“I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor any man’s rules that ever lived” (TS 1.4.5)
This has been a very difficult web project to begin. My name is Jonathan Laidlow and between 1995 and 1999 I attempted to write a PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham here in the UK on Tristram Shandy. Like all of the best-laid plans, it did not run smoothly. While I was funded by the British Academy and worked as a TA in the English Department there to supplement that modest grant, I found that by the end of my funding I had written only 60,000 words of the 80,000 required, and my bank manager needed to have a serious chat with me about my overdraft.
Academic jobs in English Literature were then, as now, very hard to come by, particularly for somebody who still required another year of research and writing to complete the thesis and submit it. I managed to secure a temp job working as a secretary, which gave me access to a printer and a photocopier, but I quickly found that working a 9-5 job did not solve the essential problem that had blighted the final year of my funding: academic burnout.
I had been an excellent student up until that point – I secured a first class honours degree at Birmingham and followed that up with a distinction in my Masters – Birmingham’s “Text” MA – which explored the meaning, production and transmission of texts.
I thought I had a viable project and an excellent supervisor in Professor Marcus Walsh, but along the way I developed some form of depression that left me unable to write, and unable to read and retain any of the important and difficult texts I needed to absorb.
I maintained the fiction that I would complete the PhD and submit it for several years working as a secretary and administrator at Birmingham, then moved sideways into one of the first jobs integrating e-learning into the curriculum in the Law School there, and maintaining the external-facing websites.
The thesis became a roadblock in my life: everything would improve if only I could add those hallowed letters to my name. And yet I did no substantial work on the project. One of my chapters was published in the journal Eighteenth-Century Novel and I collaborated with a friend and colleague on a torturous essay on Robert Paltock’s novel Peter Wilkins, but other than that, the files and print-outs and photocopies festered in a filing cabinet, and Tristram began to slip out of my brain.
On my fortieth birthday I decided to bin the paper: academia has moved on, after all, and most of the secondary material is now available online. And yet… and yet. The lure of unfinished business, and the thought of all those words written during the years of my scholarship going to waste, meant that I came up with this project.
This website will hopefully serve a dual purpose – it will hopefully consider and highlight interesting websites and news for fans of Laurence Sterne, and I shall try to categorise things appropriately. I also hope to use it to explore and reflect both on Tristram Shandy and the pieces I wrote back in the 1990s. I don’t think there is much hope of completing the project as a PhD – I suspect that the terms and conditions of my original enrolment have long since expired, and the definition of a doctorate is surely a project written and researched over a set period of time, but perhaps I can salvage a few fragments that may be of interest to those so inclined.
I originally enrolled on the doctoral programme at Birmingham in October 1995. It’s now 2015, so we’re approaching the twenty-year anniversary of the project’s inception. It was a landmark year: I was twenty-two and filled with optimism and hope for a glorious future, convinced of my own genius. Little did I know of the “evils of life” that would beset me.