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Few novels portray good men, and far fewer allow them to tell their own stories. In Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, a flawed but good man tells the story of his moral regeneration through a series of Job-like trials. The novel’s themes of prudence, justice, and the feasibility of trusting in Providence unify a narrative that includes picaresque stories, sermons, satire, political commentary, and even ballads, but is ultimately a harrowing story of redemption through suffering. Well received on its first publication in 1766, it became ever more popular after Goldsmith’s death in 1774, averaging two editions a year throughout the nineteenth century and collecting praise from writers such as Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, William Thackeray, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and William James.
The Vicar of Wakefield’s plot, full of unlikely twists and turns, mirrors Goldsmith’s own tumultuous life. He went from impoverished student, to failed doctor and tutor, struggling hack writer, and finally acclaimed poet, novelist, playwright, and friend of the most prominent names in London’s literary and artistic worlds. Goldsmith once bragged he would leave no genre of writing untouched, and his most highly regarded works—besides The Vicar of Wakefield—were a poem, The Deserted Village, and a play, She Stoops to Conquer, which is still revived. Yet throughout his career, Goldsmith gambled, drank, spent or lost money carelessly, and alienated his friends through quarrels. Samuel Johnson, who became his friend and co-founded a famous literary club with him, said about Goldsmith: “No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.”
Biographer James Boswell relates the famous story of how Johnson was responsible for rushing the manuscript of The Vicar of Wakefield to a bookseller in 1762 when he discovered Goldsmith arrested and confined to his room by his landlady for unpaid rent. The sixty pounds Johnson received enabled Goldsmith to pay off his most pressing debts. The bookseller, however, must not have thought much of his purchase, for the novel only appeared in 1766, after Goldsmith had achieved some success with his long poem The Traveller (the first work published under his own name) and a collection of his earlier anonymous newspaper essays.
Like The Vicar of Wakefield’s hero, Dr. Charles Primrose, Goldsmith’s father was an Anglican country vicar. Goldsmith was born in 1728 in County Longford, Ireland, and grew up in the town of Lissoy. His memories of a happy childhood there echo in the nostalgic (and idealized) descriptions of village life in The Vicar of Wakefield and The Deserted Village. However, a childhood bout of smallpox severely marked his already unusual face, and for the rest of his life Goldsmith tried to compensate for his looks and awkward manners by playing the clown in company. He once said he brought nothing from Ireland but his “brogue and his blunders.”
Supported by an uncle, Goldsmith attended Trinity College in Dublin in 1744 as a “sizar,” or poor student who had to wear a special robe to indicate his inferior status. He made few friends, was persecuted by an instructor, and was generally unhappy. After he graduated and his father died in 1749, Goldsmith spent several years, like George Primrose, as a “philosophic vagabond.” He studied for holy orders, but was rejected— according to one story, for appearing before the examining bishop in scarlet breeches. He tried tutoring for a family. He attempted to emigrate to America, but missed his ship. When his uncle again came to his rescue, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, continuing his medical studies in Leiden in the Netherlands—perhaps to escape family surveillance. We don’t know whether he ever received his medical degree, though he always insisted he did and made periodic attempts to establish a medical practice. At the end of his Leiden studies, he took an extended walking tour of Europe, supporting himself (again like George) by playing his flute in exchange for lodging.
Returning penniless to England, Goldsmith tried to eke out a living as an usher at a boys’ school and an apothecary. When his attempt to open a doctor’s practice near London failed, he found work as a hack writer for a magazine publisher. For the rest of his life—even after his successes—he supported himself by churning out reviews, prefaces, translations, compilations and essays to order, in the sub-literary milieu known as Grub Street.
By the mid-eighteenth century the English reading public had rapidly expanded, and provided a booming market for pious tracts and biographies, improbable romances, “sentimental” novels, exotic travel books, commentaries, and collections of all kinds. Dozens of small newspapers, magazines, journals, and reviews addressed to both “high” and “low” readers came and went. In chapter 19 of The Vicar of Wakefield, a butler pretending to be lord of the manor tells Dr. Primrose, “… I read all the politics that come out. The Daily, the Public, the Ledger, the Chronicle, the London Evening, the Whitehall Evening, the seventeen magazines, and the two reviews, and though they hate each other, I love them all.” Prominent politicians and nobles sometimes took part in these heated culture wars, since writers often took colorful pseudonyms and personas. These could be classically derived, like Eusebius, Junius, Harpax, and Colonus; descriptive, like The Ambulator, The Detector, and Johnson’s Rambler; or humorous, such as Squire Gawky, Catcall, and Jack Maggot.
