The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith (1766)

The Vicar of Wakefield: A Tale, Supposed to be written by Himself was written by Irish novelist, playwright, poet and critic Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774). It was immediately praised on publication and went on to become one of the most widely read 18th-century novels, and also one of the most widely illustrated, with hundreds of Victorian paintings depicting key scenes from the story.

The two ladies from London dazzle the family of the Vicar of Wakefield (standing at the centre) with their fashionable stories, by Charles Robert Leslie (1843)

Sentimentalism

Wikipedia puts it best:

The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th-century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and the concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility.

Sentimentalism – which is to be distinguished from sensibility – was a fashion in the poetry and prose fiction of the mid-eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.

Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance both emotions and actions.

The result displays the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect and flatters the reader who is assumed to be refined and sensitive enough to appreciate the characters’ refinement and sensibility.

The Vicar of Wakefield is often mentioned among the half dozen classic examples of 18th century sentimental novels, and we shall see why.

The plot

The Vicar of Wakefield consists of 32 chapters which fall into three parts:

Chapters 1–3: beginning
Chapters 4–29: main part
Chapters 30–32: happy ending

1. Beginning

Charles Primrose The Vicar of Wakefield is Dr. Charles Primrose. The story opens with him living an idyllic life in a country parish with his wife Deborah, adult son George, marriageable daughters Olivia and Sophia, and three smaller children, the teenager Moses, and toddlers Richard and William. He has brought them all up to be ‘generous, credulous, simple, and inoffensive’.

Legacy Primrose is independently wealthy thanks to a legacy of ten thousand pounds from an uncle George, which he has invested with a ‘merchant in town’. Thus he is in a position to hand over the £35 a year he makes from his living as a vicar to trustees for the relief of the local poor.

George’s marriage Primrose’s eldest son George is all set to wed the beautiful daughter of a local landowner, Arabella Wilmot, when disaster strikes! Primrose is informed that the ‘merchant in town’ has absconded with all his money. Reckoning all his assets, he now has £400 left and, since the £35 income is in trust, he is now without income. Arabella’s father, prudent with his money and daughter, calls off the wedding, and George, who has had some education, is packed off to town with an introduction to a cousin to make his own way in the world.

Moralising about poverty This is the opportunity for some moralising about how they must match their expectations to their new station i.e. poverty, which goes hard with the girls who have got used to fussing about dresses and their appearance.

‘We are now poor, my fondlings, and wisdom bids us conform to our humble situation. Let us then, without repining, give up those splendours with which numbers are wretched, and seek in humbler circumstances that peace with which all may be happy.’

New job Primrose casts around and hears of a curate position going in a parish 70 miles distant and wins the job. He and his family pack their things and set out on the journey (noting that none of them had ever been further than ten miles from their beloved home). At an inn they fall in with an eccentric chap named Mr Burchell who doesn’t stand on ceremony and happily accepts Primrose’s charity when it is revealed that he – Burchell – can’t pay the bill.

Next day they ride on with Burchell who knows about and describes their destination. The new house and church is on the land of young Squire Thornhill, who is known to be a womaniser.

Scarce a farmer’s daughter within ten miles round but what had found him successful and faithless.

Mr Burchell goes on to describe the contrasting character of the young squire’s uncle, Sir William Thornhill, who is known throughout the country for his worthiness and generosity.

Mr Burchell rescues Sophia from drowning As he’s chatting on, there are shouts and the two men turn on their horses to see Sophia being swept away in a torrent they were crossing. While Primrose is paralysed, Burchell jumps into the flood and rescues Sophia from drowning. She is instantly attracted to him, but her ambitious mother does not encourage her feelings.

2. The Middle

Lovely new home The new cottage is plain but attractive and set in lovely countryside near a river, and among simple, unspoiled farmers whose vicar Primrose now becomes. Primrose describes the family’s ‘simple’ daily routine, including morning and evening prayers.

Young squire Thornhill One day a deer leaps past, followed by hunters. The most dashing and handsome fellow stops, dismounts and introduces him as Squire Thornhill, paying special attention to Primrose’s two pretty daughters. Next day he sends them a side of venison, and pays a social visit a day later. To Primrose’s dismay Olivia, who Thornhill pays particular court to, is swayed by his wealth and confident conversation, and so is his wife.

It is interesting the extent to which even in this ‘ideal’ family, and even though the book is written by a man, Deborah Primrose is given a mind and strong opinions of her own.

Mr Burchell drops by regularly, to help the family with their field work and harvesting (all very bucolic), reads them a sentimental ballad, pays court to Sophia.

A country dance There is a kind of rural ball, when Squire Thornhill arrives with his chaplain, two ladies of fashion, and a cold picnic. (The ladies are named Lady Blarney and Miss Carolina Wilelmina Amelia Skeggs.) The dancing goes on into the evening, with Primrose disapproving of the ladies’ attitude, and especially the turn the conversation takes to having his two daughters go up to London to be ‘finished’ for a season.

Over the following weeks, Primrose laments the reawakening of female ‘pride’ in his daughters who dream of fine dresses, London fashion and spurn the friendship of the grown-up daughters of their neighbour, Mr Flamborough, as beneath them.

A gypsy reads the girls’ fortunes and tells them they will marry a squire and a lord.

The Primrose family By about this point I realised that he salient aspect of the character of the narrator, Primrose, is his amused indulgence of his family, most notably his would-be married daughters, his ambitious wife, but also of his would-be learnèd son, Moses, who loses no opportunity to slip references to Greek legends into his conversation.

As a family, they rub along together, disagreeing, joshing, but ultimately getting on. Primrose realises that he himself sometimes comes over as too strict or ridiculous, or reveals the little verbal flourishes he uses to oil the wheels of family.

‘Ay,’ returned I, not knowing well what to think of the matter, ‘heaven grant they may be both the better for it this day three months!’ This was one of those observations I usually made to impress my wife with an opinion of my sagacity; for if the girls succeeded, then it was a pious wish fulfilled; but if any thing unfortunate ensued, then it might be looked upon as a prophecy.

The ride to church When it is announced the two fine London ladies will be at the next Sunday morning church service, there is a comic incident as the womenfolk insist they not just walk to church but ride, foolishly choosing the family’s two carthorses to ride on.

