Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield centers on Dr. Charles Primrose, the village priest, and his wife, Deborah, who live with their six children in affluent happiness in Wakefield. All look forward to the marriage of the Primroses’ eldest son, George, to Arabella Wilmot, daughter of a wealthy church dignitary. Dr. Primrose heatedly defends one of his favorite subjects, monogamy, with Arabella’s father, Mr. Wilmot, a man three times widowed and about to marry his fourth wife. When news arrives that Dr. Primrose has lost all his money through his broker’s embezzlement, Mr. Wilmot breaks the engagement of Arabella and George. George leaves to recoup the family fortune, and the other Primroses set out for a distant village to live more humbly. On the way, they meet Mr. Burchell, a wanderer who saves the Primroses’ young daughter Sophia from drowning. For his act, the family promises hospitality to Burchell.
The Primroses rent a cottage from Squire Thornhill, a loose-living young gentleman, who takes an immediate liking to elder daughter Olivia. Recognizing the advantages of a marriage between Olivia and the squire, Deborah strives to bring it about. Squire Thornhill, however, does not propose, while Burchell pays modest court to Sophia. Events reach a hopeful peak when two ladies, friends of Squire Thornhill, visit the Primroses. These ladies are amenable to taking Olivia and Sophia to London as companions. Squire Thornhill encourages the plan, but Burchell objects.
To improve the family’s finances, Dr. Primrose and his second son, Moses, go to a fair to sell their horses, but each is duped by the sharper Ephraim Jenkinson. Meanwhile, in spite of his repeated visits, Squire Thornhill refuses to propose marriage to Olivia. Dr. Primrose suggests that she then consider a proposal from...
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The Vicar of Wakefield, although published in March, 1766, was actually written years earlier. Scholarly evidence suggests that Goldsmith began writing the novel in 1760 and probably finished it in 1765. Mysterious stories surround the composition, sale, and publication of the work. One such tale concerns the venerable Samuel Johnson. According to his biographer, James Boswell, Johnson was summoned for immediate assistance by Goldsmith. It seems that Goldsmith was behind in his rent, and his landlady had him arrested. Johnson quieted the much disturbed writer, learned of an unpublished novel, and sold a one-third share to a bookseller. Goldsmith discharged the debts and eventually sold the remaining shares.
The work in question is strongly believed to be The Vicar of Wakefield. Why did he write it? Speculation suggests that Goldsmith wrote the novel because he was consumed with envy by the publication, in January, 1760, of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767) by Laurence Sterne. Though Goldsmith professed a long dislike for the novel, the celebrity status enjoyed by Sterne may have motivated the still little-known Goldsmith to match his rival’s success. Much has been made of the autobiographical portions to be found in The Vicar of Wakefield, including its faulty plot structure, the narrative technique employed, and the sentimental reversal-of-fortune conclusion. Goldsmith uses the...
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