The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith. New York: Penguin Classics, 1986 (originally published in 1766).
Summary: The “memoir” of the vicar, who experiences a series of financial and family disasters, ending up in prison, and how matters resolved themselves.
It was one of the most popular novels of the eighteenth century, and were it not for the poverty of Oliver Goldsmith and the efforts of his friend, Samuel Johnson, it might not have seen the light of day:
“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.”Samuel Johnson
The story centers around the memoirs of Dr. Charles Primrose, the vicar of a rural parish, who was well-off due to an invested inheritance, enabling him to donate his “living.” On the eve of his son George’s wedding to wealthy Arabella Wilmot, he receives word that his investor has gone bankrupt and skipped town, leaving the Primroses in poverty. The change in status as well as a theological dispute with the bride’s father result in a breaking of the engagement. Things go from bad to worse. They take refuge on the estate of Squire Thornhill, a notorious womanizer. They turn a thatch roofed home into a comfortable refuge while George seeks to support himself in the city, succeeding as an actor. Both son and father are swindled by a smooth-talking “sharp” losing their remaining animals. The family’s hope turns on securing good husbands for the daughters. Squire Thornhill visit and is drawn to Olivia. Then a mysterious gentleman, Mr. Burchell visits, and rescues Sophia from drowning, but Dr. Primrose is reluctant to trust him.
Thornhill heads off any possibility of George and Arabella getting together by arranging a commission to the West Indies, with Goldsmith agreeing to a note to fund George. Meanwhile, Olivia has been abducted, it being thought, by Mr. Burchell, when in fact it was Thornhill, who arranged a fictitious marriage, a tactic he apparently used with several women. Olivia is rescued by Primrose, but shortly after returning home, the house burns, with Primrose being badly burned on the arm, Thornhill calls the note which Primrose cannot pay, and is thrown into jail, while the violated Olivia grows more and more ill and dies.
This is one of those “sentimental” stories where in the end, all things are righted. I won’t say how but I will tell you that even Olivia lives and a succession of weddings and a restoration of Primrose’s fortunes occurs.
It is kind of like the book of Job without Job’s agonizings. Primrose continues to trust to God’s providence and act with rectitude. While wanting to recover what was lost, he is able to be content with little. Even in jail, he embraces his pitiful surroundings and sets about evangelizing the prisoners.
The other feature of this story is its lightning fast reversals–dramatic changes in a sentence or a paragraph. Goldsmith doesn’t let moss grow under his plot. In the end, things turn out as one might hope, but the series of disasters it takes to get there and the seeming impossibility of undoing them might stretch credulity at points.
This was the only novel Goldsmith wrote but it was a good one. After all, don’t we all like a story where good prevails and all who should, live happily ever after? Life isn’t always like this, perhaps one of the reasons for the timelessness of stories like this.