Week 59: The Vicar of Wakefield Book Review

“I was ever of opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population.”

And so, from the very first line of his narrative, Dr. Primrose, the vicar of Wakefield, lets us know that his first priority is his family. It is because of them the good vicar makes innumerable sacrifices, is brought into penury, forced into debtor’s prison, and, eventually – because this is a story of good triumphing over evil – is restored to physical and financial health. The story, like much of what was written at the time, is replete with lashings of sentimentality and morality, and contains enough unlikely coincidences to satisfy a Spanish soap opera. But because it was written by Oliver Goldsmith, it is humorous, ironic, and charitable towards its characters. And, like She Stoops to Conquer, it’s a classic.

Goldsmith was an 18th century Anglo-Irish poet, essayist, novelist, and playwrite who rose from humble beginnings to enjoy the friendship of such notables as Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. His writing was prolific, even for the times, and no one doubted his gifts. But those closest to him confessed they were regularly confounded by his behaviour. Stocky, pockmarked, and physically unattractive, he couldn’t open his mouth without putting his foot in it. He envied the celebrity status of other writers – and, I would assume, their money. He regularly made a fool of himself, even when he wasn’t drunk, borrowed money from his friends, and gave away what he had. He also had a lively sense of fun and was universally deemed to be excellent company. Horace Walpole called him “an inspired idiot”; Dr. Johnson declared, “No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.” Had he spent his money more wisely and drank less, he might have lived to reap the financial rewards of a gifted scribe. As it was, he died young (age 46) owing something like £2,000, much of it in gambling debts.

The story of how The Vicar of Wakefield came to be published has been told many times. According to Dr. Johnson, it came about like this:

“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.” (Taken from Washington Irving’s biography of Oliver Goldsmith.)

The novel was The Vicar of Wakefield, and Johnson had sold it to Francis Newbery. It remained unpublished for four years; Newbery was so doubtful about its worth that he hedged on it by selling a share to a Salisbury bookseller. When it was finally published in 1766 it was not what you’d call an overnight success. Critics and readers were mostly indifferent, but steadily over the years it rose to become the most widely-read novel of the 19th century.

The plot is fairly simple: Dr. Primrose and his family – his wife, Deborah, his daughters, Olivia and Sophia, and his four sons, George, Moses, Dick and Bill – enjoy a comfortable existence mostly due to a family inheritance, which allows the vicar to donate to charity the £35 he receives as his annual salary. His son George is engaged to be married to the wealthy Arabella Wilmot, but on the eve of their wedding the vicar is informed that the merchant banker who holds his money has declared bankruptcy and left town. When Dr. Primrose, believing it’s the ethical thing to do, tells Arabella’s father about their reversal of fortune, the wedding is called off. George, who’s been educated at Oxford, leaves for London; the rest of the family move to a smaller house on land owned by Squire Thornhill.

The Squire is known to be something of a rake, while his father, Sir William, is famous for his fairness and generosity. The vicar encourages his family to be cheerful in spite of their reduced circumstances, and for a while they make the best of it, making friends with a handsome but penniless young man, Mr. Burchill, who saves Sophia from drowning. She’s attracted to him but Deborah, her mother, who’s ambitious for her daughters to marry well, discourages any liaison. Squire Thornhill turns up and captivates the family with his manners, good looks and flattery and eventually Olivia runs away with him.

Dr. Primrose sets off to find his daughter and bring her home. He falls ill, spend three weeks recovering at an inn, and then continues on his journey. Falling in with a traveling theatrical troupe, he meets up with a gentleman who invites them back to his mansion for a dinner party. The house turns out to belong to Arabella’s uncle who informs him that his niece is still in love with George but is now engaged to be married to Squire Thornill. As for George, he ran into trouble after fighting a duel for his so-called friend the Squire and has now joined that very theatrical troupe as an actor. When the Squire sees that George and Arabella still have feelings for each other, he finds him a job in the West Indies. Not suspecting him of ulterior motives, George happily goes off to seek his fortune.

Later, Dr. Primrose stops for the night at an inn where, amazingly, his daughter Olivia is also staying. They embrace joyfully and Olivia confesses to her father that she’s made a terrible mistake: her marriage to the Squire was a sham – the minister wasn’t a minister and her husband isn’t her husband. In fact, he’s had several previous “marriages” and now plans to compound his villainy by marrying Arabella for her fortune.

The vicar takes her home but they arrive to find the house in flames. All members of the family survive but everything except a few books are lost in the fire. Still, the vicar remains incurably optimistic. When the evil Squire demands the rent be paid, the vicar is forced into debtor’s prison where he lectures his fellow prisoners on their need to repent. Olivia’s health declines and she’s reported to have died. George, who has returned from the West Indies, seeks to revenge his sister, is charged with attempted murder, and is brought to the same prison to await trial. And Sophia is abducted by persons unknown and taken away in a carriage.

Just when all seems lost, Mr. Burchill turns up and saves the situation. He rescues Sophia, and informs the family that Olivia is not really dead and he is not really Mr. Burchill. In reality, he’s the good Sir William Thornhill, who travels the country in disguise. Why he waited this long to reveal himself is beyond me but better late than never. The sham marriage between Squire Thornhill and Olivia wasn’t a sham, actually – the Squire’s servant tricked him and hired a legitimate minister – so Olivia has not been disgraced. George hasn’t wounded anyone – that was a trick on the part of the Squire – so he’s now free to marry Arabella, who rejects the Squire as an unmitigated cad. A double wedding winds things up: George marries Arabella, and Sir William marries Sophia. And the reader breathes a sigh of relief.

At least, this reader did.


Illustration by Thomas Rowlandson (1817) for Oliver Goldsmith The Vicar of Wakefield which was first published in 1766. A social evening at the home of Dr Primrose, the Vicar of Wakefield, and his wife, Deborah. Sophia and Olivia sing to the accompaniment of a flute, the good Vicar plays backgammon with a fellow cleric, and the two youngest children read a book in front of the fire. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)