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Uncle Toby and the London Gazette: The Use of Contemporary Text in the Re-Creation of the Past

About the Author: Elizabeth Everhart

Elizabeth Everhart is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in English. She plans to pursue graduate study in 2014 with a focus in nineteenth century British Literature. Her critical interests include Victorian literature, gender/sexuality studies, and women’s studies, as well as historical/cultural studies of gender. This essay was written while she was an undergraduate student.

By Elizabeth Everhart | General Essays

Text can both make and tell a life. Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman heavily utilizes text in order to tell the life that one experiences. Tristram’s Uncle Toby lives his life constantly recreating the memory of the Battle of Namur through both text and physical fortifications. Outside in the yard, Toby and Trim spend their days building defenses to reenact the battle in which they both fought and experienced injuries. While fighting in the Battle of Namur, Uncle Toby experienced a groin injury that impacts his concept of manhood and his later ability to pursue romantic relationships. If Toby experienced this battle and this injury, it would follow that he should be able to accurately recall the details of his own life experience and put it into text for the reader. Why, then, does Toby later utilize the daily editions of the London Gazette to guide his construction as opposed to relying solely on memory?

Uncle Toby experienced what today is defined as “trauma” by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: “an extremely frightening event in which a person experiences or witnesses ‘actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others’” (Lilienfeld). Such trauma serves as a kind of gateway to the development of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a syndrome that Uncle Toby undoubtedly suffered from. After the initial injury, Uncle Toby spent “four years totally confined, -- part of it to his bed, and all of it to his room; and in the course of his cure… suffer’d unspeakable miseries” (Sterne 68). While such misery is partially due to the physical pain from the wound he received in battle, it is also due to the trauma and emotional pain that he experienced in receiving the injury. Such removal (from both emotional and physical engagement with others) is considered to be one of the symptoms of medically recognized PTSD (Lilienfeld). Toby’s PTSD has lessened his ability to move past the events during the Battle of Namur and forces him to remain rooted in the past and continue re-living the event.

In order to both cope with his experience and answer questions from those that are curious about his injury, Toby begins trying to relate the story to others. Telling the story of his injury, however, is not a simple endeavor and “Toby did oft times puzzle his visiters; and sometimes himself too” (Sterne 74). This trauma and confusion allowed “little and hourly vexations” to overrun Toby’s life, preventing him from living a relatively normal life (Sterne 74). In seeking a source of relief from this pain, “a thought came into his head, that if he could purchase… a large map of the fortifications of the town and citadel of Namur, with its environs, it might be a means of giving him ease” (Sterne 75). The map, the first instance of textual reference Uncle Toby makes, serves as a means of comfort for him, indicating that he needs a certain amount of stability in order to heal. A map, much like a newspaper, is “both brief… and… self-contained,” and allows the viewer to get all the information offered by one physical piece of documentation (Sherman 107). This allows Toby to focus on one particular aspect of his experience at a time; it gives him a small sense of mental stability and helps him cope.

Though a critical step in the healing process, these maps are not substantial enough to provide real relief. The map can only provide one particular moment in time. This snapshot, in essence, traps him in the moment of his injury, not allowing him to move forward from the Battle of Namur. The location where he sustained his injury became more closely related to Toby’s body than the physical injury itself; he was so familiar with the map and the grounds of the battlefield “that he was pretty confident he could stick a pin upon the identical spot of ground where he was standing in when the stone struck him” (Sterne 75). This familiarity, gained through both physical experience with the landscape and repeated viewing of the map, forces Toby to relive the event and constantly associate himself with that spot.

This initial coping mechanism then transitions to something much greater: the newspaper. Uncle Toby “with the Gazette in his hand,” moves through his fortifications recreating “Amberg, and Rhinberg, and Limbourg, and Huy, and Bonn, in one year, -- [with] the prospect of Landen, and Trerebach, and Drusen, and Dendermond, the next” (Sterne 401; 419). The use of The London Gazette, of contemporary text, in the recreation and experience of the past indicates a sort of mental transition towards healing within Uncle Toby. In “My Contemporaries the Novelists…” Sherman argues that “Toby abruptly abandons the past for the present—for the rapid reenactment of events that just transpired only days or weeks ago” (113). I argue, however, that he does the opposite: in reaching for contemporary material, Toby seeks to recapture and grow from the past, not abandon it. Without The London Gazette, Uncle Toby would be lost within the “contained sprawl” of his own existence; the newspaper provides him with stability and gives him enough information to excite his mind, ultimately giving him power and control he would not otherwise have found and releasing his mind from the painful past he shares with battle (Sherman 108).