In this noisy and contentious world Goldsmith made his way, often in debt to the booksellers and publishers on whom he relied for work. In chapter 20, Goldsmith mocks the literary hack-work he was so often forced to do when he has George Primrose’s cousin tell him about Grub Street: “At present, I’ll shew you forty very dull fellows about town that live by it in opulence. All honest joggtrot men, who go on smoothly and dully, and write history and politics, and are praised, Sir, who, had they been bred cobblers, would all their lives have only mended shoes, but never made them.”
In the decades before Goldsmith arrived in London, efforts had been under way to rescue readers from what cultural guardians saw as the mindless sensationalism, titillation, and improbable adventures of popular fiction and quickie biographies of notorious figures. One commentator complained in a preface: “The lowest and most contemptible vagrants, parish-girls, chambermaids, pickpockets, and highwaymen find historians to record their praises, and readers to wonder at their exploits.” Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding both wanted to redeem the novel for serious purposes, and each tried different types of realism. Richardson was especially concerned with the moral and spiritual education of young women. His “epistolary” novels, pretending to be collections of letters to and from the characters, focused on detailed descriptions of the intense interior lives of his middle-class female protagonists. Fielding presented commoners as heroes (Tom Jones is a foundling) and followed the example of Miguel Cervantes in Don Quixote by using humor and satire to burlesque the conventions of romance and epic, and by attacking contemporary abuses of law and justice.
Johnson explained the methods of the new fiction in The Rambler in March 1750: “The works of fiction, with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted, are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found …Its province is to bring about natural events by easy means and to keep up curiosity without the help of wonder.” Even the proper name of what Johnson called “the comedy of romance” was argued over. The term “novel,” which originally referred to French romances, didn’t become settled in its current usage until the end of the century.
Whether Goldsmith is more indebted to Fielding’s irony or Richardson’s sentiment has been the subject of a long critical debate. In his plays, Goldsmith was known for reviving a satiric “laughing” comedy against the “sentimental” comedies of the 1750s. In The Vicar of Wakefield, he succeeds in harmonizing the concerns of Fielding and Richardson with the serious moral intentions of spiritual biography. As a narrator, Primrose owes something to Fielding’s ironic “Cervantic” novels. More than one critic has seen in Primrose a descendant of Parson Adams, a similar character in Fielding’s first serious novel, Joseph Andrews. But as the suffering hero of the second half, he is more like Richardson’s heroines. In prison, he uses exactly the same phrase that Richardson’s heroine Pamela does when he says he has been “stript of every comfort.”
Although Goldsmith does include picaresque passages, such as George’s adventures, his irony is gentler than Fielding’s. He makes his vicar complex and sympathetic, allows the reader to identify with him gradually, and takes him by “easy means” through his stages of suffering and moral education—at least until the very end, when events pile thick and fast.
Of course, by deciding on the Job story as his narrative framework, Goldsmith has to forego a completely naturalistic plot, though his readers found it a morally satisfying one. Most of the events turn out to be manipulated by two opposing characters. Goldsmith shows a little uneasiness about the coincidences and chance meetings that drive the plot, when he has Primrose explain: “Nor can I go on, without a reflection on those accidental meetings, which, though they happen every day, seldom excite our surprise but upon some extraordinary occasion. To what a fortuitous occurrence do we not owe every pleasure and convenience of our lives? How many seeming accidents must unite before we can be cloathed or fed?”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his own improvidence, Goldsmith makes prudence a key theme of the novel. A long Christian tradition considered prudence a cardinal virtue; Saint Thomas Aquinas rated it even above charity. The word goes through important changes. Primrose is comically imprudent in the beginning. He alienates Mr. Wilmot, the father of his son’s future bride, by vehemently arguing his belief in “strict monogamy”—in effect, calling the remarried Wilmot an adulterer. When the first of Primrose’s misfortunes occurs—the loss of his fortune due to a corrupt merchant—a friend argues, “Your own prudence will enforce the necessity of dissembling at least till your son has the young lady’s fortune secure.” But Primrose insists on announcing it beforehand anyway. When Wilmot predictably calls off the wedding, Primrose remarks, “… One virtue he had in perfection, which was prudence, too often the only one that is left us as seventy-two.” He does not mean this as a compliment.
