Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past

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Interview with Patrick Wildgust

Curator of Shandy Hall, Laurence Sterne Trust, Coxwold, North Yorkshire
Interview recorded on 10 May 2008

Photo of Patrick Wildgust

Patrick Wildgust

Patrick Wildgust introduces re-enactment participants to Shandy Hall and shares his views on the reiteration of the past in the novel, Tristram Shandy, and the 2005 film, A Cock and Bull Story.

Patrick Wildgust on himself

I'm the curator of Shandy Hall, which means that my job is to look after the house and its collection of books and prints and paintings that refer to Laurence Sterne, and I suppose really my job is to promote Sterne's Writings in any way that I can.

On Shandy Hall and Tristram Shandy

The connection between this Shandy Hall and Tristram Shandy is that although Laurence Sterne, when he wrote the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy set them in a fictional Shandy Hall, the rest of the novel, the subsequent seven volumes, were written here in Shandy Hall in Coxwold. So, in terms of place, we're about as close to the act of writing the book as we could possibly be. Not much has changed since Sterne left. I'm sure it did inform the book, but you can't necessarily pick extracts of the book and say 'ah you can see that Sterne wrote this in Coxwold because it makes a direct reference to a particular architectural point.'

On Tristram Shandy as soap opera

The book is like a little soap opera. It's a house, Shandy Hall, which houses a group of characters, principally, Mr and Mrs Shandy, Walter Shandy and his brother, uncle Toby and his corporal/friend, corporal Trim. And their stories are told around what has happened to them in the past, and what is happening to the present, and also what is going to happen to them in the future. Time is played around with in a playful sort of way.

Photo of Shandy Hall

Shandy Hall

On Sterne and the world of hypertext

Sterne's reputation is growing. He's been up and down, he was huge when he wrote the book, and he's gone up and down through the succeeding years, he's of great interest to a lot of writers, increasingly, and in this world of hypertext it is a hypertext novel, it does bounce about all over the place in terms of how the story is presented to the reader. And so the opportunity to make it a work upon which other works can be based is widening year by year. It's seen as being, I suppose, a beacon for non-linear narrative. And a significant one.

On A Cock and Bull Story and the relationship between authenticity and the past

A Cock and Bull Story, the Winterbottom film, was I think a considerable success. It was the first film interpretation of Tristram Shandy, and to make a film about how you can't make a film about Tristram Shandy was obviously a very clever and sensible way to make it, and it was a film that showed that to try to stick to historical authenticity is extremely complicated, and built it in to the construction of the film. One particular scene that takes place in the costume truck, where the representative from the Sealed Knot, the war game, is pointing out inconsistencies, and incorrect use of particular pieces of hats, or jerkins, and where pockets are cut, and how things are, how far you can go down the route of attempted authenticity before eventually you must fall flat on your face because you can't do it. And to show that it was not really possible to be done, to show that the film was being constructed in vain of being able to tell the story, shows the delightful intricacies that take place within the story; that you can't tell Tristram's life in a straightforward, coherent fashion, it's not linear. And it's a funny film, which was also the purpose of the book, and shows that in trying to retell stories, that the best way of retelling them is really as lightly and as delicately as possible, and to keep everybody in as good a frame of temper as possible as they go along is the best way of doing it, so that after it finishes, you feel as if you've had a jolly nice time, you've been informed, you've gone through, your imagination has been certainly asked to participate, and actually you haven't got any further forward, so it's a cock and bull story...

On the Re-enactment of the Siege of Namur

Illustration of Uncle Toby's fortifications

Uncle Toby's fortifications

The central re-enactment of the novel takes place because there is insufficient space for Uncle Toby to be able to clearly and properly demonstrate, both for his own thinking and also for his audience, or his visitors, where he was injured, and how he was injured within a particular battle. Now, like anything within Tristram Shandy, if you want to make reference to a particular thing, you also have to make sure that your audience or the readership understands that to understand that thing you have to go back in history to understand another thing, so the history of the siege of Namur is also developed out of the idea of fortifications and how they were constructed, which requires quite a lot of paper, and insufficient room upon the table top led to Uncle Toby finding it very difficult to locate, from a paper point of view exactly how to demonstrate the siege of Namur. Corporal Trim, his trusty ally, recognises this 'fiddle faddle', as he refers to it in the book, and suggests that perhaps they should relocate the battle from the imagination of uncle Toby and the paper representation to a physical representation on the bowling green at Shandy Hall... from a practical point of view, they don't have much of a budget, and so anything that comes to hand is used to create fortifications and battlements. The principal re-enactment station, as I suppose you could refer to it, is the sentry box, and the sentry box is there for practical reasons. In case it rains, Uncle Toby will have somewhere to shelter, but also it acts where the plans can be pinned up on the back of the sentry box so that they can be referred to, and also it's a place where tactics can be adopted and discussed between Corporal Trim and Uncle Toby, and it becomes a significant place because it's hidden away, this little also behind some shrubbery, it's enclosed, it's secret, and how secret it is, Sterne is very careful to express it within his language, is to give you the idea that it also can refer to perhaps other aspects of secrecy and practice that Uncle Toby might be getting up to. This entirely is in the reader's imagination of course, and is not explicit, but it's something which the pair of them enjoy, and to try to make sure that they can make it more effective they seize upon anything that comes to hand. The sash windows in Shandy Hall are controlled by weights... and mortars are needed, and lead is needed, and so Corporal Trim takes the two lead weights from a sash window to use them - with dire consequences on Tristram's anatomy later in the book, showing that cause and effect is quite a considerable trope, within the narrative, an action results in an action that takes place later, that, unless you understand how it happened, everything is always going backwards and forwards, and connected.