This goes even worse than expected, since the parson a) walks to church and b) takes the service on time without his family ever turning up. Only on his return journey does he discover that the obstinate great horses refused to carry their new burdens anywhere.

Michaelmas celebrations Next day the family goes to neighbour Flamborough’s to celebrate Michaelmas Eve with traditional food and party games. They are playing an innocent game of hunter the slipper but this rural mode is spoilt when the two Grand Ladies arrive and insist on replacing country games with high gossip from London. Uncivil Mr Burchell had been of the party and makes his disagreement known by turning his back on the main company and calling out ‘FUDGE’ at the end of every posh anecdote!

The green spectacles The women decide they must sell their old colt at the market and use the money to buy a fine horse for the daughters to take it in turn to ride. They give young Moses the task of doing all this  – taking the old horse to market, selling it, and buying a new one – but he screws up big-time, selling the colt but letting con-men persuade him to spend the entire profits (three pounds, five shillings and twopence) on… a gross of green spectacles!

Olivia and Sophia fitting out Moses for the fair by Daniel Maclise (1838)

Jobs for the girls The two fine ladies have let slip the notion that they might have vacancies for ‘readers’ and companions at £30 a year. Mrs P immediately proposes her girls for the job. The fine ladies say they must ponder. Mrs P and Mr Burchell have a falling out, he arguing really strongly that the girls should not be allowed up to London to be spoiled.

The Whistonian Controversy Initially it seems like a quirk but develops into a recurring comic motif that Primrose prides himself on being the author of several pamphlets on the all-important subject of clerical monogamy i.e. that a cleric may marry once but never remarry.

In this he supports the learned William Whiston – but his pamphlets have met with opposition and he has discovered himself drawn into theological controversy which was, in these halcyon pre-ideological days, the most venomous of all. He finds himself engaged in the Whistonean Controversy!

This hobby horse of his is reminiscent of the numerous hobby horses on display in Laurence Stern’s magnificent masterpiece Tristram Shandy published a few years before the Vicar (1759). Comparison with that book emphasises how boring and very low-level The Vicar is.

Primrose is diddled out of the second horse Anyway, Primrose himself sets out to sell the second horse and a seasoned con-man is able to play on Primrose’s bookishness – and monogamy hobby horse – to con him out of the money for their only remaining horse.

In fact it is the same con-men who sold Moses the green spectacles. He gives Primrose ‘a bill’ to ‘draw upon’ his neighbour Flamborough, a procedure I didn’t really understand since when he gets back home and presents it to Flamborough, the latter says he has no money and the thing is a con. Primrose has lost his money.

Buchell’s letter Surprisingly, the family discover that Mr Burchell has written a poison pen letter to the two Fine Ladies telling them the two Primrose girls are entirely unsuitable as companions, with the result that the ladies have returned to London without them and their prospects are dashed.

The Primrose family know this because they find Burchell’s copybook lying in a field, open it, and find a copy of a letter apparently written to the fine ladies warning them against the Primroses. They’ve barely finished reading it before Burchell himself arrives for one of his regular visits and first Deborah then Primrose himself accuse Burchell of ingratitude and baseness. Burchell takes it in his stride, says he could have them all hanged for breaking into his pocketbook, and walks off.

The family portrait In another comic moment they discover their neighbours and sort-of rivals the Flamboroughs have had their portraits done by a roving limner.

So the Primroses resolve to have a portrait done of themselves, a group portrait, which they over-excitedly decide should cast them in classical characters, as Venus, an Amazon and so on.

It is done very nicely, in the kitchen as a convenient space – but only when it’s finished do they realise it is too big to get through the doors – to take either into the house proper or outside. And so it becomes an expensive cause of mockery and gossip.

The basic mismanagement of this project, and even more so the ridiculous inappropriateness of much of the imagery (Mrs P as the goddess of Love!) is an easy symbol of the moral and cultural confusion the reader is asked to recognise in Primrose’s character.

Farmer William The womenfolk now conceive a strategem, which is to prompt Squire Thornhill to declare his passion for Olivia by encouraging a local farmer, William, in his hopes for Olivia (who he has been wooing since they moved into their new home).

Despite inviting Farmer William round at the same time as Squire Thornhill, and despite Olivia openly flirting with the farmer, the Squire only sighs and goes away, leaving the family puzzled. Even when the actual date of the young couple’s wedding is announced, the Squire only sighs.

Meanwhile, after Farmer William has left, Olivia goes into a corner and cries – Primrose is impressed at how naturally she keeps up her role of coquette but upset at how upset she is becoming, The reader feels like shouting, ‘Well, call the whole silly scheme off, then!’

Olivia elopes One morning the youngest son comes running in and tells the astonished family that he saw Olivia kissing a fine gentleman who helped her into a carriage, her crying very much and was for going back, but the gentleman hustled her into the carriage and off it swept. She has eloped.

Operatic misery and reproach and anger, Primrose rants against the seducer and vows revenge. He marches over to Castle Thornhill but is disarmed when the young Squire opens it and disclaims any knowledge. Some witnesses claim it was Mr Burchell who helped Olivia into the carriage!

A ‘witness’ says he saw them heading off to ‘the wells’, some 30 miles distant, so Primrose sets off to walk there, finds it full of gentry of Fashion. Here he meets ‘a person on horseback’ who assures him the couple have gone on to ‘the race’ thirty miles hence, so Primrose walks there as well. He doesn’t find them in either place.

Lack of description

It’s worth making a general point which these journeys highlight, which is the almost complete lack of description in the book. Primrose walks thirty miles to the wells, and another thirty miles to the races, and you realise there is absolutely no description whatsoever of the countryside he passes through, of the road or bridges or river or woods. When he gets to both the wells and races there is no description of either.

Now I think about it, there is little or no description of the physical appearance of any of the characters. It’s as if the story happens in a kind of empty space, devoid of shape or colour – is made of moralising conversations and reflections which take place in a big blank. And I think it’s this absence of visual information which makes it quite a difficult read. The modern reader is used to at least some description of setting and clothes and appearances. There’s almost none in The Vicar of Wakefield and that helps to make it feel rather… barren.

Fever The exertion of these long walks brings on a fever, and Primrose is forced to take to a bed in a nearby inn for 4 weeks. Fortunately a friend passing by is able to pay his bill (a more than usually ‘random’ coincidence, as my kids would say). Finally, restored to health, he sets off home.

The travelling players And falls in with a cart of props and equipment for some strolling actors. This gives rise, incongruously, to a couple of pages of pure Goldsmith, giving his low opinion about contemporary theatre i.e. he disapproves of the revival of the Elizabethans, Shakespeare and Jonson, as outlandish and unnatural.

Apparently, Goldsmith wrote a lengthy essay arguing for the strongly moral purpose of theatre, which he tried to embody in his own plays, namely his greatest hit, She Stoops To Conquer (1773).

Politics The entire book takes another unexpected turn when the player in charge of the props and Primrose are invited by a well-dressed gentleman they meet at the inn, to dine at his house. A coach takes them out to a very grand mansion, where they are treated to a tip-top dinner in the company of two fine ladies. But when the host starts toasting Liberty in the manner of John Wilkes, it triggers a long monologue in which Primrose appears to present Goldsmith’s political position, i.e. a staunch justification of Monarchy as the best protection of the middle sort of society (who produce all the arts and economy) against the rabble.

The argument between Primrose and the host is just getting nasty when – in a comic reversal – the real lord and lady of the house return and it is revealed that the fine gentleman and his ladies who are hosting our hero are in fact the house’s butler and maids! Hence their republican principles – they have enacted precisely the social overthrow they were proposing and Goldsmith/Primrose opposing.

Arabella Wilmot In a further comic development, it turns out the true owners are the aunt and uncle of Arabella Wilmot, the handsome young lady who Primrose tutored before the novel began, and who his son George was engaged to (the hosts are a Mr and Mrs Arnold).

We learn that it has now been three years since they lost their money and sent George off to earn his living, and have heard nothing of him since.

George Imagine everyone’s amazement when Primrose and Arabella go to see the first night of the play brought by the travelling players to the nearby town only to discover that the promising new lead actor is none other than… George, his son! George sees them in the audience, burst into tears and retreats from the stage. He ends up being invited out to the Arnolds’ mansion where a general reconciliation is effected.

George’s adventures The longest chapter in the book is George’s rambling picaresque first-person account of trying and failing to make a living in London and beyond. Apparently, these are closely based on Goldsmith’s own long, miserable years of struggle.

George goes to London and meets the cousin his father gave him a letter of introduction to and is inducted into the humiliations of being an usher at a school. He soon quits and tries becoming a hack writer in Grub Street. A hack poet introduces him to the method of whipping up subscriptions for volumes you never actually publish. George tries to write honestly, but is ignored.

He ends up sitting dejected in St James’s Park when he was spied by Ned Thornhill (‘Thornhill!’ his father exclaims) who hires him as a personal assistant up to and including fighting a duel for him (against, it turns out, a pimp in defence of the honour of a whore).

Thornhill gives him a letter of recommendation to his uncle, Sir William Thornhill (who rudely dismisses him as an abettor of his nephew’s dissipation) and to another mighty lord, to whom he has barely gained admittance than an important note calls him away, our George jostling the throng of other supplicants, beggars and hangers-on at his gate.

At his wit’s end, George finds himself at the office of a ‘Mr Cripse’ who he gives a deposit to ship him to America to find a good job as a negotiator with Indians, but bumps into a sailor friend who confirms his suspicion that people shipped to the States by Cripse in fact end up as slaves.

The sailor persuades George to come tomorrow on his ship to Amsterdam and teach the Dutch English. But as soon as he arrives he realises the Dutch don’t understand him and, in order to teach English, he needs to speak Dutch which, of course, he doesn’t.

He bumps into an Irishman who tells him barely anyone at the University of Louvain knows ancient Greek, which George does since he studied Classics at university – why doesn’t he apply to be a professor? But when he gets to Louvain, the existing chancellor confesses he doesn’t know ancient Greek, has never needed to, and so considers it worthless.

George wanders on through Flanders, using his skills as a musician to be a kind of minstrel, busking and begging room and board for the night. Arriving in Paris, he bumps (by outrageous coincidence) into the self-same cousin he had first encountered in London and who now undertakes to turn him into a connoisseur of paintings. There are, apparently, two rules:

  1. observe that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains
  2. praise the works of Pietro Perugino

George witnesses his ‘cousin’ putting on awesome displays of art scholar lying, before the cousin gets him a job as the travelling companion of an immensely wealthy young man who’s been sent out on the Grand Tour. But George quickly discovers that this young ‘gentleman’ turns out to be phenomenally tight and greedy and indifferent to everything he sees.

The said young man, enquiring at an Italian port the cheapest way back to England and finding it was sailing rather than horse and coaching, took the first available boat home, abandoning George. George had to walk from Italy back to England, carrying out disputations at universities along the way, on days when they allowed public debates and rewarded the winner with a night’s board and lodging.

Having finally arrived back in England, he was planning to volunteer for the army when he ran into the players who were looking for a leading man. He joined them on their travels, and thus it was that he walked on stage the night before, only to recognise his father and former fiancée in the audience!

Squire Thornhill So George and Primrose stay a week or so with good kindly Mr and Mrs Arnold, and their niece Arabella. Who should turn up in the first few days but Squire Thornhill? He is initially surprised to see the Primrose males, but immediately becomes the suave soul of friendship. Turns out he has been wooing Arabella and continues to do so over the coming days – although Primrose sees Arabella warming day by day to George.

The army Until the Squire turns up one day with the wonderful news that he has got George the position of ensign in an army regiment which is about to sail to the West Indies, for the bargain price of £100! This is a genuine opportunity and father and son are thrilled and grateful – neither of them realising this is Thornhill’s way of getting George, his love rival, out of the way. The morning George is due to join his regiment, Primrose gives his son his blessing. Then sets out sadly to journey home by easy stages stopping at inns.

Olivia rediscovered In an inn on the way home, he finds the angry landlady kicking out a tenant who’s been holed up for two weeks without paying and discovers that – it is his own sweet Olivia!

Father and daughter fall into each other’s arms, amid much weeping and begging forgiveness. Olivia tells quite a complicated story. For a start it was Squire Thornhill who seduced her and carried her away. The two fine ladies he dazzled the family with were in fact London prostitutes. Good Mr Burchell had been warning the Primroses against them all the time. Thornhill got a Catholic priest to marry him to Olivia (Primrose is relieved at least to find that they are honest man and wife) but then Olivia discovered the same priest had married Thornhill half a dozen times before (Primrose is crushed).

