I’ve been targeting a first-edition copy of Tristram Shandy just about since this project began. I’m not a bibliophile. This isn’t about author-love or the commoditization of old things. I don’t fetishize first editions or signed copies– though I did check the fifth volume to confirm that it was signed by Sterne. It’s that not having a first-edition copy of my own has been holding me back, since curators have been understandably hesitant to let me borrow their books and spray them with low-energy lasers or zap them with x-rays. I’ve done what I can from high-resolution images; I’ve seen now over forty copies at US and British libraries. I’m in the position where it would be handy to have one of Sterne’s originals– exactly to see what modern analytical chemistry can do.
The problem is that my price range is less, more than an order of magnitude less, than the $20,000 or so that a complete, nine-volume first edition can command. A copy seemed out of reach. Recently, however, historical contingencies have aligned in such a way that a copy has come into my hands– an imperfect copy, to be sure, but perfect for the Motley Lab, since it contains the crucial third volume. And that copy turns out to have a compelling story, which bears on the stuff of Tristram Shandy in an interesting way. Those of you who know that book well will remember Uncle Toby, the kind-hearted soldier (retired) whose bowling-green recreations of the War of the Spanish Succession are one major inspiration for my own Shandean labor of historical recreation. It is a sign of the world that Tristram Shandy came from, the unsettling relationship between the time of its story, and the time of its publication, that this copy was owned by a man strikingly like Uncle Toby. That is, he was strikingly like Uncle Toby in some respects. But he was just about as different from him as can be imagined, in the ones that count.
Like the lovable Uncle Toby, Colin Campbell Kilberry was an officer of the British army, the strong arm of the British Empire. When the fictional Toby served, it was in Europe, for that was the scope of the Army’s field of action. That was in 1695. But by the time Sterne was penning his novel, the reach of the Army was very much greater than that. Thus, in 1761, Major Campbell would not have been surprised that he was being dispatched to Martinique, as part of an expeditionary force tasked with seizing that Caribbean island from the French. When Campbell, therefore, stormed the French redoubt at Fort Royal, it was an instance of the strange state of affairs in Britain, in which the people of formerly colonized, occupied kingdoms were set to occupy and colonize territories abroad. Campbell, whose grandparents on both sides were from the Clan Campbell, was a Highlander, and led a company of Highlanders into battle, for the Army was overrepresented, in command and in rank-and-file, by the Scots and the Irish.
Sterne was raised in various barracks, a point not lost on biographers, who suspect that Uncle Toby was based on Sterne’s memories of acquaintances there. His father was an Irish ensign, crippled in a duel at Gibraltar which arose over a goose; it was that wound, Sterne later suspected, which finally killed his father, sapping him of his energy and force. Campbell’s life was differently marked by violence. In 1762, after the conquest of the island but during its occupation, a long-simmering feud with a fellow officer named McKaarg erupted into violence: first, rhetorical, as Campbell and McKaarg exchanged insults over the latter’s financial improprieties, then physical, as McKaarg refused a duel, and Campbell ran him through with a short sword.
There was hardly a less-liked man in the army, Tobias Smollett was later to remark, than Captain McKaarg– though Campbell appears to have been none too loved himself. The encounter nevertheless cost Campbell his commission. Though found innocent of murder, he was cashiered on a technicality; the army, that institution of sanctioned brutality, could not consent to one of its own weapons being turned upon itself. Nor was that episode over. It involved Campbell in nearly a decade worth of litigation, much of it aired publicly. Perhaps the most Quixotic (not to say Shandean) of these legal motions was a charge of incompetence leveled against his own commanding officer, the General Robert Monckton. This includes one 1764 publication, now at the John Carter Brown library, bound in marbled paper so like the motley emblem that it reminds us that Sterne’s emblem deployed a pattern which was becoming a standard style.
Anyways, when aristocratic families fall on hard times, the first thing that goes is the library. I can’t say to a certainty that Campbell sold his copy of Tristram Shandy, but I can say that, though he returned to England in 1763, he stopped purchasing new volumes. Possibly his financial affairs were too encumbered to afford luxury objects like novels; possibly he just no longer saw much interest in a quasi-satirical book which cut too close to home. What he collected before leaving for Martinique, therefore, is all that his copy of Tristram Shandy would ever be: just first six volumes of the book, published and bound from 1759 to 1762. This, of course, contains the critical marbled page, and is the copy which is now at the Motley Lab. Like Toby and Campbell, it is cut short. And, like the times it comes from, its narrative is shot through by the regular occupation of warfare, and therefore a reminder that Sterne’s income from that book, the one that began with his pen but ended in the Kilberry library, was partly military.
Campbell turns up once again in the historical record. Having rescued his broken fortunes through marriage, Campbell retreated to Edinburgh, where he gained a second notoriety as an aging fop in the mould of Old Bellair from Etheredge’s Man of Mode, or perhaps old Mr. Turveydrop from Dickens’s Bleak House. He spent his summers in fashionable spa towns, including Buxton. Like Toby, he remained childless, and his estate passed to a near relative on his father’s side. What he might have made of the six volumes of Sterne’s novel which came through his hands, or whether he saw himself in Uncle Toby, is difficult to know. But it is his copy of the emblem which is now at the Lab.
More soon, as the Lab explores partnerships for (nondestructive!) testing on its emblem.
For more reading, see:
Proceedings of a general court-martial held at Fort Royal, in the island of Martinico, … upon the tryal of Major Commandant Colin Campbell (1763)
Proceedings of a general court-martial held at the judge-advocate’s office for a trial of a charge preferred by Colin Campbell, esq., against the Hon. Major-General Monckton, 1764 (1764)
Seven Years’ War: Journal of the Proceedings of the 35th Regiment of Foot (manuscript). John Carter Brown Library, Codex Eng 41.
Tobias Smollett, “The Case of Colin Campbell,” The Critical Review (July 1763), 74.
John Burke, A Genealogical and Heraldic History (1937).