The re-enactment is a comic device, there is very little in the book that isn't, it is a comedy, it's meant to fence against the infirmities of ill health by mirth. Sterne wants to write something which is going to amuse and entertain, and he tries within the parameters of constructing this little house with its small selection of is comic, but it doesn't make uncle Toby into a figure of buffoonery or stupidity.

On Uncle Toby's trauma and the pathology of re-enactment

Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim

Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim

Uncle Toby was injured at the siege of Namur, which is a true battle, and as a result of that injury that he received, the idea that he should wish to revisit the scene that caused his injury, well there's something there for a psychological analysis perhaps. Corporal Trim discovers that in re-enacting and telling the story of where he received his wound at the siege of Namur, Uncle Toby revives, it acts as therapy, and he has the bright idea during this process of recovery to suggest to Uncle Toby that perhaps they could re-enact the battle of Namur on the bowling green at Shandy Hall, and so, in miniature, the decision is made, using whatever comes to hand, whether it be boots or lead weights from sash windows, to create a sort of little playground for uncle Toby and corporal Trim to indulge their enjoyment of battle, but it being in a harmless pleasurable way.

On uncomfortability with re-enactment and authenticity

Re-enactment, it's a jolly interesting word, because to re-enact within a play or to re-enact within a sort of procedure, where you're attempting to represent what took place, is perfectly acceptable, as far as I'm concerned. For a character to attempt to portray a character from history... I find questionable, because to try to take on a character or a personality from the past and open yourself to question from a contemporary audience introduces the idea of the fact that ultimately you're not going to be able to be accurate... In the construct of a play or a re-enactment that's different, because roles are being created by a writer or by a director to put forward an argument or a message. Now when you start introducing the idea of the Sealed Knot, for example, who re-enact battles, that's where you start to get a very interesting blend, because the war game, the re-enactment of the strategy of, say Marston Moor, which is a battle which can be summarised on a sheet of A4 in terms of what happened...the people who are re-enacting that, if they're little pawns on a board, to fulfil what actually happened historically, and yet within that they take on the identity of individual characters, that's where it starts to get very interesting. And Sterne himself is creating the idea.

On storytelling and re-enactment

The cleverness of an interpretation or a re-enactment is that it gives it a new life; that it takes the raw material that the particular medium has constructed its story within, and transfers it and translates it to its new medium. Martin Rowson's graphic novel of Tristram Shandy is not a page by page pictorial representation of the book, it also looks at the way that the graphic novel is constructed, and the history of the cartoon within its own telling. So it has two or three different narrative lines that encourage the reader to enjoy using Tristram Shandy as an inspiration for the telling of stories universally... and the film is another version of telling Tristram Shandy in filmic terms, whereby it attempts to encapsulate what Tristram Shandy is like filmically and yet can't do it. If there was an opera then theoretically that would look at the process of putting on an opera to tell the story, and how would they, within the confines of what we understand as that particular art form, what are the devices that make a successful opera, and how do we have to discover and explore that particular medium. (13.07) The strength of the book is that it's a story about stories. It's a story of how do you tell a story. It's a story of how you have to keep with the writer. There are no rules at the beginning of a book that says you've got to read the first page and then you've got to read the second page and then you've got to read the last page. Many readers find satisfaction and pleasure out of reading that last page of the book first so they know where they are. Some people then read extracts of the book in the middle before they go back to the beginning, to then read the book 'properly', as they might think, and experience the narrative as you are encouraged to do, but not bound to do. You can if you wish stop and freeze frame. You can fast forward a film. You can go to the best bits, you can show a particular scene to a particular viewer because that encapsulates all the humour - you can say, this is the best bit. There are no rules when you're telling stories. They can be as long-winded as you want them to be, or they can be as short and succinct as a one-line joke. You might get the same cathartic and pleasurable sensation out of a quip than you will out of a lengthy, extended joke, that makes you fall about at the end in realising you've been led along the garden path. That's what stories are like.

On hobby-horses and reiterations of the past

Squiggled lines from 'Tristram Shandy'

Squiggles from Tristram Shandy

Re-enactment in the book, it is, it's a hobby-horse, Sterne refers to it as Uncle Toby's hobby-horse, and gives it that identity, which also has two or three meanings, possibly, as being something again that we all have, or it's something that we can identify with, that thing which we want to find enjoyment in, or pleasure in, or that's a subject we've become so fascinated by and with that we can't release it, we can't relinquish it, we revisit it, we go back to it time after time after time. Now Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim of course are not only revisiting that particular battle, but other battles and also as the newspaper reports were given, so they're re-enacting day by day... so we can be looking at a snapshot of the past by a re-enactment of what took place, without necessarily having to see the footage or the particular accounts, but he's acting as a medium, to let us have a view of the past. We're fascinated by the past.

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