Uncle Toby's preoccupation with the campaigns of Marlborough may be explained by the fact that Sterne was the son of an impoverished infantry officer who fought in the Low Countries and who was married at Dunkirk, the fortress so important to the garden-warriors of Tristram Shandy.
Laurence Sterne came of a distinguished family, though he gained no advantage from it, and, having been born in Ireland where his father was stationed, he spent his youth first as a camp-follower and then as a schoolboy in Yorkshire under the guardianship of his uncle. At Cambridge, where he was a poor discontented scholar, he became friendly with John Hall-Stevenson who later in life placed at his disposal a large private library and encouraged him to join the carousing and crack-brained fun of a club called the Demoniacs which met at Crazy Castle. Apart from these bouts of conviviality, Sterne settled to his career as a conscientious country parson who earned some reputation both as a wit and as a preacher.
Despite his growing fame in Yorkshire, he gained no ecclesiastical promotion; he became estranged from his wife, and she eventually suffered from mental collapse. Under such melancholy circumstances he wrote Tristram Shandy, the first two volumes of which were issued locally at his own expense; soon, however, they were so popular in London itself that he was able to obtain a splendid contract for a new volume each year during the rest of his life.
Unfortunately, success had barely reached him when tuberculosis showed itself, and Sterne had to go to France. There he was feted by influential people as a man with a European reputation. A second trip in search of health resulted in A Sentimental Journey, a jocose mixture of travel, gossip and novel spiced with oddity yet sweetened with sentimentalism. It was while he was in London supervising the publication of this book that he suffered a sudden relapse and died.
Tristram Shandy is what the reader cares to make it, and some find it incomprehensible, bewildering, irritating. Instead of a picture of contemporary life, he portrays a few strange people isolated from the rest of the world; instead of humour illustrated by events or conversation, he makes all life a prolonged joke; and instead of the plain but prolix style of writing in which eighteenth-century novels are written, he employs an impish method of thought expression and association of ideas that jerks all over the place, meanders off into streams of inconsequences, indulges in freaks of memory and fancy, and generally allows the author to play any trick he likes on the reader's intelligence.
There is no chronological sequence to the events: Volume 1 begins in 1718, and Volume 9 ends in 1713, five years before the ostensible hero was even born. The clock does not stand still; rather, the pointers flick backwards or forwards without warning, and usually they are hidden from the reader. However, actual events account for only a small part of the book; most of it consists of talk for the sake of depicting a group of happy eccentrics into which Tristram had the good fortune to be born — simple people whose whims and freaks are derived from wisdom and natural goodness.
Tristram Shandy has no life or opinions. His relations and friends have, and they are but varied reflections of the author's own. The novel is the author, the greatest eccentric of them all. Yet because of his sensitivity to the subtlest of emotions, he rounds off the comers of his peculiar creations, and gives to their queer quirks of humour an all-pervading mellowness.
With every reason he used as a pseudonym 'Yorick' the court jester, 'a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy', of gibes, and gambols, forever remembered for his 'flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar.'