Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield was the final novel that I read for my 18th century novel class, and by a wide margin, the shortest, weighing in at 160 pages. Published in 1766 it enjoyed wild popularity and was mentioned in such now-classics as Frankenstein, Emma, and A Tale of Two Cities. How I’ve read so many novels which mention this one without having actually read it, I’m not sure, but I blame my professors.
It’s a comedic sentimental novel which follows the fall and rise of the Primrose family (I think I’m paraphrasing the back of the book) which is made up of the vicar, his wife, and their six children (George, Olivia, Sophia, Bill, and Dick). If you’re like, “Golly, I would love to read an 18th century novel, but I’m just so darn short on time!” I think this might be a good choice for you, it also has a somewhat gratifying ending, as long as you’re not a militant feminist (in which case, fight the good fight!). Now, after 250 years, perhaps the “spoiler alert” caveat is a bit unnecessary, but regardless, if you intend to read the novel and yet long to be completely surprised, I suggest you stop before the cut.
The novel is narrated by the head of the Primrose family, the vicar himself, who has several very amusing digressions on matrimony, one of which prevents his eldest son’s marriage. Irony alert! The novel doesn’t take itself too seriously, there are a lot of comedic elements which really balance out all the horrible things that happen to this poor family before they get their lives back. Oh, the calamity! So in the course of this tiny novel the Primrose family loses all their money, their house burns down, both of their daughters are kidnapped (separately), one son loses a duel, they get hosed twice by the same grifter, and finally end up in debtors prison. The great thing about this novel, which I think contributed to its popularity, was that it never really slows down (unlike Clarissa, which is 99% slowed down).
So with the Primrose family broke like the proverbial joke George goes to down to seek fortune (which doesn’t go well), while the rest of the family moves to a humbler house in a new town. Sophia is saved from drowning my a remarkably intelligent hobo named Burchell, and soon thereafter the house is visited by the young landlord, Thornhill, who starts courting Olivia. Suddenly Burchell falls out of favor for preventing the girls from going to town with some sophisticates that the landlord is friends with. Then the family attempts to force Thornhill’s hand by introducing a rival for Olivia’s hand, which backfires, since Olivia runs away with Thornhill and marries him. After getting super ill and grifted to the utmost trying to bring her home, Dr. Primrose (vicar) accidentally finds her at an inn not too far from their house, just as the rather gauche landlady is trying to drag her out into the street by her hair for nonpayment of bills. The vicar, who is shown throughout to be a supremely decent human being, forgives her instantly, and then even moreso after Olivia reveals that Thornhill tricked her with a fake marriage, then got bored with her and tried to force her into prostitution, from which she had recently escaped, virtue intact, thank you very much.
Everything seems good again until they return home to find their tiny house ablaze, come on, God! This guy works for you! The vicar is badly burned as he rushes into the house to save his two youngest sons, which he does at the last possible second, but everyone lives and the village pitches in to build them a hut. Suddenly Thornhill arrives and the vicar tears him a new one for trying to force is daughter to be a lady of the evening. Thornhill is like, “Prostitution is great, but since you don’t agree, let me remind you that I’m your landlord and, btw, your rent is totally late!” which is followed by maniacal laughter (in his head). The family returns home to find themselves accosted by police, who drag them all off to debtors prison, where only vicar stays, though his youngest sons sleep there because they’re very poor and need to save on board, and also to make us hate Thornhill more. Suddenly we find out that Thornhill, that bastage, is engaged to George’s ex-fiance (remember the marriage vicar ruined at the beginning?). George rushes back into town to avenge his father’s wrongful imprisonment only to be spanked in a duel by Thornhill’s goons, and is thrown into prison with the rest of his family.
Can things get worse? Yes! Because then we hear that Olivia has died, wtf? “Noes!” cries the vicar, who has been hard at work successfully converting convicts to the faith, “Life hurts me!” Then, out of nowhere, Thornhill’s uncle, Uncle Thornhill, who is even richer and more powerful than Nephew Thornhill, swoops in and is all, “Nephew Thornhill, you make me crazy sick!” and then some other person arrives and is all like, “The fake marriage license between Olivia and Thornhill was a fake, erm, meaning that it was real!” and then Ms. Fiance shows up and she’s like, “Nephew Thornhill, you suck at life! Also I’m still in love with George!” and then Nephew Thornhill is all, “I was marrying you for you money and it’s mine! Evil laughter!” Then it turns out that Olivia isn’t dead, that it was all a trick to lure Nephew Thornhill out into the open, and Uncle Thornhill leaves Olivia all the money that would have gone to Nephew Thornhill, so he has to stay married to her now. This is where feminists can and should get angry. Then George and Ms. Fiance get married and are happy, and also Sophia gets married to Burchell, who has shown up again, and who also is rich, not a hobo, and only kept the girls from going to town because the sophisticates were actually prostitutes. Score! Then everyone leaves prison and gets their feast on. The end!
Okay, so now I know you’ve just got to read it, and if you’re too cheap to spend the eight clams (that’s $8) on the Penguin edition then I have good news for you, Uncle Scrooge, it’s available online at Project Gutenberg for nothing. Could life get any better? I’m thinking not.