictional autobiography. Setting out with the supposedly straightforward ambition of recounting the details of his life, the narrator, Tristram, immediately gets into difficulty trying to establish where his life might rightfully be said to begin. Realising the necessity of relating to the reader various details of his parentage and, by extension, his family history, he embarks on an eddy of digression which necessitates the postponement of the narration of his own birth until the fourth volume.

Further toying with readers’ expectations about the limitations and possibilities of the printed narrative, Sterne interspersed his text with a range of typographical tricks and visual features, including diagrams, asterisks, crosses, missing chapters, blank pages, black pages and marbled pages.

Marbled page in volume 3 (the first edition). The verso (p. 170) is also marbled

So important did Sterne consider the design and physical production quality of the books that he travelled from Yorkshire to London personally to see each of the first editions through the press.

With the first two volumes proving an immediate success (not just in England, but across Europe), new editions went into production even before all the volumes had been published for the first time. The publishing history of Tristram Shandy as a whole therefore looks quite complicated. Today many surviving ‘sets’ of the original nine-volume format in fact consist of a mixture of editions (not least because the first editions of volumes 1 and 2 numbered only about 200  copies each and consequently are difficult to come by).

Following a little research, Mr Watson’s nine-volume set has been identified as  comprising the following:

  • Vols. 1 and 2 – Second edition, published by R. & J. Dodsley, 1760.
  • Vols. 3 and 4 – First edition, published by R. & J. Dodsley, 1761.
  • Vols. 5 and 6 – First edition, published by T. Becket & P.A. Dehondt, 1762.
  • Vols. 7 and 8 – First edition, first published by T. Becket & P.A. Dehondt, 1765; second state (reprinted with corrections), 1770.
  • Vol. 9 – First edition, published by T. Becket & P.A. Dehondt, 1767.


Capitalising on the popular sensation aroused by the novel’s early instalments, several pirate versions and imitations came onto the market. To distinguish those issued from Becket & Dehondt’s press as the ‘authorised’ versions, Sterne took to autographing every copy of volumes 5 (first and second editions), 7 and 9 (first editions) as they came off the press. It has been estimated that this decision led to him signing his name 12,750 times!

Here is one such autograph, on the first page of volume 5 of Mr Watson’s set:

Laurence Sterne’s autograph in volume 5, p. 1 (the first edition).

Volume 9 of the set is similarly autographed, but volume 7 is not, being a later (1770) printing of the first (1765) edition.

Sterne died in 1768, just a year after publishing the ninth volume. Whether or not he intended it to be the final instalment of Tristram Shandy’s Life remains uncertain.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 28 January 2014 by Rebecca Watts, Library Projects Assistant.