“My Dear Old Uncle Toby”: How Old are You?

Tristram Shandy’s complex method of writing, and convoluted character development can make it incredibly difficult to learn anything about what Tristram is really saying (if, indeed, he is saying anything all).  Volume V, Chapter XVII describes Tristram’s recollection of his accidental circumcision and, briefly, explains how it occurred. This passage, although interesting in both its brevity (have any other events been described in so little detail?) as well as its parallel to Uncle Toby’s injury of a similar nature, provides two important pieces of numerical data that can aid the reader in developing a timeline for the narrative.

In his recollection of the event, Tristram notes that the date upon which he writes this passage is August 10, 1761; a date which, the editor informs the reader, corresponds to a date in Sterne’s letters (p. 339; p. 682). If the reader were to assume that Tristram is a “pen-name” for Laurence Sterne, then the reader may also infer that Tristram and Sterne would be at approximately the same age at the time of writing. In 1761, Sterne would have been 48 years old, nearing the end of his life expectancy for the 18th Century.  Thus, Sterne would also be 48 years old in 1761.

The other important piece of information found in this passage is that Tristram was five years old when the window-sash “came… down like lightening upon us” (p. 339).  Assuming the above, the reader can assume that the year would be 1718. This, thankfully, does correspond with other information that the reader has gleaned about the ages of Tristram’s other characters.

By the time that Tristram is born (1713), his Uncle Toby would be eighteen years removed from his groin injury at the Siege of Namur in 1695 (unless, of course, it was the other siege in 1692, in which case he would be twenty-one years removed!). As Toby would have had minimal years of service in the interim (due to the nature of his injury), and having achieved the rank of Captain, the reader can assume that Toby was a Captain (or at least a Lieutenant) in 1695. In order to achieve this rank, a soldier would generally have had to serve for approximately three years. Assuming that Uncle Toby had reached the rank of Captain just prior to the Siege, and had been fortunate enough to be promoted early, it is feasible (though unlikely) that Uncle Toby was seventeen years old in 1695. More probably, Uncle Toby would have been in his mid- to late-twenties.

By 1718, then, Uncle Toby would be a minimum of thirty-five years of age, and, more likely, approximately forty-seven years. This is somewhat problematic, as Walter, having inherited the Shandy estate, is likely the older brother. Upon Tristram’s fifth birthday, then, his own father would be nearing the end of his life.

Although problematic, this timeline is reasonable: it allows for all the events that Uncle Toby describes (such as the Siege of Limerick in 1690, and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713) to have occurred within his own lifetime, and also allows for Tristram’s age to coincide with these events. Should the reader infer a different timeline, it would have to be one in which Tristram is older than Sterne, as it is most certainly not feasible for him to be any younger – if this were the case, then it would make for quite a cock and bull story indeed!

This entry was posted in Close Reading and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *