After reading Volume VI of Tristram Shandy, I was struck by how, despite the novel’s comic tone, themes of war, death, and injury figure prominently. This has led me to pay more attention to the character of Toby, and his significance for an audience that would have lived through several wars, and many of whom may have seen something more serious in Toby’s hobbyhorse. Looking at the dates of Sterne’s life shows that his life overlaps the dates of several major wars in which Britain was involved. His dates are 1713-1768, meaning that he was born a year before the end of the War of the Spanish succession (1701-1714). The War of the Austrian Succession was 1740-1748, and the bulk of the volumes of Tristram Shandy would have come out during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1769). (The blurb about the author at the front of the Penguin edition of Tristram Shandy shows Sterne beginning work on the book in 1759.)
In light of this context, Toby’s injury and subsequent obsessions take on a more serious aspect, as Sterne’s readership would likely have included people who had been involved in the Seven Years’ War, and who would probably have found something familiar in Toby’s story. The linking of warfare and sieges, with injury and impotence through various scenes featuring Toby in martial or mock-martial contexts (for example: Volume VI, Chapter XII and XXIII) may have darker implications than the rather bumbling figure of Toby suggests. That Toby’s wound essentially limits the sphere of his activity to playing war in his garden—a hollow imitation of the real thing—can be read as satirically highlighting the real suffering that these wars visited on people, while simultaneously poking fun.
Considering the constant metaphorical play concerning “noses,” where a nose very rarely is really a nose, there is some cause for caution in reading the military material as strictly what it appears to be. I have occasionally wondered whether Toby has seen any combat at all, and whether his wound and mock-battles are not just a coded description of a tragically doomed love life. However, these ambiguities also leave open the possibility of reading the military cross-section of Tristram Shandy through the lens of the real warfare that was contemporary with its author and readers.