It is significant that the best work in fiction from the time of Fielding and Smollett until that of Jane Austen was done by men and women who were generally not professional writers or, if they were, were far from thinking of themselves primarily as novelists.
An instance is Oliver Goldsmith, whose novel The Vicar of Wakefield, . . . has proved by far the most popular eighteenth-century novel apart from those of the Big Four [Richardson, Fielding, Defoe, and Sterne]. Its popularity, indeed, has been quite disproportionate to its achievement as a novel, and much of it has undoubtedly been due to its 'niceness', which allowed adults to put in the hands of young people when Tom Jones was considered improper. —Walter Allen, The English Novel, p. 81.
Oliver Goldsmith (10 November 1728 – 4 April 1774) was born in Ireland, then essentially a colony of England, either in the townland of Pallas, near Ballymahon, County Longford, where his father Charles was the Anglican curate of the parish of Forgney (as stated on his memorial plaque in London's Temple Church), or at the residence of his maternal grandparents, at the Smith Hill House near Elphin in County Roscommon, where his grandfather, Oliver Jones, was a clergyman and master of the Elphin diocesan school, at which Goldsmith was a student. When the future author was two years old, his father, Charles, became rector of the parish of Kilkenny West in County Westmeath. The family moved to the parsonage at Lissoy, between Athlone and Ballymahon, where they until his father's death in 1747. This ecclesiastical family background is reflected in his sentimental novella The Vicar of Wakefield.
Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Goldsmith (c. 1770).
Sixteen-year-old Goldsmith entered Trinity College, Dublin, on 11 June 1744. Here he quickly fell to the bottom of his class, was temporarily expelled for political agitation (the storming of the Marshalsea Prison in London) in 1747, but graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1749 – without distinction or academic specialty. His main interests in university were drinking, singing Irish airs, playing cards and the flute, and cultivating a taste for fine clothes and high living. Between 1752 and 1755, he did, however, undertake the study of medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained on his usual carefree terms until 1754, when he proceeded to another centre of medical studies, Leyden. After completing a walking tour of the Low Countries, Switzerland, and Northern Italy (which he financed by playing his flute as a busker), he determined to settle in London in 1756. At some point around this time he worked at Thornhill Grammar School, later basing Sir William Thornhill in The Vicar of Wakefield on his benefactor, Sir George Savile. He also spent some time with eminent scientist Rev. John Mitchell, whom he probably knew from London. In London he worked as an apothecary's assistant, a physician to the poor, and an usher in a school at Peckham. In 1757 he was writing for the Monthly Review. The next year he applied unsuccessfully for a medical appointment in India; and the year following, 1759, he embarked upon his first important literary venture, An Enquiry into the State of Polite Learning in Europe. Although published anonymously, the report attracted some critical attention, and brought him other work.
He first came to prominence in London's literary circles with the publication of The Traveller (1764), in which he made a survey of national modes of happiness in didactic verse. As a result, Dr. Samuel Johnson, London's literary lion, and his literary club praised the work and invited the young Irishman to become a member. He had already published his most famous tales, "Asem, An Eastern Tale" (1759) and "Reverie at the Boar's Head Tavern" (1760), in the periodical The Bee, and became a best-selling author in 1762 with the publication of The Citizen of the World: Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in LOndon to his Friends in the East (based on Montesquie's Lettres Persanes, 1721), in which all things English come under the scrutiny of Goldsmith's foreign persona, Lien Chi Altangi, in an epistolary novel first published as a series of essays in Newbury's Public Ledger (1760-61).
Settling into a career as a hack writer on Grub Street, Goldsmith wrote a good deal of commercial non-fiction such as A History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), but also produced three great works of literature besides the sentimental novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): a brilliant comedy of manners (She Stoops to Conquer), the children's classic The History of Little Goody Two-shoes (1765), and one of the greatest elegiac poems in the English language (The Deserted Village, 1770). Goldsmith's other comedy, The Good-Natured Man (1768) has not stood the test of time; during its initial run at Covent Garden the satire of sentimental literature, produced by patent-holder George Colman, received a cool reception. She Stoops to Conquer, in contrast, also produced at Covent Garden, was an immediate success from its opening night (15 March 1773), and has never been off the stage for long, twinning Goldsmith in the public mind with the infinitely more prolific dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816). Despite his prolific career as a writer in many different genres, Goldsmith never enjoyed the celebrity of his friend Dr. Johnson, whose name after 1756 acquired that status of household word as The Great Lexicographer.
Had Goldsmith not given his only novel to Johnson to review, it might never have been published. But Goldsmith trusted Johnson's literary instincts, and allowed him to present the manuscript to bookseller and publisher Francis Newberry. Recalls Johnson of the publication circumstances,
I received one morning a message from poor Goldsmith that he was in great distress, and, as it was not in his power to come to me, begging that I would come to him as soon as possible. I sent him a guinea, and promised to come to him directly. I accordingly went as soon as I was dressed, and found that his landlady had arrested him for his rent, at which he was in a violent passion: I perceived that he had already changed my guinea, and had a bottle of Madeira and a glass before him. I put the cork into the bottle, desired he would be calm, and began to talk to him of the means by which he might be extricated. He then told me he had a novel ready for the press, which he produced to me. I looked into it and saw its merit; told the landlady I should soon return; and, having gone to a bookseller, sold it for sixty pound. I brought Goldsmith the money, and he discharged his rent, not without rating his landlady in a high tone for having used him so ill. [Boswell's Life of Johnson]
Goldsmith's premature death in 1774 may have been a consequence of his own misdiagnosis of his kidney infection. Goldsmith was buried in Temple Church, London, but there are significant monuments to him in the towncentre of Ballymahon, Ireland, and in the South Transept of Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, with an epitaph written by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Above the door to the Chapel of St. Faith, is a memorial tablet to Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74; date of birth given wrongly in the epitaph), and a white marble memorial bust by Nollekens, and the following epitaph:
"To the memory of Oliver Goldsmith, poet, philosopher and historian, by whom scarcely any style of writing was left untouched and no one touched unadorned, whether to move to laughter or tears; a powerful, yet lenient master of the affections, in genius sublime, vivid, and versatile, in expression, noble, brilliant, and delicate, is cherished in this monument by the love of his companions, the fidelity of his friends, and the admiration of his readers. Born in the parish of Fernes, in Longford, a county of Ireland, at a place named Pallas, on the 29th November 1731. He was educated at Dublin and died in London on 4th April 1774." — Samuel Johnson, translated from his Latin inscription.
Allen, Walter. 2. "The Eighteenth Century." The English Novel. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957. Pp. 43-102.
Benét's Reader's Encyclopedia. Third Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Boswell, James. Boswell'sLifeofSamuel Johnson, LL. D. Comprehending an Account of his Studies and Numerous Works. Ed. Percy Fitzgerald.London:T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1811.5 vols.
Hartnoll, Phyllis, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Oxford and New York: Oxford U. P., 1987.
Last modified 26 March 2018