Laurence Sterne in the printer’s shop

August 18, 2023 0 Comments
Shandy Hall chestnut (Katrin Moye)

Any reader of Tristram Shandy soon appreciates that its author had an unusually strong interest in the physical appearance of his books, and specifically in playing with the conventions of the printed word.  The ‘star witnesses’ are the Black Page, inserted to mark the sad death of Parson Yorick, the Marbled Page (unique in each printed copy), unaccompanied by any explanation in the text, and the Blank Page, for the reader to draw his or her own picture of the Widow Wadman.  But there are many other signs in the novel of Sterne’s obsession with the ‘book as book’: the diagram of the erratic narrative line of the novel, a chapter that goes missing (ten pages are lost), Corporal Trim’s whirling of his stick rendered graphically on the page, not to speak of innumerable typographical games.

We know from Sterne’s letters to his printer, Robert Dodsley, that he was always keen to oversee personally the setting and production of the volumes.  Dodsley was a London publisher, but Sterne insisted that the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were printed in December 1759 in York by Ann Ward (whose late husband, Caesar Ward, had published Sterne’s earlier work A political romance) – presumably so that he could keep a close eye on things. 

Zounds! (Martin Rowson)

There’s one small episode, in Volume 4, Chapter 28 of Tristram Shandy, that hasn’t received much notice from scholars, but which gives an insight into how closely Sterne supervised the printing, and how much he observed when he was in the printer’s workshop.  It occurs during a scene where Phutatorius (‘Copulator’ – he’s not a sympathetic character) and other pettifogging ecclesiastical lawyers are gathered to decide whether it would be legally possible to change the newborn’s name ‘Tristram’, assigned to him in error and against the wishes of his father, Walter.  During the learned discussion, a batch of superheated roast chestnuts, to which Phutatorius is partial, arrives in the room.  By mischance one of them rolls across the table, finds a way through the open flies of his trousers, and embeds itself among his personal ’nuts’. 

(The hot chestnut episode, no doubt, is a comical variation on a less comical theme, that of venereal disease – a common condition in the eighteenth century, which called for a variety of unpleasant and sometimes eccentric treatments.) 

Chestnut (Martin Rowson)

At first Phutatorius fails to understand the increased warmth in his crotch.  When the heat increases, he tries to keep calm, ‘like a stoick’.  But the pain becomes too much for him and he utters a loud exclamation of ‘Zounds!’ (in the text ‘Zounds!’ is printed in large capitals, followed by more than two lines of dashes).  The others take this as a vehement comment on their debate, and it takes a while for the significance of the accident to sink in.  At last the chestnut is extracted and flung to the floor.  Then the question arises, what’s to be done to treat the burn?

–  Can you tell me, quoth Phutatorius, speaking to Gastripheres who sat next to him – for one would not apply to a surgeon in so foolish an affair- can you tell me, Gastripheres, what is best to take out the fire? – Ask Eugenius, said Gastripheres. – That greatly depends, said Eugenius, pretending ignorance of the adventure, upon the nature of the part – If it is a tender part, and a part which can conveniently be wrapt up – It is both the one and the other, replied Phutatorius, laying his hand as he spoke, with an emphatical nod of his head, upon the part in question, and lifting up his right leg at the same time to ease and ventilate it. – If that is the case, said Eugenius, I would advise you, Phutatorius, not to tamper with it by any means; but if you will send to the next printer, and trust your cure to such a simple thing as a soft sheet of paper just come off the press—you need do nothing more than twist it round. – The damp paper, quoth Yorick (who sat next to his friend Eugenius) though I know it has a refreshing coolness in it—yet I presume is no more than the vehicle – and that the oil and lamp-black with which the paper is so strongly impregnated, does the business. – Right, said Eugenius, and is, of any outward application I would venture to recommend, the most anodyne and safe.

Tracking the narrative (volume 6)

The extreme embarrassment of the injury makes calling for a doctor an impossibility, so a DIY solution is needed.  Eugenius recommends getting a ‘soft sheet of paper’ from the nearest printer.  To the reader this choice may seem surprising, but Sterne was very familiar with printer’s paper and how it was treated.  Before a sheet was printed the pressman would wet it and leave it to stand overnight under a heavy weight.  The idea was to ensure a firm impression from the type: there was not enough pressure in a wooden press to make dry paper fibres absorb the ink consistently.  The next morning, the paper was laid out on a bench called a ‘horse’.  The pressman transferred ink – a mix of varnish and lampblack colour – to the surface of the type, using ‘inkballs’ or leather pads, put the paper in place on the tympan, lowered the frisket, and pulled on the bar.  Then he, or his boy assistant the ‘devil’, would lift the printed sheet and lay it on the horse to dry.  Once enough copies had been printed, the ‘forme’ of type could be removed and replaced for the printing of the next page.

The printer’s sheet, then, was damp and cool, and might have suggested itself as a suitable material for assuaging the pain in Phutatorius’s private parts.  More speculative, maybe, is Yorick’s suggestion that the real healing agent is the varnish and lampblack in the ink on the paper:

Was it my case, said Gastripheres, as the main thing is the oil and lamp-black, I should spread them thick upon a rag, and clap it on directly. – That would make a very devil of it, replied Yorick. – And besides, added Eugenius, it would not answer the intention, which is the extreme neatness and elegance of the prescription, which the Faculty hold to be half in half; – for consider, if the type is a very small one (which it should be) the sanative particles, which come into contact in this form, have the advantage of being spread so infinitely thin, and with such a mathematical equality (fresh paragraphs and large capitals excepted) as no art or management of the spatula can come up to. – It falls out very luckily, replied Phutatorius, that the second edition of my treatise de Concubinis retinendis [‘that filthy and obscene treatise’, according to Tristram] is at this instant in the press. – You may take any leaf of it, said Eugenius – no matter which. – Provided, quoth Yorick, there is no bawdry in it. –

They are just now, replied Phutatorius, printing off the ninth chapter – which is the last chapter but one in the book. – Pray what is the title of that chapter? said Yorick; making a respectful bow to Phutatorius as he spoke. – I think, answered Phutatorius, ’tis that de re concubinaria.

For Heaven’s sake keep out of that chapter, quoth Yorick.

– By all means – added Eugenius.

This passage contains a couple of hidden references to the craft of printing.  Eugenius’s ‘form’ is the ‘forme’, or locked page of type, used to print the paper, and ‘that would make a very devil of it’ refers to the ‘printer’s devil’ or assistant. This figure appears In an earlier chapter of Book 4:

It is not half an hour ago, when (in a great hurry and precipitation of a poor devil’s writing for daily bread) I threw a fair sheet, which I had just finished, and carefully wrote out, slap into the fire, instead of the foul one.

Corporal Trim’s stick (volume 9)

Sterne was as particular in his choice of paper as he was in other aspects of the printing process. The advertisement for volumes 1-2 of Tristram Shandy made a point of the fact that they were ‘printed on a super-fine writing paper’.  He wanted Ann Ward to print his book, he told her, ‘in so creditable a way, as to paper, type, etc., as to do no dishonour.’ Tristram himself, calculating earlier in volume 4 how much he still has to write of his life and opinions, exclaims ‘heaven prosper the manufacturers of paper.’

Why did the printer’s sheet of paper suggest itself to Sterne at this point?  Quite possibly because he was coming to the end of writing volume 4 of Tristram Shandy, and would soon, in January 1761, be overseeing the printing of volumes 3 and 4.  He was already picturing himself in the print shop, looking over the compositor’s shoulder.

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