After two challenging Nobel prize-winners in a row, I was in the mood for a good classic. I’d never read anything by Oliver Goldsmith, though I’d heard of him because George Eliot, Jane Austen and Dickens all referred to The Vicar of Wakefield in novels that I read many years ago. (Though after all these years I would have been hard put to remember how it was that I knew of him, without Wikipedia to remind me).
As it turns out, the Wikipedia entry has quite a list of other novelists who paid Goldsmith the compliment of alluding to this novel. It was time to find out why this was. There it was at the library; I needed to finish two more library books by the end of December to complete the Support Your Local Library Challenge, and it wasn’t very long. (Only 170 pages, not counting the Introduction or explanatory notes).
The learned introduction is mildly snooty about The Vicar of Wakefield being considered ‘charming’ by its 18th and 19th century readers, but I liked it. I think anyone who likes Jane Austen would like it too: Goldsmith writes with the same kind of affectionate irony*. It’s a good many years since I had my read-everything-written-by-Trollope phase, but I also think Goldsmith’s style is reminiscent of the Chronicles of Barsetshire, as I remember them.
Goldsmith’s Vicar, the Reverend Primrose, narrates the tale of his family’s adventures with details that cannot fail to charm: day-to-day domestic life; his mild disagreements with his wife and daughters about the vanity of their fripperies; his anxiety when they run late for church and he thinks something has happened to them; and his embarrassed disappointment that his son’s proposed marriage falls through because the failure of his investments. He is a loving father, benevolent and just, with occasional lapses into snobbery or intemperate harangues which make him credibly human.
But oh dear, how things go wrong for them! At the beginning of the story Primrose has a substantial private income, enough for him not to need money from the living at Wakefield – but from the moment his investments fail, everything else goes wrong. They have to move to a smaller house in a smaller place, and the loss of their position in society is painful indeed, especially to the girls (who have ambitious plans for a good marriage nonetheless). The narrator gradually reveals the shabbiness of their new circumstances, but before long that is not all they have to bear…
The Introduction by Robert L. Mack likens their miseries to the Book of Job, and how apt a comparison that is. This family suffers one disaster after another, and although the Reverend is stoic, each time it seems as if no further misery could possibly be borne. Inflicted in part by the Vicar’s own naiveté, the family suffers the loss of their home, their good name and their ambitions. They are defrauded, deluded and made destitute. One daughter is seduced; the other is abducted; while both father and son end up in prison. As tragedy befalls them, the plot almost lapses into melodrama but is saved by the Goldsmith’s light comic sensibility.
One of the disadvantages of having read so many of the classics as a teenager is that there are few left for me to read now where I don’t already know the plot. (Well, few of the good ones that is. There’s an awful lot of 18th and 19th century dross online now, all recommended for me by Amazon because their system thinks I indiscriminately like the classics. Most of it is not worth reading, even if it is free because it’s out of copyright.) However it was a real pleasure to read The Vicar of Wakefield with its surprising ending, and I wish that Goldsmith had written more – but this is his only novel. (He died aged only 43.)
*The blurb tells me that scholars differ about this. Some see the story as a ‘straightforward and well-intentioned novel of sentiment’ and others think – as I do – that it’s a satire on the literary conventions of the day.
Author: Oliver Goldsmith
Title: The Vicar of Wakefield
Publisher: Oxford World Classics, 2006
Source: Kingston Library