Sunday, August 01, 2010

Oliver Goldsmith – ‘The Vicar of Wakefield’

Robert L. Mack, in his introduction to this edition (Oxford World’s Classics, 2006), puts the case for the prosecution of The Vicar of Wakefield’s various strands:
The narratives of seduction drew in almost every detail from novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1) and Clarissa (1747-8); the prison scenes had already been ‘done’ – and to far better effect – by Henry Fielding in his Amelia (1751), and the picaresque adventures of Dr Primrose and his son owed more than a little of their colour to those of that same author’s Joseph Andrews (1742); in tone, Goldsmith had failed in his obvious attempts to imitate the successful ‘sensibility’ of which Sterne continued to demonstrate himself a master, to capture the epigrammatic brilliance that Johnson had displayed to such fine effect in his Rasselas, or even to reproduce some of the anecdotal appeal of which he had demonstrated himself capable in his own ‘Chinese Letters’. (p. xxiv)
He argues back out from this position too, but with nothing stronger than an admiring acknowledgement of the book’s charm. It is the story of a homely man who ‘unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family’ (p. 3). A vicar with a wife and six children, he takes great pleasure in maintaining a cheerful household into which guests are welcomed and offered home-made gooseberry wine. He even has an easy-going approach to undesirables:
However, when any one of our relations was found to be a person of very bad character, a troublesome guest, or one we desired to get rid of, upon his leaving my house, I ever took care to lend him a riding coat, or a pair of boots, or sometimes an horse of small value, and I always had the satisfaction of finding he never came back to return them. (p. 10)
Dr Primrose doesn’t quite achieve this (‘an horse of small value’?) or his other, more genuinely charitable acts, on his vicar’s salary of £35 per annum, but relies on ‘a sufficient fortune of my own’ (p. 12). In chapter 2, this fortune is lost due to the unscrupulous merchant in whose care it is placed, and the Primrose family move 70 miles from Wakefield for the vicar to take up a curacy worth £15 a year. In financial terms, this obviously makes no sense, but nevertheless it is the primary reason given. There is a second reason, which is the vicar’s unpopular opinion, vented in pamphlets and in person at the drop of a hat, that lifelong monogamy is the only moral course (in chapter 14 he complains of ‘the deuterogamy of the age’ (p. 61)). Whilst still in Wakefield, he hotly debates this topic with his son George’s prospective father-in-law, Mr Wilmot, on the eve of the wedding. The father-in-law being ‘at that time actually courting a fourth wife’ (p. 14), is unsympathetic, but the debate is not allowed to come to a head, being interrupted by the news of Primrose’s supposed ruin. He isn’t quite ruined, in fact, still having £35 a year plus £400 of the original £14,000 fortune, at least until he gives up the salary for a lower one. The only way the relocation could possibly make sense would be if Mr Wilmot had the living of Wakefield in his gift, and withdrew it from Primrose after the argument. If this is the case, it is never stated.

Another odd moment comes with the introduction of the novel’s villain, Mr Thornhill. He is much in the vein of the anonymous ‘my lord’ from Fielding’s Amelia, and is described by Mr Burchell, at the outset:
He observed that no virtue was able to resist his arts and assiduity, and that scarce a farmer’s daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless. (p. 17)
The warning is completely ignored by Mrs Primrose, and given only lip service by the vicar, when Thornhill begins to make advances to their daughter Olivia. This is the second and more serious step in the decline of the family’s fortunes: Thornhill will drag them all into poverty and disgrace. Single minded and devious, he has designs on Olivia’s younger sister Sophia, and in loaning Dr Primrose the money to buy George an army commission, he coerces the latter into leaving the country, giving him the chance to seduce his fiancée, and allowing the imprisonment of the vicar for debt. The vicar lacks the worldliness and tactical intelligence he would need to deal with this onslaught, and sinks under the burden. Indeed, his triple role as ‘priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family’ confuses his reaction to it. Here he is after Olivia’s elopement with Thornhill:
‘Now then,’ cried I, ‘my children, go and be miserable; for we shall never enjoy one hour more. And O may heaven’s everlasting fury light upon him and his! Thus to rob me of my child! And sure it will, for taking back my sweet innocent that I was leading up to heaven. Such sincerity as my child was possest of. But all our earthly happiness is now over! Go, my children, go, and be miserable and infamous; for my heart is broken within me!’ – ‘Father,’ cried my son, ‘is this your fortitude?’ – ‘Fortitude, child! Yes, he shall see I have fortitude! Bring me my pistols. I’ll pursue the traitor.’ (p. 79)
Though he will later have the strength of character to subdue and to organise his fellow inmates in prison, here he is unable to find consolation in his own faith. He takes an inappropriately vengeful tone, and almost immediately forgets he has done so (‘I did not curse him, child, did I?’). He finally arrives at the correct decision – to pursue Olivia and Thornhill without the pistols – more by luck than judgement. The pursuit itself is likewise ineffectual and full of distractions, and resolution comes only via coincidence. All of this is tremendous fun to read, but difficult – as Mack suggests – to make much sense of in retrospect. The vicar has an absolute loyalty to his family, and a genuine, practical faith which can be put to good use in a community. It is unfortunate that he is unable to take seriously any authority (or any threat) between the ranks of wife and God. Perhaps the key to the man lies in his wonderful but useless take on politics:
some are born to command, and others to obey, [and] the question is, as there must be tyrants, whether it is better to have them in the same house with us, or in the same village, or still further off, in the metropolis. Now, Sir, for my own part, as I naturally hate the face of a tyrant, the farther off he is removed from me, the better pleased I am. (p. 86)

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