Saturday 21 July 2012

Review: The Notable Man by John Ginger

And now as an end to this mini-iceage of an unseasonable Goldsmith Season, I’m going to look at John Ginger’s biography ‘A Notable Man’, especially in comparison to Ralph Wardle’s earlier biography.
The first difference is that there is a 20 odd year difference between the earlier Wardle and the later Ginger. The second is that The Ginger is almost twice the thickness of the Wardle. That would imply that there has been more things discovered about Goldsmith in that time. Unfortunately not.
Ginger has padded out his biography with two elements, life -n- times stuff, and psychology. Although some of the life -n-times stuff was interesting, was it really necessary to have long, involved descriptions of the political shufflings of the Bute administrations to understand the life of writings of Oliver Goldsmith? I would suggest not. Goldsmith is such an apolitical writer, even his reforming of manners type of writing has much more to do with fashions and fads than politics. Nor did I find all the drawn out lives of every incidental character or object Goldsmith interacted with to be very useful. These Interjections also cause Ginger to lose the thread of the narrative, meaning there are frequently times when we cannot fully follow where Goldsmith is and what he is doing. 
The second padding, psychology, is more of a problem. He has obviously read and enjoyed Walter Jackson Bale’s Samuel Johnson biography (and to be honest, what sane person hasn’t?) which makes him want to create a psychological portrait of Goldsmith. The trouble is that the portrait he creates is neither clear nor consistent. At the end of the book he declares that Goldsmith didn’t have any real feelings for people, and it was the construction of a fake, genial Goldsmith, a rational being and the dark, emotional black hole that was his real personality that creates the inconsistencies in his character and presentation. However, this interpretation comes out of nowhere, as beforehand the only talk he has given to Goldsmith’s psychological profile is his pull between escapist fantasy and the practical and dull details of life. Wardle mostly leaves the psychology of Goldsmith to the reader, discussing his intellect and the broad and eclectic nature of it, rather than any description of his personality.

Is it an unfair portrait?

Ginger’s reluctance to tell any of the classic Goldsmith anecdotes, or merely to allude to them takes away a lot of the pleasure of the text. I can see why he doesn’t just want to repeat the stories and create the quaint Goldsmith of popular imagination but a few of those anecdotes may have lightened up a story which inexplicably becomes doom and gloom by the end. Apparently Goldsmith hates himself, feels he has wasted his talent, is embarrassed about not getting a medical degree and generally fed up with a dog-like existence. While he also writes ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and chatting with friends. (Incidentally, Ginger takes great pains to say that all of that play are stolen from Isaac Bickerstaff’s ‘Love in a Village’. He does this by picking out details of plot the two plays share, details that seem pretty characteristic of much eighteenth century comedy - frustrated lovers &c.)
The astute reader may have picked up on the fact that I did not particularly enjoy this biography. I found the more John Ginger was trying to convince me not to like Oliver Goldsmith, the more I didn’t like John Ginger. I found Ralph Wardle to be far kinda to dear Goldy.
There is, however an odd similarity in the way both biographers conclude that Goldsmith rather neglected to develop or properly utilise his talent as if his talent didn’t in some way rely on Goldsmith being Goldsmith. If Goldsmith was an underachiever, he’s the kind of underachiever I want to be (though I’ll pass on the early ‘death by vomiting’)

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