Olivia appears to have lived in Thornhill’s place (Castle Thornhill?) alongside a couple of prostitutes, trying to dress well, dance and converse politely, but crying inside, until Thornhill offered her to a friend, a baronet, like a spare horse – at which point she snapped and ran away, caught a passing coach and dumped herself in this inn.

Fire Primrose takes Olivia a stage nearer home, leaves her at the next inn, and sets out to walk the last five miles to warn the family of her arrival. He is happy to approach the little cottage they call home but, at the precise moment he knocks on the front door, he sees flames leap out of the windows and, to cut a long story short, the family, waked by his cries, rush out and can only stand and watch as their cottage and all their belongings burn to the ground. Kind neighbours provide basic utensils and the family reassemble in the wretched outhouse.

Primrose burned his arm badly when he burst into the inferno to rescue the two smallest children trapped in their cot. So he sends Sophia and Moses to fetch Olivia home. Mrs P is fiercely critical of her shameful behaviour, but Primrose wades in and says they’re all in a hard case now and must pull together and let bygones be bygones.

Thornhill again Olivia continues extremely depressed and miserable, made worse when the family discovers that Thornhill is going to marry Arabella Wilmot. Squire Thornhill pays a visit during which he is casually dismissive of his appalling treatment of Olivia and invites them to his forthcoming wedding. Primrose is calm but incensed, and replies with cold fury. Thornhill calmly declares he was inclined to be forgiving but now finds his steward needs to collect their rent, plus other debts of theirs, and he walks off.

Prison It is winter because everything is buried in snow. Next day Thornhill’s steward comes and impounds their cattle, selling them off at the local town at firesale prices. The day after, through the deep snow, come two officers who arrest Primrose for non-payment of rent and, despite his badly burned arm, fever, and lack of clothes, take him to prison.

He reproves his parishioners A mob of 50 or so parishioners gather and begin to attack the officers and declare they will release Primrose. But, in the classic noble-sentimental style, he begs them to cease and desist and to obey the officers of the law.

(How old is this trope? Does it go all the way back to Jesus telling his disciples not to resist his arresters in the Garden of Gethsemane?)

In prison Thrown into prison, Primrose discovers he is expected to pay for the privilege and that the money is immediately spent on buying booze from the pub so the soldiers can get drunk. In the darkness, a gentlemanly-sounding chap engages him in conversation and there is a comic moment when, from his high-falutin conversation, Primrose realises it is the plausible con-man who took his horse off him at the fair. In the event, his name is Jenkinson and he turns out to be a good-hearted man who regrets having lived a life of trickery.

Prison reform Primrose has strong views about prison reform, a topical subject of the 1760s apparently. He wonders why Britain, the richest country in Europe, has such a high prison population and so many laws which call for capital punishment. He thinks it reflects the over-anxiety of the propertied classes.

He thinks the system is completely wrong: it currently sends malefactors to gaol for even minor infringements like stealing bread, and has hundreds of capital crimes. The result is to make criminals think they might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb and commit worse crimes – and to send the relatively innocent to gaol for one minor crime where they are taught by old lags how to commit a thousand others.

Prison, in his view, should be about helping and reforming the prisoners and setting them on the path to a reformed life once they leave.

I cannot tell whether it is from the number of our penal laws, or the licentiousness of our people, that this country should shew more convicts in a year, than half the dominions of Europe united. Perhaps it is owing to both; for they mutually produce each other. When by indiscriminate penal laws a nation beholds the same punishment affixed to dissimilar degrees of guilt, from perceiving no distinction in the penalty, the people are led to lose all sense of distinction in the crime, and this distinction is the bulwark of all morality: thus the multitude of laws produce new vices, and new vices call for fresh restraints.

(It’s when I read speeches like this, from hundreds of years ago which address issues we still wrestle with 260 years later, that I realise some things will never, ever change.)

Sermon Primrose takes it upon himself to sermonise the prisoners. At first they take the mickey, say Amen in funny voices, spit on his books, swap them for porn and so on. He persists, suggesting they turn their minds to reform, and think of the God they will have to face, eventually. After a week they listen with respect and some have started to repent.

Olivia dies His family move in. His little boys and his wife. Olivia stays outside. Every time she visits she looks worse, more and more gaunt. Jenkinson brings news that she’s wasting away, over a four day period, and then, that she is dead. Primrose is prostrate with grief.

Jenkinson begs him to relent and submit to Thornhill’s demands, for the sake of his family, and because Primrose’s health is beginning to fail – but by the time Primrose dictates a letter of apology to Thornhill the latter has hardened his heart. He will marry Arabella in a few days.

Sophia Then Deborah comes news that Sophia was walking along with her mother when a post-chaise stopped, a man grabbed her round the waist and threw her in, then it drove off. Now he has lost both his girls!!

George in chains Still, at least he comforts himself and his wife with the thought that George is thriving. Their littlest reads out the most recent letter from George declaring the colonel of his regiment loves him and all his going well.

Primrose is just sharing this thought when there is the sound of prison doors being unlocked, fetters and chains rattling, and George himself is thrown into the cell, bloodied and wounded and covered in shackles.

Turns out his mother sent him a letter telling him about Thornhill’s responsibility for Olivia’s decline and so George left his regiment immediately, sought out Thornhill, challenged him to a duel, but instead was set upon by four of his ruffians, some of whom he wounded before being overcome and beaten black and blue.

(Clearly the intention of the story is to reduce Primrose to the absolute nadir of human suffering, to make him a latter-day Job. But it would be interesting to know how many of his readers read this as a parody or pastiche or mockery of this kind of sensationalising sentimental novel. The incidents come pell-mell and occur with absurdly pat timing e.g. the house bursting into flames just as Primrose arrives home, or George being thrown into their cell at the very moment Primrose is explaining how his success is his last prop. Were the original readers meant to weep? Or to burst out laughing at the melodramatic contrivance of it all?)

A sermon Primrose puts a moralising cap to this catalogue of woe by delivering a sermon in which he points out that Jesus came to the ill and weak and criminals and sinners, and that their translation from this life of woe into bliss will be all the more intense.