But Primrose is self-serving when he rationalizes to his family, “You cannot be ignorant, my children, that no prudence of ours could have prevented our late misfortune; but prudence may do much in disappointing its effects.” The word here has two meanings: worldly wisdom in looking out for oneself and one’s family, and the deeper prudence that focuses on resignation to God’s will.
Closely related to the prudence theme is the motif of disguise. Mr. Burchell is in disguise throughout most of the novel. Deborah Primrose and her two daughters attempt a kind of disguise by dressing “above their station,” and a comic incident in which they are taken in by two dressed-up prostitutes pretending to be “ladies of taste” is a comment by Goldsmith on where such dressing could lead. A story-within-a-story featuring a butler pretending to be lord of the manor allows Goldsmith to express his Tory conviction that monarchy was the best defense of the poor against the predatory rich. Even Primrose himself is, in a sense, comically disguised from (blind to) himself and his own faults in the novel’s first half. His gullibility in being tricked by Ephraim Jenkinson, a disguised confidence-man who had earlier tricked his son Moses, is presaged by his boast before starting out for the fair to sell a horse: “Though this was one of the first mercantile transactions of my life, yet I had no doubt about acquitting myself with reputation.” Squire Thornhill, too, is disguised in a way, since his birth and breeding keep others from seeing his true nature.
Since this is a comedy, worldly cunning provides only short-term and illusory benefits. Squire Thornhill’s schemes are undone. Jenkinson, the arch-trickster who fools most of the book’s other characters at one time or another, ruefully confesses, “Yet still the honest man went forward without suspicion, and grew rich, while I still continued tricksy and cunning, and was poor, without the consolation of being honest.” Primrose’s lack of worldly prudence may make him quixotically comic in the beginning, but the Cervantic sting is taken out of the satire by Goldsmith’s orthodox Christian belief that, unlike Don Quixote’s, Primrose’s other world is real—is, in fact, the only real thing. When Primrose can say, from the depths of prison, illness, and loss near the novel’s end, “Heaven be praised, there is no pride left me now …” and later, “From this moment I break from my heart all the ties that held it down to earth,” even forgiving the enemy responsible for most of his suffering, he can finally see himself and others as they really are.
The climactic prison scene invites comparison with similar scenes in several of Fielding’s novels. Judicial and penal reform was a central concern of Fielding, who became a judge and was responsible for important improvements in penal practice and police work. But Primrose is more interested in improving the prisoners than the prisons. He even comments that an effectively reformed prison system would encourage “repentance if guilty, or new motives to virtue if innocent.” In having Primrose organize the prisoners into a civil society and making the jail a place of “penance and solitude,” Goldsmith anticipates the direction that actual prison reform would take in the nineteenth century: “Thus in less than a fortnight I had formed them into something social and humane, and had the pleasure of regarding myself as a legislator, who had brought men from their native ferocity into friendship and obedience.”
In the first half, Primrose’s boast that his family is “the little republic to which I gave laws” is belied and contradicted by his comic ineffectiveness. Primrose fails as a traditional patriarch. (He clearly influenced Jane Austen’s portrayal of the detached and ineffective Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.) But in prison he really does become a lawgiver, as he is “resurrected” as a new kind of authority figure, who wields a fatherly authority based on an interior identification of others with his sufferings.
The Vicar of Wakefield is a triumph of a humane, balanced sentimentalism that would prove increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth century. Judging by Samuel Johnson’s critical standard that great works are those that have pleased many and pleased long, The Vicar of Wakefield has a long life ahead of it still.
David A. Murray teaches writing, literature, and humanities at Maryville University in St. Louis. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis.