I’m not sure how many books I have with a cover featuring Hogarth’s ‘The Distressed Poet’ but now I have another one; ‘Brothers of the Quill’ by Norma Clarke.
It’s a book that focuses on Oliver Goldsmith but it’s not a biography exactly. Primarily, it tries to put him and his writing into a new context. Instead of seeing Goldsmith as the jester of Johnson’s court; a strange, vain little man who knows nothing but writes with a simplicity, purity and warmth of an angel - we see him as an Irish hack writer, grubbing the same grubby trade as the rest of Grub Street.
It’s impossible to tell how close the portrait of Goldsmith is to the real man, but this is the only book about him I have ever read where he felt like one. It justifies his skills and talents, teases out the craft of his writing and the depth of his satire without going to the ludicrous lengths of ‘The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith’, where Goldsmith is described as being a genius of a softer satire.
Instead, Goldsmith is presented as a writer, whose primary need is food and (if possible) enough gold to not look like a hack. In his works, he tries on different costumes to poke at the English in a way that satisfies their warm regard for themselves and to do it in a style that is crisp, clear and precise.
The discussion of ‘Citizen of the World’ was an interesting one, talking about how Goldsmith transferred his lower status otherness as an Irishman into the elevated otherness of a Chinese man. The one on ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ makes brilliant points about how the novel could be read as an allegory for Irish/English relations, with the kind but gullible Primrose Family representing the Irish. The best thing about this book is that these points are not pressed too hard. Clarke doesn’t insist that they are the only interpretation of the work but that considering them brings to light new humour and new commentary that might otherwise be overlooked.
Clarke also talks about the life of other Irish writers that Goldsmith mingled with, like Samuel Derrick; breathless poet, secret porn cataloguer and the successor to the Little King of Bath, Beau Nash. We also spend time with John Pilkington, the son of the subject of previous Norma Clarke book, Laetitia Pilkington and we meet James Grainger.
I found his the most interesting story apart from Goldsmith’s. I knew him as the author of the Sugar Cane, a West Indies Georgic that may or may not have had the immortal line, “Now, my muse, let us sing of rats’. I had assumed he was a typical plantation dilettante like Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, an atrocious actor who managed to get on stage by brute bribing then any talent. It turned out Grainger was, like Goldsmith, a medical man who had gone to the Indies (much as Goldsmith once planned to do) as a doctor and had married well. The discussion of the thorny issue of slavery, that Grainger was a man for liberty and was used to English colonial oppression as an Irishman, but turned an almost blind eye to slaving because it gave him a security he could never hope for without it.
There was also some measure of security given to Goldsmith by his ‘sort-of’ patron, Robert Nugent, MP for Bristol, Lord Clare of Ireland and, judging by his bastard son’s depiction of him, a hard and harsh man. There was a parallel to Grainger, with Goldsmith accepting the assistance of a man who had many facets he disliked but requiring the safety, and enjoying his company also. It was a great reminder of how life is not a straight battle between good and bad and that levels of necessity and company can bleach the darkest stains - especially for someone living a life as fragile as the writing life.
And so Goldsmith is shown, not as an idiot or a genius but a man scrabbling around as best he can in a world that regards him with very little regard.
I love a bit of Norma Clarke, I recommend her ‘Rise and Fall of the Women of Letters’ and her ‘Dr Johnson’s Women’, I’ve yet to read the Pilkington book. ‘Brothers of the Quill’, a book about Goldsmith in Grub Street, was almost calculated for my personal enjoyment.
The blurb promises that the book shall make the reader, ‘laugh and cry at the absurdities of the writing life’.I did laugh and some ‘beamy moisture’ may have wet my eyes.
It did exactly what it set out to do.