The newspaper is, as Sherman describes it, “palpably self-contained [in that] [r]eaders picked it up, took it in, put it down, and awaited the continuation of its stories in the next punctual installment” (Sherman 107). Likewise, Toby and Trim complete their “installments” of construction each day, and wait for the next series of reports in The London Gazette. In picking up the newspaper, Toby “has, in effect, exchanged sprawl (the multitudinous ‘maps &c.’ that overran his bedside table) for pulse” (Sherman 112). The transition to a daily form of communication, as opposed to relying on memory of a past event, suggests that Toby is ready and able to move on from the events that have happened to him. By associating himself with the present, Toby is better able to address the things that have happened to him in the past and derive strength from his former weakness.

The newspapers themselves, however, do not provide Uncle Toby with exact information regarding militaristic moves during the various battles he reads about:

When the duke of Marlborough made a lodgment, --- my uncle Toby made a lodgment too. ---- And when the face of a bastion was battered down, or a defence ruined, -- the corporal took his mattock and did as much, -- and so on; ---- gaining ground, and making themselves masters of the works one after another, till the town fell into their hands. (Sterne 401)

This is the first passage that demonstrates how Toby and Trim use the Gazette in the construction of their fortifications. The repetition of action suggests that Toby and Trim are following the moves that the Gazette reports in exact fashion. The dashes, too, indicate that there is a certain amount of following in the process of construction. In order for the paragraph to proceed, the reader must pause (read through a dash) and wait for the next bit of information to come through, mirroring what Toby and Trim experience while waiting for the next day’s issue of the newspaper.

Despite this description, the newspaper itself does not provide Toby with enough information to build fortifications in the way that is described above. In Issue 3969 of The London Gazette, the report on the Battle of Amberg reads, “General Herbeville had begun to Bombard Amberg in Upper Palatinate” (Issue 3969). This article reveals the smallest amount of information in terms of the war effort, and it is not enough to guide specific breakdown of the model town that Toby and Trim have constructed. Without specific information as to which sides of the town are being bombed and which particular buildings are affected, Toby and Trim have no way of knowing what buildings to destroy within their town.

An article in Issue 3908 (regarding the Battle of Bonn), however, presented much more information:

The town of Bon and the Fort on the other side of the Rhine were invested to 17th Infantry, by about 40 Squadrons of Horse under the Command of Lieutenant-General Buleau… The next day his Grace the Duke of Marlborough… came hither in the evening, being accompanied by Monsieur a’Obam, General of the Horse… General Coeboorn is likewise here, and the great Artillery from Holland is hastening up the Rhine… The Town has fired very little since our being here; but they have burnt some Houses near their Outworks… where-in a Party of our Men was posted… (Issue 3908).

The information presented focuses largely on the various movements of the generals and military officials and quantitative information about the army in Bonn. Even in this instance, however, at no point are exact military details revealed to the reader. The number of horses and the movement of artillery do not affect the overall structure of the town and thus cannot guide Toby in his construction or demolition. If this information is not present in the newspaper, how, then, does Toby act out the battles on his fortifications? Where is the guiding information coming from?

The gaps between the text of the newsprint and Toby’s interpretation of the piece show a type of reflective thought that influences his fortifications. His interactions are undoubtedly shaped by his personal experience at Namur. His view of battle in general is now shaped by his experience; he looks back on the siege of Troy saying that, if the Greeks had had “such a train of artillery as we had at Namur, the town might have been carried in a week” (Sterne 415). Toby’s memory of the Battle of Namur, however, does not merely stand on its own: with the recurrence of war, the resurgence of memory within Uncle Toby must be affected by the present-day interactions taking place on the battlefield. As Chang states in her discussion of an Italian text by Umberto Eco, “the memory of the past is shaped by the present and… the memories that are reconstructed… are shaped by the political realities of [the] present-day” (108). Toby’s memory of the Battle of Namur is, then, shaped by the experience he is “living” through the newspaper articles about the War of Spanish Succession. He is able to suppress his overwhelmingly traumatic experience during the Battle of Namur and instead live through the more distant battles that are reported in the newspaper. Such distance allows Toby to both reflect on and overcome his trauma from the Battle of Namur.

The fortifications Toby is constructing, then, serve as a mechanism for exerting his newfound control over his life. Through the newspaper, Toby is able to filter his experiences and direct his own mind, limiting it to creating the fortifications based on information relayed to him through the “periodic pulse” of the London Gazette (Sherman 108). Toby’s “memory is primitive knowledge of the past” and serves as a jumping off point for his interpretations of the current war England is experiencing (Demos 399). By reading the newspapers, Toby is able to glean outside information about the battles and modify them to fit his own aesthetic and ideas about how war happens.

