Wednesday 27 June 2018

The Vicar of Wakefield at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

I can’t believe I’ve yet to review this book on here. It was one of the first eighteenth century books I read and I even reviewed it on the website I had prior to Grubstlodger. It’s time has come…

17 Gough Square was full of laughter as the Dr Johnson Reading Circle gathered around wine in Johnson’s former parlour.  Both regular and new members assembled to discuss Oliver Goldsmith’s only novel and there was a lot to talk about.

The Vicar of Wakefield is a wonderfully slippery work. The first question of the night was, “is the book supposed to be funny?” A question we never completely answered and kept returning to. 

Having been sold to quickly affray debt, the text was passed around publishers who didn’t have the confidence to release it. The novel was then released in the slipstream of a successful poem to very little acclaim. People at the time were perplexed by the work; Johnson was rather dismissive and even Goldsmith could hardly be bothered to redraft for the second edition. 

It was with the rise of the sentimental novel that The Vicar of Wakefield started to become popular, becoming one of the bestsellers of the nineteenth century. One of our members, who had worked for the past three years in Joel Chandler Harris House in Atlanta, noted that this book was one of the main inspirations for his writing. It was also Charles Dickens’ favourite book, his pen-name ‘Boz’ comes from Moses, Primrose’s second son in the novel.

Today, The Vicar of Wakefield is a book that many of us thought we have read, and all those coming to it for the first time found it far more entertaining then they expected. 

This is a novel that could be seen as a story of sentiment, a proto-Man of Feeling, full of moments designed to elicit sympathy and tears from his audience. Another reader could read the book as an early satire against the ludicrous nature of such books. The titular vicar, Primrose can be seen as a blundering, foolish man early in the book but later on, he is a noble figure when preaching to prisoners whilst imprisoned himself. 

Having written a few novels, The Vicar of Wakefield reminded me of my own early drafts. The tone shifts and slides back in a way that implies that Goldsmith hasn’t decided on it. It would be usual to redraft the book and make the book more consistent. Others disagreed, seeing the shifting layers as too controlled to be a result of accident. (John Hopkins would agree, having argued in his The True Genius of Oliver Goldsmith that he is a satirist of equal skill with Swift).

Some of this effect comes from the use of the first person. How much does Primrose actually see? How much influence does he have on the action? None of the other characters listen to him, although he feels that they do. When he starts to make a point, he is frequently interrupted by tragedy or farce. We compared Primrose to Charles Pooter in the Diary of a Nobody. He is the source of the pompous know-it-all that we both love and hate, the line runs from him to Captain Mainwaring … Primrose does, however, have a chance to shine in the prison.

There is definitely intentional comedy in the book. The detail of Primrose making a picture of his wife’s future epitaph on the wall to remind her of her duty is obviously comic in tone. So is the chapter when he goes to town proud of his worldliness and is promptly swindled. 

But there are also scenes which are hard to define. The family are having a bucolic picnic in the park and our dear narrator is telling us that it is impossible to ever be unhappy. He is promptly told his daughter has run off with a strange man and within a paragraph of being unshakeably happy says,
   “Go, my children, go and be miserable for we never shall enjoy one hour more.” Though after a little back and forth with his wife, the family are happy again.

I think it is this talent for happiness that is a characteristic of most of the Primrose family which destabilises the book. No matter what terrible thing happens to them, no matter how angry or distressed they become in the middle of a chapter, they end the chapter with contentment for their lot. For this reason, it’s impossible to really shake up their lives enough to make the emotion of the story stick, so it often becomes ludicrous… and charming.

This means that the end of the novel essentially puts the family where they were at the beginning. None of them have particularly learnt anything from their experiences except to stick to the belief that they can survive whatever is thrown at them and wait for providence to shine again. I also think it’s one of the reasons the book has survived (besides Goldsmith being a wonderfully easy writer to read). The reader comes to the end of this book with a similar feeling of hope and a trust that things may well turn out for the best.

Besides the book's pre-occupation with the importance of hope, it is very possible to tell that Goldsmith was under Johnson’s influence. There are variations of Johnson’s, ‘moving from hope to hope’ and my personal favourite of ‘the sole aim of a writer is to help the reader to enjoy or endure life’. It’s a fun book to search for Johnson quotes (if you have the time).

There is much more that could be said about The Vicar of Wakefield, it is a text that seems almost uniquely interpretable by any reader. It is also an eighteenth century book that I think could be picked up and read without much exposure to the time as it is so smoothly written.

We at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle enjoyed the book as our light summer read and it does work as such. The next time we meet will be on a trip to that most exotic of cities, the place with more canals then Venice - Birmingham.

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