Friday, 10 April 2015

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (?1730-1774)

Oliver Goldsmith counted among his friends the distinguished 'man of letters,' Dr.  Samuel Johnson and the famous artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was admired by Goethe, Sir Walter Scott and William Makepeace Thackery, author of Vanity Fair, but he when he arrived in London in 1756, he was penniless, unknown and had a face disfigured by smallpox - the result of a severe attack of the disease when he was a boy.

His friends included some of the best and greatest men in England, among them Johnson, Burke, and Reynolds. They all, doubtless, laughed at and made a butt of him, but they all admired and loved him. At the news of his death Burke burst into tears, Reynolds laid down his brush and painted no more that day, and Johnson wrote an imperishable epitaph on him. The poor, the old, and the outcast crowded the stair leading to his lodgings, and wept for the benefactor who had never refused to share what he had (often little enough) with them. 



Goldsmith was considered to be something of a genius by his friends and was admired as a poet, essayist, dramatist and historian. The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766, was Goldsmith's only novel but it has become one of the most popular minor classics of English Literature.

The book is a moral fable with many similarities to the Old Testament account in the Book of Job.
Dr. Primrose, clergyman and father to two beautiful daughters and four sons, narrates the story. My first impression of Dr. Primrose was that he was rather pompous and legalistic but I soon changed my opinion.
Dr. Primrose and his wife Deborah are quite loveable and I enjoyed the portrayal of their relationship with each other and their children - a little eccentric but charming. 
When a sudden change of fortune occurs, the family move to a more modest dwelling but before long are faced with the loss of everything they own. 
Calamities and hardships follow. One of their beautiful young daughters is led astray and seduced and Dr. Primrose ends up in prison when he confronts the villain.
All through their misfortunes, Dr. Primrose is benevolent and faithfully counts his blessings, with a few lapses into despair now and again - like Job.

The chapters had interesting titles, such as:

'None but the Guilty can be long and completely miserable'


'No Situation, however wretched it seems, but has some sort of Comfort attending it'


'Former Benevolence now repaid with unexpected Interest'


My copy has 192 pages and I will be adding this to the Back to the Classics Challenge in the category of:  A Classic Novella -- any work shorter than 250 pages.

The Vicar of Wakefield is one of the Literature options in the Ambleside Online Year 9 curriculum.

 



5 comments:

  1. I loved this book. I thought it was rather soap-opera-ish but Goldsmith's writing is so superb that you hardly notice it. It's been awhile so it's certainly time for a re-read. I really enjoyed all your background information in your review. I knew nothing about him and now I'm much more educated. :-)

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  2. I disliked this book and asked a college English teacher why it could be considered a classic. He said that it was one of the first books to show a pastor who was a "real" person with real troubles.

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    1. If you changed a few details the story could fit into a modern day context. The story surprised me in this aspect - there's nothing new under the sun. Bringing up children wasn't idyllic before TV, social media, peer pressure etc. The 1700's wasn't plain sailing either.

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  3. I have this on my kindle to read. I like the quotes you've included. They are comforting or disturbing ... our actions reap what is down in the long run. Thanks!

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  4. I've heard of this title through other English lit reading but never really wondered what it was about. How interesting that it takes up such modern themes. I'm intrigued!

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