Mr. Shandy's 'Lint and Basilicon': The Importance of Women in Tristram Shandy

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Clara Reeve's observation that Tristram Shandy "is not a woman's book" presaged subsequent criticism which barely touches on the role of women in Sterne's novel.1 Certainly, the Shandy males are the main focus of this novel, and the various women are presented solely from the male viewpoint; hence they are easily invoked or dismissed as it suits Tristram's whim. Understandably enough, critics, when confronted with a novel in which the male narrator leaves his mother listening in suspended animation for five chapters, have generally accorded Sterne's female characters scant attention.2 The more recent criticism of Ruth M. Faurot and James Swearingen, emphasizing Mrs. Shandy's activity, common sense, and practicality, provides a much needed corrective to former misreadings.3 However, these arguments do not explore the significance of the apparent tension between Mrs. Shandy's inherent strength and her husband's and to lesser extent her son's denigration of her. Once we look past the Shandean male propaganda, it becomes evident that Sterne's novel is indeed very much of a "woman's book," in which women are invested with considerable, though untapped, restorative powers.