3. Happy ending

Then Mr. Burchell arrives and solves all the problems:

Firstly, Burchell has rescued Sophia from her abductors. Sophia herself appears and explains the whole story. She was grabbed and hustled into a post-chaise, but she screamed from it, Burchell heard and gave chase, bashed the postilion off his seat with his big stick, chased the abductor off into the fields, then returned to the stationary coach and rescued Sophia (who he also saved from drowning, remember: that’s two pretty big debts).

It emerges that Mr. Burchell is in reality the worthy Sir William Thornhill, who travels through the country in disguise. He inspires awe in the gaoler and other officers, who now jump at his bidding. They fetch a damn fine dinner and bottles of wine from the pub nearby.

Olivia is not dead. She is brought in by Jenkinson. Her being dead was a ruse cooked up by Jenkinson and agreed by her mother. It was because they thought the only way Squire Thornhill could be bought off was i.e. made to forgive and release Primrose – was if they offered him Primrose’s other daughter, Sophia. But Primrose had said he would let Thornhill marry Sophia over Olivia’s dead body. So they pretended Olivia was dead. (What a complicated and preposterous scheme!)

Jenkinson now reveals he is a master of disguise and has worked for Squire Thornhill for many years. He explains how they contrived to beat up George, and how the accusation that George injured one of them – the chief cause for him being imprisoned – is baseless. None of them were injured.

Hearing this, Sir William bids the Gaoler let George go, who exits to clean up.

Arabella walks in more or less by accident since she was staying in the town en route to her wedding. She is astonished to find the entire cast assembled in this cell. She is amazed to discover her fiancé, Squire Thornhill, there too. And even more surprised when George re-enters the cell, now tidied up and wearing his army uniform and looking gorgeous.

She is surprised, because Thornhill had told her George had chucked her for someone else, gotten married and left for America – none of which is true. So Arabella rushes into George’s strong manly arms!

Nonetheless, Squire Thornhill chuckles a wicked evil chuckle because all the deeds and contracts for the marriage have been signed and so he will inherit Arabella’s fortune, anyway. This upsets Arabella’s father who has just walked into the scene, and Sir William enjoys a few minutes of gloating over the way the latter’s greed has been rebuked.

But everyone is wrong about this – for Jenkinson now drops the bombshell that when Thornhill underwent the marriage to Olivia, it was not a sham ceremony performed by a fake Catholic priest (as Thornhill believed) but a real ceremony performed by a real priest!

Thus at one stroke 1. the stain of illegitimacy is removed from Olivia, and 2. Squire Thornhill, being already married, cannot take possession of Arabella’s fortune! It reverts to her and to George who she is now determined to marry!!

In a final twist, there is a minute of comic business while Sir William jocosely tries to pair young Sophia off with Jenkinson, who he says he’ll give £500 a year. But Sophia becomes more and more miserable as Sir William increases his briberies and inducements until… he abruptly gives up and says, ‘Well then, he’ll have her for himself!’ Grabs her, proposes, she accepts, he has been looking for years for a woman who would love him for who he is rather than his riches.

Oh, and Primrose is hereby released from prison, all his debts paid off.

What an incredibly complex tangle of themes and revelations and contrivances!

The prison scene from The Vicar of Wakefield by Ernest Gustave Girardot – wicked Squire Thornhill, seated, is having it explained that he will NOT be getting Arabella’s money, the vicar (standing) embraces his ‘dead’ daughter Olivia, Mrs Primrose seated right, teenage Moses standing behind her, George background right in his smart red army uniform standing with fiancée Arabella

Wedding bells

In the last pages, the wealth of the vicar is restored, as the bankrupt merchant is found in Antwerp, in possession of all Dr Primrose’s money and more.

Then, as in traditional comedy since Roman times, the narrative ends with a wedding, in fact a double wedding: George marries Arabella, as he originally intended, and Sir William Thornhill marries Sophia. The family is restored, renewed and expanded.


Sentiment and improving feelings

You can see from this summary how the plot is designed at almost every turn to provide the 18th century reader with a combination of:

  1. shocks and surprises and sensational moments and incidents (the near-drowning, the house burns down, thrown in prison, duels) worthy of a soap opera
  2. and that all of these extreme events are prompts for displays of Christian stoicism in the face of disaster and noble high-minded sentiments, the over-riding ones being forgiveness and charity and big-heartedness

The narrative provides a steady stream of incidents designed to trigger high-minded sentiments of the kind which could be embroidered and hung on the wall of any good Christian family of the middling sort (much as Dr Primrose – comically – hangs the epitaph he’s written for his wife, in a frame over the main fireplace, in chapter 2).

Autobiography

To begin with I had various thoughts about fictional autobiography as a genre, about how writers like Defoe used it at the turn of the 1700s. About the flood of popular literature, pamphlets and ballads and so on, which all claimed to give the personal biographies of all sorts of figures, especially notorious criminals, especially if they were about to be executed. About the interest in people’s personal lives and quirks and oddities which grew throughout the century.

By the 1760s it was a very well-established genre, and the narrative arc from happiness, down into times of tribulation – a vale of sorrows – and then back up to ultimate vindication – this amounts to a basic human story, deeper than religion, underpinning the Christ narrative itself.

The psychology of details

I was going to write something about the growing interest in details – When you read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or 17th century fictions one of the first thing the reader notices is how sparse they are, how lacking in detail, whereas one of the things that makes Daniel Defoe stand out from contemporaries was his realisation that the telling detail can have a dramatic psychological effect.

What makes Robinson Crusoe so gripping is not only the plot, but the accumulation of significant details which make you believe the plot. The gold Crusoe initially leaves in the shipwreck, but then goes back for, is often cited as a particularly acute and lifelike psychological detail.

But, as mentioned above, The Vicar of Wakefield is quite disappointing in this respect – it lacks the uniting of physical detail and psychological importance which you find in Defoe, to some extent in Fielding, and in the brilliant details of Tristram Shandy. It feels much closer to a sermon, or a highly moralising Christian tract, than to those novels.

Although the narrator reflects a bit upon events, the narrative is very exterior – it focuses on a series of events rather than of thoughts. In this respect it is a highly theatrical narrative, which becomes obvious in the denouement which reads like the climax of a comic play.

