The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.

Over the past fortnight I've been reading books that I've been meaning to read for several years, and my latest is The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766). I've had this novel on my list for ages, at least three years and probably more, and have no reason at all as to why it's taken so long! 

The beginning rather reflects Goldsmith's earlier essay Old Maids and Bachelors (1760), in which he stated,
"I behold an old bachelor in the most contemptible light, as an animal that lives upon the common stock, without contributing his share; he is a beast of prey, and the laws should make use of as many stratagems, and as much force to drive the reluctant savage into the toils, as the Indians when they hunt the rhinoceros. The mob should be permitted to halloo after him, boys might play tricks on him with impunity, every well-bred company should laugh at him, and if, when he turned sixty, he offered to make love, his mistress might spit in his face, or, what would perhaps be a greater punishment, should fairly grant the favour."
And here is the opening sentence of The Vicar of Wakefield:
"I was ever of opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population."
An odd sentiment, I thought, for a bachelor such as Goldsmith. But I digress. The paragraph goes on on the subject of his wife, a description I thought rather charming,
"From this motive, I had scarce taken orders a year before I began to think seriously of matrimony, and chose my wife as she did her wedding gown, not for a fine glossy surfaces but such qualities as would wear well. To do her justice, she was a good-natured notable woman; and as for breeding, there were few country ladies who could shew more. She could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her. She prided herself also upon being an excellent contriver in house-keeping; tho’ I could never find that we grew richer with all her contrivances. However, we loved each other tenderly, and our fondness encreased as we grew old. There was in fact nothing that could make us angry with the world or each other. We had an elegant house, situated in a fine country, and a good neighbourhood. The year was spent in moral or rural amusements; in visiting our rich neighbours, and relieving such as were poor. We had no revolutions to fear, nor fatigues to undergo; all our adventures were by the fire-side, and all our migrations from the blue bed to the brown."
He goes on to describe an idyllic life as a countryside vicar, however things abruptly go wrong as our vicar, Dr. Charles Primrose, makes an unwise investment and loses everything. The family move, and Primrose is demoted from a vicar to a curate (an assistant to a vicar) as well as working as a farmer. His son George's wedding to Arabella Wilmot, one of the first trials Primrose faces, along with the small  matter of trying to marry off his daughters, something that becomes increasingly complex as time marches on.

It's a great little novel and has an interesting publication history. In the words of Samuel Johnson,
"I received one morning a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion: I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return; and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pounds. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill."
Goldsmith tells the story of a vicar, once rich, now in poverty and his attempts to navigate the tricky path of morality and prudence with such radically changed circumstances. It's a warning too against vanity, and excess: excessive prudence, which leads to naïvety, and comments very much on social class. The vicar shows great strength and moral courage, his faith is his rock and, in a way, this novel is not unlike the Book of Job, if one imagines The Book of Job to be an 18th Century comedy of manners!

To finish, some illustrations by Arthur Rackham:

Comments

  1. I read this in college as part of course reading and while I had heard great praises from my Mum about this novel (She was devoted to Goldsmith, Hardy and Bronte) , I had felt after finishing it that the entire burden of solving for world hunger and poverty was on; I was overwhelmed! I think it may be a good time revisit this again!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it the second time around! :)

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