The 250th Birthday of English Literature's Most Unusual Page

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A close look at the swirls of Tristram Shandy's famous marbled page, which helped define the art of the modern novel

You really have to admire an 18th-century novel that can get literary critics to write essays that include the words "inadvertent circumcision inflicted by the descent of the sash-window" and "a hot chestnut landing on a delicate part of his anatomy." But these are of course only part of the appeal of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a book known not only for its bawdy (usually the word of choice) humor but also for its innovative, even "postmodern" structural play and use of graphics like the "black page" and "marbled page." The marbled page—a one-of-a-kind sheet of paper covered with swirling colors, included in the third volume of each first edition—is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, and the U.K.-based Laurence Sterne Trust is celebrating this wonder of literary graphic design with an exhibit titled "Emblem of My Work."

Here's a marbled page from the book's first edition:

Page from the first edition, 1759.jpg
Why all the fuss about a single page of a single book? Well, it's not just any page. First, there's the fact that the design itself, particularly in the 18th century, was exceedingly exotic: Richard J. Wolfe, writing in Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns, notes that the craft of marbling, which flourished in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East, first became known to Europeans only in the 16th and 17th centuries, and commercial production in England did not begin until the 1770s. One reason this took so long is that making marbled paper is complicated: liquid pigments are suspended on a liquid medium, creating the colorful swirls, and then transferred to paper laid upon them. In the case of Tristram Shandy's first edition, this was done by hand and repeated on both the front and back of a single page with the margins folded in—a process so involved that later versions of the book usually resorted to mechanized reproductions. Stranger still was that the book, the first volume of which appeared in 1759, used marbled paper at a time when it was still almost unknown in England. The appearance of the material in the novel, Wolfe writes, was "a curious and intriguing development that has about it some of the mysterious elements of a modern spy thriller."

The marbled page also has unusual literary significance. As the Sterne Trust puts it, on the preceding page "Sterne tells the reader that the next marbled page is the 'motly emblem of my work'—the page communicating visually that his work is endlessly variable, endlessly open to chance." In encapsulates the spirit of the pioneering book as a whole, and gets at the good old—or, in Sterne's case, not yet invented—theme of the reader's personal subjectivity. In the words of Sterne scholar Peter de Voogd, "Each marbling is unique, as is each reading of Tristram Shandy. It is fitting that your copy of Tristram Shandy is different from mine, since your subjective experience of the book is different."

In most contemporary editions of the book, the marbled page is the same for every copy, in black and white rather than color. Still, it serves as a reminder of how this wildly eccentric book filled with wildly eccentric characters pushed the limits of how graphics can interact with words. The "black page," for example, mourns the death of a particular character, and there's also a squiggly line indicating the motion of a stick in the air. Call it a relative of design books that examine text, like Arabic Graffiti (recently featured here on Life by Maria Popova), or the subjectivity-saturated literary pyrotechnics of Ulysses. Just don't lump it in with most other early novels—which, especially in the case of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, are sometimes so anesthetizingly boring as to make you want to reach for, well, a hot chestnut.

Images: Courtesy of the Laurence Sterne Trust

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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