Idolising rural life

And I was also going to write something about the ancientness of the cliché of the superiority of ‘simple’ rural life over town life. To begin with, the story is premised on the idea that being a simple, kind-hearted country parson who does a bit of farming on the side, is the purest, noblest, most honest and religious vocation possible for a human being.

The hero of this piece unites in himself the three greatest characters upon earth; he is a priest, an husbandman, and the father of a family.

This idea – that simple rural living is purer, more innocent and noble than city living – is at least as old as the Roman Empire (and the Georgics of Virgil), can be found in Chaucer and became a cliché under the Elizabethans (see Spenser’s Faerie Queene).

The paradox is that it is always the opinion of a sophisticated townee (Virgil, friend of the emperor; Chaucer, poet to the king; Spenser, writer for aristocratic patrons).

In Goldsmith’s case, this image of rural content is the product of an urban socialite who made his living by his wits and his writing and steered a precarious course through the dog-eat-dog, hyper-bitchy, gossipy cultural world of Georgian London – and the book was designed to be read by a jaundiced, urban literary elite who enjoyed fancying themselves as simple sensitive souls… if only for the couple of afternoons it took to read the book.

And as the plot unravels, it can be interpreted as indicating the basic instability of the idea. Basically, Primrose’s wife and two daughters both yearn to escape from ‘rural idiocy’ to the bright lights of the city and fashionable living, and George is actually packed off to the city. In other words, this version of rural idyll cannot exist without the city to feed it, or counterbalance it.

The dream of rural contentment is radically unstable and needs constant policing by Dr Primrose to try and maintain, and the whole story is a litany of ways in which he fails to maintain it.

Conclusion

was going to write about those three areas – autobiography, the importance of details and rural life – but the narrative ended up sweeping past all these clever thoughts and obliterating them in the helter-skelter of hyper-theatrical melodrama – capped by the host of reversals and revelations in the final scene.

It is this concatenation of complex plot denouements which is the lasting impression of the book and which swamps the early pages’ gentle evocations of rural life. And it’s these closing scenes which raise the really obvious question about the book which is – Is it meant to be taken seriously? Are you meant to weep sensitive tears of empathy for Olivia and Arabella and feel your heart swell as Primrose expresses a series of noble sentiments about prison reform, and the souls of sinners and so on?

Or are you meant to burst out laughing at the increasingly farcical complexities and improbabilities of the plot?

Or is it both? Are you allowed to feel both, to be genuinely moved by some scenes but find others broadly comic?

Points of interest – the remoteness of 18th century life

Primrose tells us none of his family had ever been further than ten miles from their homestead, so were quite scared at the thought of an epic journey of 70 miles.

A journey of seventy miles to a family that had hitherto never been above ten from home, filled us with apprehension…

Mr Burchell has no money at the inn where he is first encountered, because he gave three guineas to the beadle ‘to spare an old broken soldier that was to be whipped through the town for dog-stealing’.

Floods The countryside round Wakefield is troubled by floods so deep that, in crossing one, Primrose’s daughter is like to be swept away and drowned.

Home-made gooseberry wine The Primrose family are famous for it among the neighbours.


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18th century history

Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery by James Walvin (1992)

Tobacco for the pipes of Englishmen, rum to temper the squalor of life between decks on British warships, coffee for the fashionable society of London’s clubs, sugar to sweeten the miserable diet of working people – these and other tropical products spilled forth from the cornucopia that was the slave colonies of the Americas. (Introduction)

James Walvin

James Walvin is Professor of History Emeritus at University of York. He is the author or editor of thirty books, most of which have been about the history of slavery and the slave trade. In 2007 he was curator for the Parliamentary Exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and was also adviser to the Equiano Exhibition held in the Birmingham Art Gallery.

A thematic approach

Black Ivory isn’t a chronological history. You realise this when you come across, in chapter two, an account of the famous legal case, Somerset versus Stewart (1772) which helped to crystallise the movement for the abolition of slavery. It feels odd to start the slavery with its ending. Here, as in many other places, chronology, is completely abandoned.

Instead, the book explores the issue of slavery thematically, with chapters devoted to how the slaves were captured and bought in Africa, how they fared on the notorious Atlantic crossing, their landfall and auction in the West Indies or America, life on the slave plantations, the prevalence of disease and death, issues of sex, recreation, religion, rebellions and runaways – before a final section returns to the ‘crusade’ against slavery by reformers in Britain, and its final abolition.

The trade in slaves was made illegal in 1807. Britain abolished the actual condition of slavery, throughout the British Empire, in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Figures

It is a pretty well-known story. Both my kids studied the Slave Trade at school, and we are reminded of it every October during Black History Month, plus the occasional documentary, TV series or movie. I remember the impact of the original TV series of Roots, shown back in 1977. I was horrified by the movie Twelve Years A Slave, and so on. It is not an overlooked part of history.

That said, on this reading, some stories or insights stood out for me:

Unknown figures How contested the numbers are. Some authorities say 12 million captive Africans were transported to the Americas, some say 15 million.

The Middle Passage The perils of the Middle Passage when a high percentage of the slaves died in the appalling conditions below decks, are well known. About 12.5% – or 2 million – of all the Africans transported died on board ship.

Deaths in Africa But I hadn’t thought so much about the ‘wastage’ i.e. deaths and disablements caused to captives within Africa, on their sometimes very long journeys to the coast. These began with kidnapping, capture in war, being sold on by their African owners, followed by periods of slavery to local people en route, being passed on along sometimes very long trails to the sea, and ultimate sale to white ship captains.

A large percentage of captives died during this process and, even when they made it to the coast, captives often spent months at the coastal forts built by slave companies, in grim prison conditions, waiting for a ship to dock, and here many more died in  a misery of starvation and disease.

Taking all this together, Walvin quotes a guesstimate that as many as 24 million Africans were initially enslaved, within Africa, in order to produce the 12 or so million who were enshipped across the ocean.

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Africans being shackled and packed into a slave ship

Death on arrival And I hadn’t realised that the high mortality rate continued after the slaves’ arrival in the Caribbean or America. Their health undermined by the squalor of the Atlantic crossing, plus mental deterioration and depression, plus being thrown into harsh forced labour in an alien environment filled with new pathogens, mortality rates were as high as 33% after the slaves arrived.

