Letters From Laurence Sterne to His "Dear Kitty"

If you're going to write a love letter, you should probably get the name on the address panel correct. At least, if I was a fashionable young singer in the 18th century, I would probably pause a bit when opening a letter from an admirer (who had a reputation), which he seemed to have first addressed to someone else entirely.

Laurence Sterne to Catherine Fourmantel, May 1760. Pierpont Morgan Library, MA 849.7

The correct, intended recipient of this letter, Miss Fourmantel, had met the gregarious novelist Laurence Sterne in York a few months earlier, and an intimate correspondence immediately sprang up. It turns out there was no "Miss Fothergill" (the name crossed out above) to worry about, and by the time of this letter the relationship was winding down anyway. Sterne had just published the first two parts of Tristram Shandy and was catapulting out of obscurity. He could not run the risk of being seen too often in the company of the young singer, even though she had helped introduce him to the fashionable London set in the first place.


Laurence Sterne, after the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1760)

There is no concrete evidence that Sterne and his "dear Kitty" were physically involved, and a turn-of-the-century Morgan librarian has inserted a note with the collection reminding readers that their brief relationship was "largely epistolary." The tone and content of the letters, however, are more intense than the sentimental correspondence he carried on with other women.

Laurence Sterne to Catherine Fourmantel, 1759. Pierpont Morgan Library, MA 849.9

He closes the letter above: "I have ordered Matthew to turn thief & steal you a quart of Honey -- What is Honey to the sweetness of thee, who art sweeter than all the flowers it comes from. -- I love you to distraction Kitty -- & will love you on so to Eternity." By "eternity," though, it turns out that Sterne actually meant a just few more months, into the Spring of 1760, and we don't really know what happened to Kitty after this. There an account that she was consumed with grief after her relationship with Sterne ended and that she wound up in  "Private Mad-House," but this story does not come from a  credible source, and the last thing we know for sure is that she sang a benefit concert in London in 1763.

These letters were passed down to the daughter of one of Miss Fourmantel's friends (whence sprang the madhouse legend); she sold them to the Murray family and Pierpont Morgan eventually acquired them for his library in 1912.

For more information about the collection, click here.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

Blog category: