This was a very popular book once (back when there weren’t so many to choose from, 150 years ago) and I like old books, appreciate the formality of the language, so was happy to take my chances, despite a recent adverse review by Karen at BookerTalk, and downloaded it as an audiobook from LibriVox, to play while I “work”. I loved it, and incline to Lisa (ANZLL)’s view that it is a gentle satire on romances of the time – of which there may not have been very many. The Vicar of Wakefield was written and published in the 1760s. Robinson Crusoe, the ‘first’ novel only came out 1719, Eliza Haywood began writing in the 1720s, Fanny Burney was still a schoolgirl and Jane Austen was not yet born.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774) is often referred to as an Irish novelist. He was in fact the son of an Anglican clergyman in Ireland, so, of the occupying class, was educated at Trinity College and later at Edinburgh, and after living by his wits bumming around Europe, was by the age of 28 in London leading a dissolute life as a hack writer. Which is all background as to why his vicar’s homilies, while harmless enough, were probably meant to be read satirically.
In the first chapter the Rev Primrose is vicar of Wakefield – there is a Wakefield in England, in west Yorkshire, and the story is pretty clearly set in England rather than Ireland as I had initially supposed – raising six children on ten thousand a year, when the merchant to whom he has entrusted the management of his capital absconds with it and the Primroses are suddenly become poor.
His oldest son, George must call off his planned marriage to Arabella, the daughter of another wealthy vicar, and his two beautiful daughters, Sophia and Olivia, both given names from romance novels despite his wishes, must cut their cloth and more particularly their lace and ribbons, to suit their new circumstances. He finds a lowly position as a curate in the gift of squire Thornhill (Goldsmith was employed for a time at Thornhill Grammar School) in a distant shire, and there rents a small house and farm which is run by his second son, Moses. The other two children are young boys.
My house consisted of but one story, and was covered with thatch … Though the same room served us for parlour and kitchen, that only made it the warmer… There were three other apartments, one for my wife and me, another for our two daughters, within our own, and the third, with two beds, for the rest of the children.
Throughout, there are a series of calamities and coincidences in the manner of all the best romances, and the vicar is always both surprised and sanguine. Crossing a river on the way to their new home Sophia comes off her horse and is almost drowned while her father is looking the other way, until their travelling companion Mr Burchell plunges in to rescue her. Squire Thornhill is both a known womaniser and a considerate companion, paying constant attention to Olivia, but believed also to be considering marrying Arabella. Mr Burchell favours Sophia. He is always around, but disregarded.
When the morning arrived on which we were to entertain our young landlord, it may be easily supposed what provisions were exhausted to make an appearance. It may also be conjectured that my wife and daughters expanded their gayest plumage upon this occasion. Mr Thornhill came with a couple of friends, his chaplain, and feeder. The servants, who were numerous, he politely ordered to the next ale-house: but my wife, in the triumph of her heart, insisted on entertaining them all; for which, by the bye, our family was pinched for three weeks after. As Mr Burchell had hinted to us the day before, that he [Thornhill] was making some proposals of marriage, to Miss Wilmot, my son George’s former mistress, this a good deal damped the heartiness of his reception: but accident, in some measure, relieved our embarrasment; for one of the company happening to mention her name, Mr Thornhill observed with an oath, that he never knew any thing more absurd …
Moses takes one horse to market but is duped, so the vicar takes the other, and he is duped. Olivia elopes with Thornhill. Dr Primose goes off to rescue her. In a distant village they take adjacent hotel rooms and so meet up. On returning home they find their house burning down. Unable to pay Thornhill his rent, the vicar is imprisoned, along with the man who duped him over the horses. He’s told Sophia has pined away and died. After an absence of years, George comes home and he too is imprisoned.
And they all live happily ever after. Really! It’s lots of fun. Read it for yourself.
Oliver Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield, first pub. 1766.