The Vicar of Wakefield

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Read 03/01/2017-05/01/2017

Rating: 3 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge.

I’ve had this book on my bookcase for 18 years. I don’t know why I’ve never picked it up to read. Perhaps because it’s a slim, unassuming volume and I didn’t really know what it was about. The title doesn’t draw you in. The cover makes it look dull.

It’s surprisingly funny in an 18th century comedy of manners kind of way. Wry like Jane Austen when she’s poking fun. Not as acerbic as Laurence Sterne. There’s something of Cervantes about its humour, and something of Mr Bennett about Dr Primrose.

I was happily trundling through it, enjoying the relative simplicity of rural 18th century society, when suddenly Dr Primrose found his teeth. The usual mishaps had happened: reduced circumstances, misplaced pride, flirtations with scoundrels, swindles, an absconding daughter. Dr Primrose had headed off to track his daughter and her abductor down, but had been struck by an illness that laid him out for three weeks in an inn. Then he decided to walk home, and fell in with a group of travelling actors. Somehow, he ended up at a local squire’s house having an argument about liberty, the monarchy and accumulated wealth. Nothing ever changes in this thing we call Western Capitalist Society.

I would have all men kings. I would be a king myself. We have all naturally an equal right to the throne: we are all originally equal.

The generality of mankind … have unanimously created one king, whose election at once diminishes the number of tyrants, and puts tyranny at the greatest distance from the greatest number of people. Now the great who were tyrants themselves before the election of one tyrant, are naturally averse to a power raised over them … It is the interest of the great, therefore, to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because whatever they take from that, is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primeval authority.

He goes on to say that this undermining, this ambition, is facilitated by the accumulation of wealth, and that the state is set up in such a way as to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of the many, and power solely in the hands of the wealthy at the expense of the qualified.

You’d almost think him a socialist. Almost. It’s the bit about classifying some within society as rabble that spoils him. And the assertion that those that exist between the rabble and the rich are somehow better than either rabble or rich. Not such an egalitarian after all. Equality only applies to those of his own social class, and only a belief in the monarchy can maintain the status quo. Bollocks to that. But bollocks also to the idea of a republic, because look how well that’s working out in the good old US of A.

After that interlude, things trundled along again: his absent son discovered among the players, his daughter restored to him, his house burned down, his cattle sold for a debt, and incarceration in gaol. While imprisoned, Dr Primrose becomes a proponent of prison reform and the abolition of capital punishment. He has some interesting thoughts on how to rehabilitate the corrupt and how to prevent the falsely accused from becoming corrupt as the result of a stay in prison. He even institutes a form of cottage industry that gives his fellow prisoners a sense of purpose.

He also has another go at the evil effects accumulation of wealth has on society, ascribing one cause of crime to the unequal distribution of wealth and the gulf between the poorest and the richest in society.

The end of the novel was slightly tedious, slightly ridiculous, full of happenstance and speedy resolution of wrongs, though. I found some of the sermonising sanctimonious and a lot of the denouement felt like a pantomime. In the introduction to the edition I read, there was a hint that Goldsmith hadn’t quite finished the book, that it needed some refinement, when Samuel Johnson sold it on Goldsmith’s behalf in order to settle his debts. Perhaps if he’d had more time to work on it, the ending would have been less hackneyed.

So while there are light hearted moments and tragic moments, there are also swathes of dullness that mean it’s unlikely this book will live on in my memory.

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