A review of The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel

As I often do when stumped for what to read next, I gravitated to the Classics section of my local library. This time I came upon Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. (Everyman’s Library edition: durable hardcover yet fits nicely in the hand; generous margins and clear typeface.) TVOW is a novel from the eighteenth century, the period of Smollett, Fielding, and Richardson. (It was pubished in 1766, to be exact.) I think it’s fair to state that unlike, say, the works of Jane Austen, 18th-century novels can come across as unfamiliar … being from the early history of the form. But it also seems to be true, at least for me, that a great book, as I think TVOW is, somehow manages to teach one how to read it as it goes along.

So TVOW has characteristics that are not found in most later novels, at least until the 20th century! Sometimes TVOW has the air of a fairy tale. People go through much of the book, disguised as to their real identity. There are notable coincidences. The ending, in a sense, has nothing to do with what came before! The book contains sub-stories and poems within itself. The great task is to be able to see all this in a positive way, rather than as characteristic of some primitive, half-developed thing.

Luckily, after quite a few pages of discontent and doubt, I was able to not only come to terms with this novel, but enjoy it immensely. What pulled me in was its vivid and very true-seeming depiction of many aspects of life in the England of the 1700’s.

I have a feeling Jane Austen knew about this book. Like Sense and Sensiblity, which I read recently, TVOW is about a family which all of a sudden is greatly reduced in its “fortune”, and decides to re-locate to a place more fitting to its new financial situation. Also like S&S, the family has two daughters (who are temperamental opposites!), and getting them properly married off is a major theme.

But unlike S&S, there is a father in the picture … in the central character of the Vicar himself. He loves to preach and pontificate on the proper morality of life, and one might be afraid the book would be tedious as a result. But not so. What saves it is: Firstly, the Vicar is not perfect. For instance, he speaks harsher than he should of his acquaintance Mr. Burchell, because the latter had bested him in a disputation. Also, he is blessed with an ample (and enjoyably sly) sense of humor. For instance, he says:

I published some tracts … myself, which, as they never sold, I have the consolation of thinking were read only by the happy Few.

And lastly, he has a most amusing naivete in many situations. For example, their landlord, ‘Squire Thornhill, has invited two “ladies of the town” to visit, and the Vicar seems at first to assume they are of a respectable nature. But after these ladies had been dancing for a while, he hears one of them observe that “by the living jingo she was all of a muck of sweat” … their true nature has been revealed! This was actually the line that, on page 46 of the book, hooked me in. This kind of speech seems too real to have been made up; and I feel like I’m looking through a open window right into the life of the 18th century.

How much did Goldsmith actually agree with the moral posture of the Vicar that he created, i.e. how much does the Vicar speak for the author? This is interesting food for speculation. But it is definitely true that the Vicar’s unbending uprightness gets him into lots of hot water … at least for quite a while …

Although the characters are often interesting, and believable, it is the feeling of being exposed to the actual life of the period that was the best aspect of the book for me. We see all the parlor games that were played on a visit to neighbors. We see how people were cheated by sharp characters at the town market. As the Vicar and his family leave for their new abode, they are attended by “the cries of the poor, who followed us for some miles” … sounds like a third-world country nowadays. This is what you don’t hear about in Jane Austen!

We hear son George’s story of his adventures while travelling around Europe (which apparently the author Goldsmith did too). George was desperate to find a means of supporting himself and his family. First he wanted to be an usher (an assistant to a schoolmaster) at an academy. But his cousin in London, in a sentence that sweeps me back 250 years, discourages him, saying:

I have been an usher at a boarding-school myself; and may I die by an anodyne necklace, but I had rather be an under-turnkey in Newgate.

(It would seem clear that “anodyne necklace” refers to the executioner’s noose … no?)

Then someone suggested to George that he go to Amsterdam to teach English to the Dutch (indeed, we see how fond they are of the English language to this day). But all of a sudden George realizes that to do this, he would have to learn Dutch first! … so this doesn’t pan out. Then he decides to try his fortune in Paris, and he remarks: “The people of Paris are much fonder of strangers that have money, than those that have wit”. As a recent visitor to that beautiful city, I can personally testify to the less-than-beautiful attitude exhibited by some of the local populace …

There are discussions, between the characters, of the best kind of state for securing “liberty”; remember that this book came out just a few years before the American Revolution! And one eloquent passage (long before Dickens) argues for prison reform, noting that compared to the rest of Europe, English punishment is too harsh and indiscriminate.

The book is beautifully written, in a plain rather than a fancy way. Unusual words abound, but not knowing them shouldn’t detract from your pleasure. (Very often, I enjoy looking them up though.) I have just one question, though, that I hope someone can help me with. On the very first page, the Vicar says:

I … chose my wife, as she did her wedding-gown, not for a fine glossy surface, but such qualities as would wear well.

But why would a wedding-gown need to “wear well”? I suppose it might have been used for general purposes, after the wedding day; but that is certainly different from the wedding gowns we use now!

In sum: I’ve ventured into 18th-century English literature before — with Defoe (Robinson Crusoe a long time ago; Moll Flanders) and Swift (Gulliver’s Travels). I think The Vicar of Wakefield can certainly hold its own, and then some, in this illustrious company.

Tom Frenkel

frethoa AT aol DOT com

08 November 1999