Shandeism

‘True Shandeism [...] opens the heart and lungs, and like all those affections which partake of its nature, it forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely through its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and cheerfully round’.

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, vol. IV

As well as launching Sterne, an unknown Yorkshire parson, into fashionable London society, the success of Tristram Shandy also popularised Sterne’s philosophy on life: a belief in the physical benefits of fun and laughter that he termed Shandeism. Shandeism, a mixture of good humour, optimism and spontaneity, is always linked by Sterne to high spirits and wellbeing. It relates to the influence of the mind on the body – good spirits and good health go together.

Dogged by ill health himself, Sterne held fast to his belief that mirth and high spirits strengthen both a man’s mind and his body, an idea that could well have been shared by The Good Humour Club. Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy, is the ultimate expression of these ideals. A joyous, riotous celebration of the digressions, wrong turns, and unexpected events that make up the titular character’s life story, we might think of Tristram Shandy as the original Mood Boosting Book.

 

Thomas Bridges and Laurence Sterne, as Mountebanks

Charles Atkinson, a local surgeon and member of the Good Humour Club, was friends with Sterne and owned a canvas painting that Sterne had produced with his friend, the humorist Thomas Bridges. Sterne, an amateur painter, depicted Bridges as a mountebank (a medicine-seller) whilst Bridges painted Sterne as his harlequin assistant. Charles passed on Shandean anecdotes to his son, James Atkinson, also a surgeon and another Good Humour Club member. In his Medical Bibliography (1833), James remembers his father telling him that Sterne was renowned for punning: ‘“You are always letting puns”, an old clergyman said to Sterne, “it deserves punishment,” –“that,” replied Sterne, “is as the pun is meant”’.