A third of imported slaves died in their first three years in the West Indies; on the Chesapeake (the tobacco-growing plantations of Virginia) about a quarter of imported slaves died in their first year.

It is this high rate of ‘wastage’ which made the trade so voracious, so insatiable for new flesh, for the century and a half or so from the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish (1655) to the abolition of the trade in 1807.

Gender imbalance Twice as many men were transported as slaves, as women. (p.119) It was thought that men were tougher and would make better workers.

In Walvin’s chapter on ‘Women’ he describes how the tiny island of Barbados was an exception in having a more equal balance between the sexes, and also more white women among the planters. The result was a marked ‘civilising’ or restraining influence on the male planters i.e. less sexual violence against women slaves.

This can be deduced from the markedly lower number of mixed race births during the 1700s, compared to other islands more dominated by single white men, who raped and impregnated their African women with impunity.

Lack of accounts

Given the enormous numbers involved it is striking how very, very few accounts we have by slaves of their experiences. One of the most important was by Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745 – 31 March 1797), captured as a boy in the Igbo region of what is today southeastern Nigeria, transported to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a captain in the Royal Navy, then on to a Quaker trader, eventually earning his freedom by trading and careful savings, in 1766.

Eye witnesses Walvin quotes the journals of a ship’s doctor, Alexander Falconbridge, who gives evidence of conditions onboard a slaver, and we have the testimony of John Newton who was a slave ship captain until he underwent a religious experience and became an abolitionist.

(I feel a strong sense of unreality every time I read the fact that it was this John Newton, who admits in his journals to torturing slaves, who went on to write the inspiring hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, the hymn which President Obama sang at the funeral for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, shot dead in a Charleston church by a white supremacist).

Walvin quotes from a few plantation owners – from the voluminous journals of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, from the aptly named Thomas Roughley, from Robert Carter and William Byrd, from a journal kept by Lady Nugent who visited Jamaica. But all in all it’s striking how few accounts there are of the entire system and experience.

The result is that although Walvin has structured his themes so as to give a comprehensive overview of the different elements of slavery, he is often forced to speculate in order to fill in the details of various aspects of slave life, and this rather weakens the punch of his narrative:

We do not know how much co-operation existed between the slaves. Did the strong help the weak? Or did the greedy and the desperate take advantage of their weaker shipmates to satisfy their own cravings? (p.52)

We will never know the full extent of their mental suffering… While it is difficult to prove the point, it seems fairly clear that depression often worsened slaves’ physical condition. (p.55)

What we can never know about the slave trade is the extent of capricious, casual or sadistic violence involved. (p.57)

It was likely that slaves continued to use their own names… (p.63)

What went through their minds, those new slaves, as they shuffled off to their first day’s work? (p.66)

We can only speculate how far this development of slave communal living was a transplantation of African village life. (p.84)

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 had cut off the supply of new Africans and most planters felt obliged to reorganise their gangs and make more pressing demands of them to make up the shortfall. What effect this extra effort had on the health and fertility of women slaves we can only speculate. (p.123)

[Persistent lack of enough food led to thefts which were savagely punished]. What effect this had on the mental equilibrium, particularly on those who had endured the Atlantic crossing, we can only speculate. (p.149)

Children inherited their mothers’ slavery, and belonged to her master. Did this, as some have claimed, alienate the slave fathers? Were they stripped of their manhood and their sense of primacy within the family group by the superior and overriding power of the slave-owner? It is of course hard to tell and the evidence is contradictory and confusing. (p.210)

I am not questioning the immensity of the suffering. I am just pointing out that Walvin’s book never stops reminding the reader that there is a surprising lack of evidence and testimony about large aspects of the slave experience, and so that historians of slavery like himself are continually forced to speculate and guess – and that this makes, in many ways, for a rather frustrating read.

Undermining the exceptionalism of slavery

Walvin is obviously outraged by the existence of slavery and its thousands of disastrous and humiliating ramifications for its millions of victims – but he often undermines his own indignation by placing the suffering of the Africans in contexts which, surprisingly, tend to minimise or lessen it.

For example, his chapter about the Middle Passage is grim enough, with a description of the layout of the average slave ship, the appalling lack of space, and the reality of the lake of vomit, blood, faces and urine which the slaves were soon lying in with the result that it was a continual problem for slavers that so many of their charges died en route.

But he lessens the appalling thrust of his descriptions by pointing out that, as a proportion, more European sailors died during the Atlantic Crossing than blacks! The slave mortality rate was around 12%, but the mortality rate among European crew was as high as 20%!

Similarly, he emphasises the ubiquity of violence in intimidating, coercing and punishing the slaves aboard ship. But again undermines the initial impact, by telling us that ordinary members of a ship’s crew were also subject to appalling discipline and were also frequently put in chains or flogged, sometimes to death.

Time and again he points out that this, that or the other aspect of slave life was appalling – but then undermines the impact by going on to say that, of course, a lot of this was true of the sufferings of non-slaves – poor sailors, poor servants in England, the poor everywhere.

Slaves were not alone in enduring overcrowding, poor food and insanitary conditions on board ships: it was the lot of indentured (free) labour travelling to America in the seventeenth century, of convict labour travelling to Australia and of naval and military postings. (p.52)

The masters often lived in great material comfort; slaves lived in primitive housing and wore the simplest of clothes. The masters ate lavishly, the slaves survived on the most basic of diets. We could of course paint a similar picture for the gulf between rich and poor in Britain at much the same time. (p.73)

Plantation slaves everywhere lived in meagre circumstances. Their homes were generally ignored by visitors or residents; when noticed they were airily dismissed. (But so too were poor domiciles in Europe.) (p.84)

[Slave] babies who died in that period were not accorded full burial rites, but it has to be said that much the same was true in Britain at the same time. (p.148)

Slaves were not alone in requiring a new discipline when transplanted into an utterly alien working environment. The same was true for working people translated from rural to the first industrial occupations of early nineteenth century Britain, and a similar story unfolded in North America among immigrants employed in new industries. (p.237)

Slaves were not the only people to be beaten. Whipping a child or striking an inferior were broadly accepted [throughout society]. (p.238)

Beating people was not of course restricted to slaves. When industrialisation began to absorb ever more people in Britain in the early nineteenth century, the most bitter complaints were often about the physical abuse of workers. In the textile industries, parents objected fiercely to the whippings and cuffings doled out to their children. (p.242)

In other words, the net effect of Walvin’s book is regularly to make you reflect that almost everyone in Georgian and Regency Britain and America suffered appalling levels of physical abuse, exploitation and the most unbelievably violent punishments, up to and including frequent doling out of the death penalty.

