Readin’ the Classics: The Vicar of Wakefield

Oliver, O Oliver!Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Vicar of Wakefield, his only novel, way back when English was just starting to make some kind of sense. And so the book which Goldsmith hands across the centuries to us Men of the Future is an easy read, with familiar vocabulary and straight-forward syntax, unlike, say, the plays of Shakespeare who puzzles his descendants with stuff like this:

You had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the inns o’ court again: and I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were and had the best of them all at commandment.

No, Goldsmith resides on the near side of some kind of language line. He gives us more manageable utterances like:

I can’t say whether we had more wit amongst us now than usual; but I am certain we had more laughing, which answered the end as well.

The Vicar of Wakefield describes, in his well-modulated preacher’s voice, the woes of an 18th century English vicar, Dr. Primrose, a kind, uxorious country clergyman who weathers a Job’s blitz of catastrophes with grace and humor. Despite all Dr. Primrose’s vexations — and they are many — it’s a happy book that will make you happy, especially when you reach the happy ending in which the happy resolutions come stumbling over each other all at once.

There’s a happy story about the publication of this novel. It involves Goldsmith’s good friend Doctor Samuel Johnson. I don’t remember it, but if I did I wouldn’t tell you anyhow because I don’t want to and you can’t make me.

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