Tristram’s Dear Dear Jenny

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, originally published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next seven years.

In previous comments I posted about Tristram Shandy, I described some aspects of the book that I found to be sentimental and emotionally moving, and others that reveal a highly complex literary construction. Here, I am going to go a little lower, following up on the quote David posted from the author, Sterne: “What starts as lofty thought is just all posture; eventually it will drop down to the ‘vitals,’ which is what matters most to people”

Who was the character “Dear, Dear Jenny”?

Doing a quick search on the internet prior to our discussion of Tristram Shandy, I discovered that Jenny is usually described along the lines of this entry from the Character List on the CliffNotes webpage:

Jenny — A casually mentioned young lady friend of the author Tristram Shandy.

I find this somewhat amusing since in my reading of the book I had not come away with the impression that Jenny was necessarily “young” or a “lady” or a “friend of Tristram”. When I brought this up during our book club’s discussion most members of our group responded along the lines of “What is your evidence for that assertion?” Being a scientist, I decided to go back to the text and see what evidence was presented with regard to Jenny. I downloaded an electronic copy of Tristam Shandy from the library ( Book, Ebook ISBN 13:978-1-59625-740-5) and did a search for every occurrence of “Jenny”. There were 12 hits on this name. Here is my (annotated) copy of the results, plus 2 additional quotes I added that seemed relevant to the topic:

1. page 23 “–it is no more than a week from this day, in which I am writing this book for the edification of the world;–which is March 9, 1759,–that my dear, dear Jenny, observing I looked a little grave, as she stood cheapening a silk…”

my comment: Nothing here about “young”, “lady”, or “friend”.

2. page 26 “I must beg leave before I finish this chapter, to leave a caveat in the breast of my fair reader;–and it is this,–Not to take it absolutely for granted, from an unguarded word or two which I have dropp’d in it,–‘that I am a married man.’–I own, the tender appellation of my dear, dear Jenny, –with some other strokes of conjugal knowledge, interspersed here and there, might naturally enough, have misled the most candid judge in the world into such a determination against me.”

my comment: Again nothing here about “young”, “lady”, or “friend”. All we know is that Tristam does not want us to conclude that he is a married man, and that he is concerned that his use of the appellation “my dear, dear Jenny” along with other “strokes of conjugal knowledge” might have misled us.

3. page 26 “Not that I can be so vain or unreasonable, Madam, as to desire that you should think that my dear, dear Jenny is my kept mistress;–no”

my comment: We learn here that dear, dear Jenny is not Tristram’s mistress.

4. page 26 “It is not impossible, but that my dear, dear Jenny! tender as the appellation is, may be my child.”

my comment: Asserting that “it is not impossible” that Jenny is Tristram’s child is not the same as providing evidence that she is his child.

5. page 26 “Nor is there any thing unnatural or extravagant in the supposition, that dear Jenny is my friend.”

my comment: Tristram asserts that Jenny could just as well be his friend as his mistress or his daughter, NOT that she is any of these.

6. page 157 “…depend upon’t I’ll give you something, my good gentry, next year to be sure to be offended at–that’s my dear Jenny’s way–but who my Jenny is–and which is the right and the wrong end of a woman–is the thing to be concealed.”

my comment: Tristram promises us that next year he will tell us something that will offend us because “that’s my dear Jenny’s way”, but that the question of “who Jenny is” must be concealed, the same way it must be concealed “which is the right and the wrong end of a woman.”

7. page 179: “That is the true reason, that my dear Jenny and I, as well as all the world besides us, have such eternal squabbles about nothing.–She looks at her outside,–I, at her in…. How is it possible we should agree about her value?”

my comment: This is a somewhat enigmatic comment about Jenny. It ends a chapter in which Tristram informs us that his father always saw things differently from other people.

8. page 232: “I love the Pythagoreans (much more than ever I dare tell my dear Jenny) for their ‘(Greek)’–(their) ‘getting out of the body in order to think well.’

my comment: Another enigmatic comment, subject to interpretation.

9. page 246: “What a mine of wealth, quoth I, as he counted me the money, has this post-chaise brought me in? And this is my usual method of book-keeping, at least with the disasters of life–making a penny of every one of ’em as they happen to me– –Do, my dear Jenny, tell the world for me, how I behaved under one, the most oppressive of its kind, which could befall me as a man, proud as he ought to be of his manhood–“

my comment: In this chapter Tristram has wrecked his chaise while traveling and had to sell it.

10. page 259: ‘that a rill of cold water dribbling through my inward parts, should light up a torch in my Jenny’s–‘

my comment: Hmmm, water flowing through his inward parts lights up his Jenny’s?

11. page 263: “O Tristram, Tristram, cried Jenny! O Jenny, Jenny, replied I, and so went on with the thirty-sixth chapter.”

my comment: These are the last lines of chapter LIV.

12. page 263: –‘Not touch it for the world,’ did I say–

my comment: First line of following chapter, LV.

13. page 291: “I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen: the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more–everything presses on–whilst thou are twisting that lock,–see! bang it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.–Heaven have mercy upon us both!”

my comment: This is last paragraph of chapter LXXXVI.

14. page 291: “Now, for what the world thinks of that ejaculation–I would not give a groat.”

my comment: First (and only) sentence of following chapter, LXXXVII.

So that’s it. These are the only references to Jenny that come up. Since you have seen the same evidence I have, I will leave it up to you to interpret this evidence on your own. However, I cannot resist stating that I think anyone who came away from reading Tristram Shandy with the notion that Jenny was simply “a young lady friend of Tristram” probably missed a great portion of the (often complex) risque humor in this book.

Ron Boothe


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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