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Sterne Digital Library

Image showing page in an old bookSterne Digital Library is a research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council examining the workings and implications of long eighteenth-century literary afterlives. The main output is Laurence Sterne and Sterneana, an open-access database hosted by Cambridge Digital Library, providing access to first edition copies of Sterne’s works and works inspired by him. The project is led by Dr Helen Williams (Northumbria University) and Dr Mary Newbould (University of Cambridge) and supported by Senior Research Assistants Dr Katie Aske and Dr Montana Davies-Shuck.

From the outset, Sterne’s publications provoked diverse reactions. Many of his first readers turned their own responses to his works into creative forms of their own. This followed a widespread trend in the eighteenth century for producing what we might call ‘fan fiction’ inspired by popular and successful works. Sterne’s characters and key scenes appeared in countless new places, while many readers parodied his narrative style and graphic quirks. There were pamphlets, poems, plays, songs and full-length novels based on Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, while both texts also stimulated a huge range of visual material: paintings, book illustrations, prints, and objects featuring Sternean motifs, from fans to Wedgwood pottery. The sensation Sterne’s books created spurred the even more eclectic, lively, and fascinating phenomenon of adaptations in different art-forms and media, to bring one reader’s claim – that ‘Tristram is the fashion’ – to life in surprising new ways. 

Thanks to the avidity of former librarian and collector J.C.T. Oates (1912–1990), Cambridge University Library holds one of the most significant collections of Sterne’s work and of Sterneana up to about 1800. Important items also feature in the Library’s other holdings and in the collections of the University’s college libraries. Cambridge’s Sterne materials complement those held by the Laurence Sterne Trust at Shandy Hall, Coxwold – the author’s former Yorkshire home. This collection includes a considerable amount of visual material and of material objects related to Sterne and his works.  

Laurence Sterne and Sterneana brings key highlights of these collections to new audiences, through high definition photographs and searchable full text transcription. It showcases Sterne’s own publications, so that users can see and read these texts as they first appeared to his initial readers, as well as a selection of some of the most important and interesting examples of Sterneana from 1760–1840. All of these texts are rare, sometimes unique, but are now brought to new and even larger audiences than they first encountered. Side by side with Sterne’s own works and with each other, they collectively show what attracted readers’ attention in their source texts – and sometimes in their fellow adaptations – and how they reworked these elements into new forms and modes. These adaptations show popular trends – the reappearance of well-loved characters such as Toby and Maria, for instance – and how new writers were inspired by Sterne’s quirky narrative techniques to produce idiosyncratic takes on the novel, or on travel writing, of their own. Many reproduce and expand on the graphic experimentation Sterne helped to popularise, while others transport their versions of Sterne’s work into purely visual media in illustrations and other types of image. Guiding users through the database are an array of scholarly introductions offering explanation and comment on these items, providing a sense of the exciting sensation that Sterne’s works created in their day, and of the lively creative world of the late eighteenth century in which they emerged. 

The project is also running a conference, rescheduled for 2021, and producing a journal special issue dedicated to contextualising the phenomenon of Sterneana within a wider culture of eighteenth-century adaptation and digitisation. Find out more about the project.

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