Words… Thesis pieces

☞ Birmingham’s regulations dictate that a doctoral thesis should not exceed 80,000 words, excluding such matters as footnotes and bibliographies. Here’s where I got to:

The Socialisation of Tristram Shandy

  • Introduction – Serial Publication and Socialisation – 6200 words
  • Chapter 1 – Shandean Bibliolatry: Authorising Textual Knowledge in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy 10,400 words
  • Chapter 2 – Tristram in Grub Street: Sterne and Swift – 5000 words
  • Chapter 3 – Eighteenth – Century Footnotes and Tristram Shandy – 15,000 words
  • Chapter 4 – A Chapter on Locke, 9300 words
  • Chapter 5 – A Compendium of Shandys – 8100 words
  • Chapter 6 Commentary – 10,400 words

Grand total: 64,400

Not included : Sterneana paper “Swarms of Filthy Pamphleteers” . c9000 including reflective commentary on why it was not very good.

Whenever i complain about having written so many words without submitting the thesis, the listener inevitably responds, “How could you have given up when you only had 15,000 words to go?”

☞ Well, let me explain.

I had originally promised to write about Sterne’s use of Locke, Rabelais and Cervantes, with perhaps a detour into Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The easiest way to do that would be a chapter examining each in turn. However I managed only a chapter on Locke, a sidetrack into Swift, and examinations of Rabelais, Cervantes and Burton remained spectacularly unwritten or researched. The struggle to understand Locke  – a 17th century philosopher and his impact on the 18th century – proved so difficult that the thought of doing the same with Cervantes and Rabelais (at least) filled me with terror. And meant that I was still at least TWO chapters behind.

I had also got sidetracked into more interesting matters like commentary and compendia, the authority of authorities/books, as can be seen in the tally above.

I didn’t know how to reconfigure the project to accommodate these new interests, and the chapters on Locke and Swift seemed strangely incomplete without looking at the other major figures in Shandean appropriation.

☞ And of course it would all be better in the next draft.

Notes on an abstract

☞ After I decided to revisit the old thesis, I had a rummage through my old thesis files. I found that, in the last year of working full time on the project, I made no clear revisions to the abstract/ proposal document. It was as though, even then, the prospect of completion was receding from view, becoming less viable, that the more I wrote, like Tristram’s biography, the less likely I was to reach the end. I remember conversations with my supervisor where he talked about the “final” or “next” drafts and they sent shivers through my spine.

Of course now I know better. I’ve learned from working in HE that a thesis is very much a journeyman piece – it is not expected to be perfect or complete, just original and coherent. I wish I’d had the maturity then to both work harder and talk about the problems I was having. I also think that, in retrospect, I should have stopped seminar teaching to concentrate on the research. I enjoyed teaching very much, but I found it difficult to move from teaching prep back into thesis and Sterne mode. Sadly I needed the money. It is still one of the great obstacles to becoming an academic: without teaching experience you can’t get a job afterwards, but if you don’t finish the thesis, well….

Anyway I’ve found one of the reports that I sent to my sponsors and it contains some elements of the abstract. I think that it will give you – dear reader – some idea of what I was working towards.

In the next post I’ll talk about the chapters I produced, but this should give you a rough idea of the overall theme.

The socialisation of Tristram Shandy

I am studying Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy as an example of what Jerome McGann has called a ‘social text’.

We read McGann during my MA year and I found his emphasis on the book as a physical artefact really intriguing, and Tristram is just the perfect book to use as an exploration of this theory, as it so often highlights its own status as a constructed and created object. In retrospect I should also have looked at Genette’s Paratextes to ground this in critical approach that looked at more than just literary editing

One aspect of this is that the ‘bibliographical codes’ of a text – non-linguistic material such as the layout of a page- are as important as the linguistic meanings which have traditionally been the focus of literary study. Tristram Shandy is a work that exemplifies the importance of considering these non-linguistic signifiers because it often relies on the reader’s comprehension of features such as the black or marbled pages.

My best work on this aspect was a long chapter on footnotes, believe it or not. If it had a conclusion I’d have submitted that chapter somewhere. I see now that the emphasis on McGann as master theorist was a bit foolhardy and specific – the ‘bibliographic codes’ are a subset of paratextual matters.

I shall argue that Tristram Shandy is a sophisticated inquiry into the authority of different kinds of textual knowledge.

Actually this bit is key to what I did – perhaps more so than bibliographic codes – the drafted chapters look at major external sources/influences such as Locke and Swift, with an initial chapter that looks generally at the way Sterne/Tristram use named authorities to “guarantee” the authenticity and expertise of knowledge.

I am going to show that the many texts which Sterne plagiarised and exploited to construct his novel are often positioned in a relationship of text and commentary which has many parallels with the practice of eighteenth century academic scholarship. This brings a new approach to the traditional question of Sterne’s intertextuality by considering the way the authority of other texts is interrogated by their placement within a ‘Shandy’ discourse.

I was quite proud of this at the time, and I even demonstrated (somewhere) that the interpolated texts (like Slawkenbergius, or the Curse of Ernulphus) demonstrated Sterne’s awareness of textual commentary and the authority thereof. It was a good chapter. It may not have been a new approach, or be enough to pad out a thesis, but it was a nice chapter.

I will be examining Sterne’s negotiation of textual authority in the context of the reading expectations and competence of an audience in the 1760s. For example, I shall consider not only the way Sterne used aspects of Locke’s Essay as a structuring principle for the novel but also the early eighteenth-century popular interest in Locke’s work. I will show how Tristram Shandy appropriates part of a discourse of using Locke’s theories in literature as part of its overall examination and commentary upon the authority of knowledge.

Yeah I didn’t do this so much… Reading Locke was such a struggle that it was all I could do to produce a chapter that engaged with Sterne and Locke, never mind popular understandings of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding in the mid-18th century. And actually that seemed like such a broad (and boring) query that I dodged it for the entire time.

I will conclude my thesis by examining the reception of the novel between 1760 and 1765 in the reviews and pamphlets which were prompted by the popular interest in Sterne’s novel. Many of these pamphlets consist of imitative discourses which I will argue represent reinterpretations of contemporary readings of the novel.

Well this bit comes from a paper I gave at the weekly postgraduate research seminar sessions. It looked at the many pamphlets that were written and printed to exploit the vogue for all things Tristram Shandy in 1761-3. I don’t remember it being very well-received and I still have an annotated version of the paper where I worked out what I should have said. I doubt that paper would end up in the thesis.

☞ It strikes me now that this really isn’t a coherent project. I think that I knew that, even then.

Twenty Years Later

“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.


“True Shandeism, think what you will against it, opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which  partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro’ its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round.”