You are just reeling from another description of brutal punishments meted out to, for example, runaway slaves, before Walvin is pointing out that the same level of brutality – being put in the stocks, in irons, whipped, flogged, beaten, publicly hanged – were punishments just as readily administered by the British in Ireland or in the new convict colony of Australia.

The surprising autonomy of slave life

His chapter about working life on the plantations paints a grim picture of very long days of unremitting and back-breaking labour. That’s what I expected. What surprised me was the extent to which many slaves had a surprising amount of autonomy, both about the work they did, and how they did it, and the length of the working day.

The ‘task system’, widespread in the rice plantations of the Deep South, allotted slaves a task for each day and, when they were complete, their time was their own, to tend their gardens, to practice crafts, make music, be with their family, whatever.

I was surprised to learn that in the tobacco plantations, slaves often created their own villages and had their own houses with their own veg plots. They developed sophisticated creole languages. They were given days off to cultivate their plots, and took every opportunity to let off steam by dressing up, singing and dancing.

His chapter ‘Slaves at Ease’ gives plentiful evidence that slaves made music wherever possible, out of anything – creating rhythmic work chants in the tobacco or sugar cane fields, making drums and shaker type instruments from whatever was at hand, and learning the fiddle in particular if given half a chance.

Slave festivals such as the two or three-day John Canoe festival became well-known events when every slave dressed up in whatever costume could be manufactured, and danced and sang all day long.

The ‘crop-over’ was the period when the final harvest sugar cane or tobacco was completed and was traditionally a period of celebration, music and dancing. And, as so often, Walvin highlights how similar it was to non-slave contemporary culture.

These activities look remarkably like many of the pleasures of common people in pre-industrial Europe; their leisure moments dictated by that special mix of the rural year, prevailing religious custom and the powerful traditions of local popular culture. (p.175)

I imagine it’s the last thing Walvin intended, but his description of slave spare time recreation makes it sound like a lot of fun, more fun than my spare time.

Another surprising thing is to learn that slaves often had sufficient autonomy to make money. The brutal and sexually exploitative slave owner Thomas Thistlewood kept a diary which is a goldmine of sociological detail. Among other things, it shows that many of his slaves were free to sell whatever produce they generated on their cottage plots, including livestock and creatures caught down by the river (turtles). They were allowed to take these to local markets on their days off and the sharp traders among them became well off. For example, Thistlewood details his favourite slave concubine making him presents of a gold ring, among fruits and other luxury foodstuffs. A slave giving her owner high-quality gifts!

Something similar happens in his chapter on domestic servants. In the houses of the big planters black domestics were often treated harshly and subject to sexual attack by white men – but there were also myriad opportunities for them to exert their own power and influence, suckling and bringing up the master’s white children, teaching them black fairy tales and songs, and in the process often rising to positions of influence and even power over their white families.

Black triumph

The net effect of these chapters, and of Walvin’s book as a whole, is to take you beyond the narrow cliché of young slave men being worked to death and brutally punished in concentration camp-style tobacco and sugar plantations – and to make you realise that something this vast, a social and economic enterprise and experiment this enormous and so far-reaching, spread its impact all over the West Indies and the south of America and created entirely new social realities.

There were black settlements on every plantation, black quarters in the booming towns where freed blacks lived and traded with slaves up for the market, blacks creating new languages, creole and pidgen hybrids of English and African languages, creating a world of social, economic and power opportunities for the slaves, many of whom rose to become overseers of plantations and factories, ended up running the business, became skilled clerks and administrators, as well as acquiring a wealth of other trades and skills.

Walvin tells us that black sailors were working on British ships in increasing numbers throughout the 18th century, and my recent reading of the American War of Independence gives ample evidence of how black soldiers fought on both sides of that, and subsequent, American wars.

So, despite the odd way he sometimes waters down the power of what he’s saying  by making comparisons to the sufferings of poor whites in Georgian England or colonies, overall Walvin’s book paints a broad and convincing picture of the institution of slavery as more than a self-contained, tightly compartmentalised aspect of West Indian and British-America life, but more like an enormous tide or tsunami which swept over the Indies and Americas.

Slave labour not only fuelled the economy of the colonies and the motherland, but transformed everything it touched, infusing African and black personnel into every aspect of imperial life, as sailors, soldiers, traders and craftsmen, as artisans and musicians, as domestic servants rising to run entire households, as the creators of new languages, customs, styles of music and story-telling.

The black or African element penetrated every aspect of imperial life, colouring it and transforming it for ever. Black Ivory shows how the African contribution became vital to British and American economics, culture and society for at least three centuries. Mechal Sobel wrote a book about slavery in 18th century Virginia and its title summarises this collaborative nature of what happened: The World They Made Together.

Southern reluctance to let go

On a smaller note, Black Ivory also helps you understand how, although it ends with the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833, the institution was so multi-faceted, had become so intertwined not only with the economic but with the social and cultural and personal sphere of the American South (by which I mean the ubiquity of black servants, nurses, valets, stable hands, plantation managers and overseers and so on who had become intimate family members and intricately entwined in all aspects of southern life) that it was literally impossible for white southerners to conceive of life without their black slaves, black domestics and black dependents.

Which goes a long way to helping you grasp why slavery in the South could only be abolished after a gruelling, bloody and devastating civil war.

It doesn’t make you sympathise with the southern slave states. But it does give you a sense of the way that every aspect of life had become utterly imbued with the presence of blacks – slaves or free – so utterly intertwined with them, that southerners literally couldn’t conceive of life without them.

So although its sub-title is a History of British Slavery, by the end I felt that calling it a history of ‘slavery’ was too narrow, too limiting and too negative – almost insulting.

What Walvin’s book feels like, by the end, is a record of the thousand and one ways in which Africans / blacks / slaves triumphed, rose above and remodelled the institution which sought to dehumanise them, and not only shaped West Indian, American and British life, but became an essential, integral part of it.


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