The town that Toby and Trim are constructing becomes more than buildings: it becomes a mechanism of control that Toby can exert over his own life. Toby adds a “very fine [church] with a steeple,” “four handsome draw-bridges,” “a couple of gates with portcullises… [that] were converted afterwards into orgues,” and, finally, “a handsome sentry box… at the center of the bowling-green” (Sterne 402). In making these additions to his defenses, Toby is moving beyond the realm of textual interpretation: he is manipulating the text and the environment to fit his personal experience, aesthetic, and needs.

In adding these things to the bowling green, Toby is both making the “town” a more enjoyable place to spend his time and exerting control over the environment. The church, bridges, gates, and sentry box are not required additions to the town, but serve as aesthetic extras that Toby feels “he might afford the expense of” (Sterne 402). This gives the sense that he is indulging while building these fortifications, allowing himself to go a bit overboard for the purpose of being satisfied with his environment. Aside from the clear indulgence, the additions are also indicative of a certain amount of control. Uncle Toby adds a church to the town because he believes that “a town looked foolishly without a church” (Sterne 404). This blatant assertion of his own opinion and the modification of his environment (based off of a real environment) indicate that Uncle Toby believes he has a certain amount of control and does not rely solely on the newspaper.

While Toby can interpret the reported events, he still has to follow the order in which the battles occur and adhere to the details that are being presented in The London Gazette. The newspaper provides Toby with a sense of structure, enabling him to think about war within a controlled context. This controlled environment pulls Toby along with the newsprint instead of allowing him to get caught up in any specific memory of the war, as he was able to with the map of Namur.

The stability Toby finds also brings great happiness into his life that was lacking prior to the use of the newspaper. Toby’s construction gives him a new sense of success that he has not experienced before in his life:

What an honest triumph in my uncle Toby’s looks as he marched up to the ramparts! What intense pleasure swimming in his eye as he stood over the corporeal, reading the paragraph ten time over to him as he was at work… when the chamade was beat, and the corporal helped my uncle up it…--- Heaven! Earth! Sea! --- … with all your elements, wet or dry, ye never compounded so intoxicating a drought. (Sterne 402)

The use of the term “honest triumph” in the description of Toby’s looks indicates that he is not only experiencing a moment of victory, but he is experiencing it honestly. “Honest,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, means something that is “worthy of honour, honourable, commendable [or] bring[s] honour.” This suggests that the personal victory Toby is experiencing is something that he should be commended for, implying that it is something that one should aim for. This indicates a sense of grandeur to the practice of constructing the fortifications. The use of heaven, earth, and sea (as opposed to O!) shows an emotion that is bigger than any one person or thing: all three are large on a scale that is almost incomprehensible to the human mind, as is Toby’s newfound happiness.

This happiness, however, is not derived from the actual battles taking place in Europe. As Richardson mentions in his article “Imaging Military Conflict During the Seven Years’ War,” “Toby’s pursuit of his own pleasure overrides any concern for the loss of other people’s lives is present in all the descriptions of the bowling-green activities and especially in the siege of Lille episode” (Richardson 602). I disagree: the fortifications serve as a coping mechanism for Uncle Toby, allowing him to push on and beyond the limitations his injury has set for him. As we hear in Toby’s “Apologetical Oration,” Toby is deeply affected by the loss of life war inflicts (Sterne 414). When studying the siege of Troy during his school years, Toby was “as much concerned for the destruction of the Greeks and Trojans as any boy of the whole school… [and] shed more tears for Hector” than anyone else in his class (Sterne 415).

The happiness Toby experiences, then, must come from a source other than the war. The newspaper is the true source and inspiration for this happiness that Toby is able to find. Uncle Toby and Trim are able to glean true happiness from the pulse of the newspaper that both inspires and occupies them every day. Toby continued following the newspaper “[i]n this track of happiness for many years, without one interruption to it, except now and then when the wind continued to blow due west for a week or ten days together which detained the Flanders mail, and kept them so long in torture” (Sterne 402). Without the arrival of the daily mail, Toby and Trim are not able to follow any reports about the war. The newspaper allows for the construction of the fortifications: without any reports from the war, the fortifications cannot be modified in any way.

In addition to their ability to build, the sheer amount of information that the newspaper contains about the war excites Uncle Toby to the point that Tristram is glad that his artillery could not hold real gunpowder. “For so full were the papers,” Tristram says, “from the beginning to the end of the siege, of the incessant firings kept up by the besiegers, ---- and so heated was my uncle Toby’s imagination with the accounts of them, that he had infallibly shot away all his estate” (Sterne 404). Tristram seems concerned that if Toby had access to artillery that could actually hold gunpowder, the entire estate would certainly have been blown apart. This enthusiasm on the part of Uncle Toby suggests he is becoming fully invested in the happenings of the newspaper. This investment allows him to move beyond the past and forces him to become increasingly interested in the occurrences of the present day.

