Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Post-Mortem Travels of Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (Clonmel, County Tipperary, Ireland, 24th November 1713 - London, England, 18th March 1768)

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760
Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1760

Today I tell the tale of what befell the great Laurence Sterne after his death. Rightly celebrated in life, the writer almost met a grisly fate at the hands of Cambridge anatomists hungry for subjects.

Laurence Sterne fell ill whilst visiting London in early 1768 and never recovered his health. He was only 54 when he died at his lodgings at 41 Old Bond Street and was buried at St George's, Hanover Square. He left behind a wife, Elizabeth, and Lydia, their 21 year old daughter.

This was not to be the end of Sterne though and a rumour began to circulate that the writer's body had been spirited away from its grave and sold to anatomists at Cambridge University. However, far from meeting the ghoulish fate expected to befall such unfortunates, one of the anatomists recognised Sterne and decided that he could not possibly be dissected for the purposes of scientific advancement. Undercover of night the author's body was returned to St George's and buried in an unmarked plot, leaving his original grave empty.

In 1969, more than two centuries after Sterne's death, the churchyard was redeveloped. Over 10,000 skulls were unearthed, some of which showed evidence of examination and damage that suggested they had been used by anatomists. Among these skulls was one that appeared to match exactly the size and shape of a bust made of Sterne by Nollekens. The sculptor was renowned for the meticulous nature of his measurements and work and it was accepted that this was likely the skull of Laurence Sterne. 

The skull was reburied in the churchyard of St Michael's Church, Coxwold, thanks to the efforts of the Laurence Sterne Trust. After years away Sterne had finally returned to St Michael's, the church where he was perpetual curate. Even better he now rests just five minutes away from Shandy Hall, the house where he had spent nearly ten happy years.


Julian Rixon said...

Whatba tale! Smacks a bit of Carrie's war, all these skulls knocking about but those anatomists were daemons for finding subjects. I don't think they were too discerning abiut the source of their subjects. So lucky he was recognised and spirited away in the night.

Madame Gilflurt said...

I think it is a tale Sterne himself would have approved of!

Suzie Lennox said...

Couldn't agree more with both of you! I wonder how many other people were recognized on the anatomists table. One of Burke & Hare's victims and Carlo Ferrari 'The Italian Boy' are just the better known ones, but I bet there were others..

Catherine Curzon said...

Famous in life *and* death! ;-)