Friday 18 March 2016

Alas, Poor Yorick

The other day, on one of my charity shop prowls, I picked up a very handsome edition of Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey for a ridiculously low price. It was published in 1929 by The Scholartis Press, a short-lived venture founded by the lexicographer Eric Partridge. Beautifully printed and bound, edited from the second edition and the original MS by Herbert Read (who also supplies a long Introduction), this will look far better on my shelves - and read better - than my old Penguin Classics edition.
 It was on this day in 1768, less than a month after his Sentimental Journey was published, that Sterne's strength failed and he finally succumbed to the 'consumption' that had plagued him for years. Leaving behind more debts than assets, he was buried with little ceremony or expense in the churchyard of St George's, Hanover Square - but that was not the end of the story. There are several versions of what happened next, but it seems certain that 'resurrectionists' dug up Sterne's body and delivered it to an anatomist, who was busily dissecting it when an onlooker recognised the face of the famous Laurence Sterne. According to some reports, he fainted away from shock and the dissection was abandoned. Certainly, the body - or a decent amount of it - was rescued and reburied at St George's.
 There Sterne's mortal remains lay in peace until 1964, when the land was sold to the gloriously named Utopian Housing Society, who were obliged to dispose decently of all the bones they found before they could start building. Hearing of this, the Sterne enthusiast Kenneth Monkman - who had rescued and restored Sterne's home, Shandy Hall, in the Yorkshire village of Coxwold - was determined to rescue what he could of Sterne and reinter him in the village where 'Yorick' had been Perpetual Curate. Monkman insisted that any remains found in or near Sterne's burial place were to be examined by him, as a representative (and founder) of the Laurence Sterne Trust, before they were disposed of.
 So, early on a June morning in 1969, Kenneth Monkman and a representative of the Utopian Housing Society were on hand to watch the excavation at St George's. At first, rather few intact bones emerged, apart from a possibly Sternean femur - but then a skull was dug up that had had its top neatly sliced off. This was surely the skull of the anatomised author. To make sure, Monkman dashed home to collect a bust of Sterne said to be the most accurate ever made. With the help of a surgeon, skull was compared to bust and it was concluded that they made a perfect match - the skull of Yorick had been recovered.
 Now Laurence Sterne's remains lie, as they should, in the churchyard of St Michael, Coxwold - a rather fine church with an octagonal tower, and pews and pulpit installed by Sterne himself. And Shandy Hall, run by the Laurence Sterne Trust, is open to the public during the summer months. Worth a visit if you're in the area.


  1. On a church-haunting tour up North last Easter, I visited Coxwold. You're right, the church is lovely with a fine 17th century tomb decorated with painted statuary and a round communion rail inside the church. While there, we looked in at the Sterne house, not expecting to be admitted at that time of year. An elderly fella issued from the house, where he and his wife live, and hearing that we had come all the way from the south, admitted us into Sterne's tiny study where Tristram Shandy was composed. A very generous and kind man - Kenneth Monkman I now presume. I came away with some postcards illustrated by the current Observer cartoonist and a contemporary of mine at Uni, Martin Rowson. He produced an illustrated version of TS.

  2. It must have been Monkman's successor actually - he died in 1998 - nice obit here -
    I went to Coxwold in the late 80s - high time I went back, I think. The stuff in the online shop looks good too - pages of A Humument! V tempting...

  3. Fascinating story Nige, Georgian grave robbing with added autopsy. If yourself or Guy do venture north of Doncaster again, church hunting, then try two Northumbrian delights. The village of Bolam's St Andrews church, Saxon, small and beautifully marked, finish the day with a visit to the hamlet of Hartburn's St Andrews church, pre Norman, hints of Knights Templar and some interesting stained glass. They are two of our three favourite churches (the third and the most stunning is the Floreninian basilica of San Miniato.)

  4. Thanks Nige. Yes the chap who showed us round is Patrick Wildgust who appears on the video on the Shandy Hall website. Thanks too Malty. Have noted those. We only managed a couple of churches in Northumberland around Corbridge both close to the Tyne plus Hexham Abbey. Then on to Alnwick to see the castle with its great art collection and the wonderful Barter Books.

  5. Hate to admit it Malty, but I have never set foot in Northumbria, only passed through it by train. One day I'll put this right DV.

  6. Just remembered I have been briefly in Newcastle, and to the Thomas Bewick museum - and a rather lovely walk in the Tyne valley. It was a long time ago...