Toby’s power from the use of the newsprint largely results from this increased mental stability and happiness. Both ultimately help him recover from the injuries he experienced in the war and help him process what has happened to him in a controlled environment. The construction of the fortifications is a kind of cathartic process and allows Toby to work through the trauma he experienced while still maintaining his distance from the exact events. He begins to find real happiness within himself, through the construction of the structures that very nearly guides him into a new life.

This power continues in Toby until the Treaty of Utrecht is reported in the newspaper. The Treaty of Utrecht affected Toby so deeply that “Calais itself left not a deeper scar in Mary’s heart” (Sterne 412). The treaty ended the positive connection between Uncle Toby and the newspaper, forcing him to “[fetch] a sigh, as if his heart would break in twain” whenever he “so much as read an article of news extracted out of the Utrecht Gazette” (Sterne 412). Toby’s reaction to the end of the war is not due to a “wish [that] more of his fellow creatures slain, -- more slaves made, and more families driven from their peaceful habitations, merely for his own pleasure”; it is due to an honest connection between Toby’s physical being and the act of war (Sterne 414).

Toby relates very closely to the concept of war and the construction of his fortifications to his physical being, so much so that Walter’s attempts at placating him force Toby to “defend himself more than common” (Sterne & Campbell 367). Uncle Toby’s need to defend himself stands out because Tristram often describes him as being shy and reserved to the reader; the fact that Walter’s ‘attack’ on Toby’s fortifications makes him respond reveals the depth of his feeling for them. Since the time that Toby “was a school-boy [he] could not hear a drum beat, but [his] heart beat with it,” suggesting that his propensity for war has been instilled in him by nature as opposed to a human force or desire (Sterne & Campbell 369). By passing the desire for war off onto a natural inclination, Toby not only relinquishes responsibility for the negative aspects of war but also gives up a sense of control over his desire. By abandoning this control, Toby reverts back to his old character and his old way of life.

In addition to the relinquished control, Toby is never seen interacting with written text again. In fact, Toby reverts back to older methods of interaction, furthering his regression of character. After beginning his romance with Widow Wadman, the reader is almost led to believe that the relationship will ultimately save Uncle Toby from falling back into his old ways. Their relationship collapses, however, upon the discovery and discussion of Toby’s wound. When Widow Wadman asks Toby where on his body he was wounded, Toby responds by retrieving his old map of the battleground at Namur and pointing to the location he was standing when he received the wound. In this conversation, Toby is revealed to believe that “he could at any time stick a pin upon the identical spot of ground where he was standing when the stone struck him” (Sterne 580). Not only does his certainty indicate that he has fully reverted back to his past-centered mentality, but these words are almost exactly the same as those we get when he first gets the map. The repetition furthers Toby’s commitment to the past and deepens his disconnect with the present. 

Toby’s progression through the text is largely shaped by his experience during the Battle of Namur. After initially experiencing PTSD, Toby struggles to find a way to connect to the present and finds himself living in the past, constantly repeating and reliving the day of his injury. Toby begins to find solace and redemption in the form of written media. Beginning with the map, he uses visual aids to help relate his story to others; the map, however, roots him in history and keeps him from progressing beyond his injury. Enter the newspaper. During the process of building his fortifications, Toby begins using the daily issues of The London Gazette to follow along with the daily reports regarding the War of Spanish Succession. These reports not only guide Toby’s construction and demolition, but they serve as a mechanism for pulling him out of history and forcing him to interact with the present. The newspaper allows him to form a strong connection to the present and gives a sense of stability and a newfound source of happiness. Because the newspapers arrive daily, Toby and Trim expect that they will receive new information to guide them each and every day: this eliminates the amount of ‘sprawl’ that fills Toby’s life and allows him to be pulled alongside the newspaper in its daily reports.

Through the newspaper, Toby finds a mechanism for self-assertion and much-needed assistance for his move towards the future. Once the Treaty of Utrecht ends the war (and thus stops the newspaper reports), Toby is no longer able to use the newspaper as a source of healing, finding his pleasure replaced with pain. This abrupt end propels Toby back in time, finally locking him in the moment he was injured and abandoning all hope for future progression. Without the newspaper and the ability to assert control over his environment, Toby is unable to continue to work through the events surrounding his injury and to grow from them. The text gave Toby a way to relate to and share his life; without it, he is completely lost.


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